“A stunning achievement,” wrote Kirkus in its review of the spectacular and utterly refreshing behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a landmark 20th-century American work in Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. It took a team—two authors, an illustrator and an editor—to communicate so perfectly “the excitement and drama of the creative process” presented here.
Ballet for Martha captures that process from the beginning. Choreographer Martha Graham described her ballet in a letter to composer Aaron Copland as “a legend of American living”—a story of life on the frontier. She hoped that Copland would score the ballet she had in mind. The composer found it “too severe,” and she rewrote it until they agreed on its execution.
“The dance will take place in springtime, in the hills of western Pennsylvania, where a young farmer and his bride celebrate their wedding day,” says the book. Copland called it Ballet for Martha. Graham would eventually name it Appalachian Spring. It would go on to earn Copland a Pulitzer Prize and become one of Graham’s most popular dances. It was one of more than 20 collaborations between Graham and the gifted Japanese-American artist and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, as he designed the set.
Translating the revered dance to page took quite a bit of imagination—and collaboration—as well.
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have penned many outstanding artist biographies, including those on Chuck Close, Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock, to name a few. A new book about Noguchi seemed like a natural progression. But as the authors started researching, things took a different turn. “As so often happens, one thing led to another,” they said. “Suddenly we had Martha Graham dancing, Aaron Copland writing music, and Isamu making a spare and perfect set.” What began as a biography of Noguchi grew into the biography of a ballet, and Noguchi’s contribution to it.
Shortly after editor Neal Porter asked Brian Floca to illustrate Ballet for Martha, he learned that the Martha Graham Dance Co. was performing Appalachian Spring at the Joyce Theater, five short blocks from the editor’s New York City apartment. “Jan, Sandra, Brian and I were able to see a performance from the first row and discuss it and the book at dinner afterward,” says Porter. “Fate had clearly stepped in.”
Soon after, the Graham Co. granted the authors and artist complete access to their rehearsals at Juilliard. Floca found this proximity especially helpful. “Sitting on the floor near the dancers as they performed Appalachian Spring again and again, I gained a new appreciation for the original work, as well as for the decisions, effort and grace of the dancers interpreting the piece today,” says Floca. “This book about collaboration was a collaboration.”
For a complete list of children’s nonfiction books featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
For a complete list of great children’s books about the arts featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan; illustrated by Brian Floca
Neal Porter/Flash Point/Roaring Brook / August / 9781596433380 / $17.99