Appalachian Spring
Dark Meadow (Suite)
Woodland
Cave of the Heart

The Library of Congress
Coolidge Auditorium
Washington, DC

April 1, 2016

Carmel Morgan

Martha Graham Dance Company in "Cave of the Heart" Kenneth Topping as Jason and Erica Dankmeyer as The Princess Photo John Deane

Martha Graham Dance Company
in “Cave of the Heart”
Kenneth Topping as Jason and Erica Dankmeyer as The Princess
Photo John Deane

The temperature inside the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium was quite chilly on April Fools’ Day, but that’s not why I got goosebumps.  I got goosebumps because I witnessed an exciting and historic dance event — a performance of Appalachian Spring by the Martha Graham Dance Company in 2016 in the very place the work premiered on October 30, 1944, just as Graham conceived it.  I think I first saw Appalachian Spring in the early 1980s, and it struck me then as it does now — it’s simply a masterpiece.  From Graham’s choreography and costumes, to Aaron Copland’s music, to Isamu Noguchi’s set, Appalachian Spring is beautiful to behold and is full of such hope.  In the current climate of ugly political fights and rancorous campaigning, I was relieved to be sitting in Washington, DC, contemplating happier moments in American history.  Appalachian Spring captures the true adventurous, optimistic, community-loving American spirit and shows it off in flattering fashion.

The Coolidge Auditorium stage is relatively compact, giving the performance a more intimate feel than other performances of Appalachian Spring I’ve attended.  One could hear the brushing of feet and the rustle of the fabric of the women’s long skirts as they moved.  Everything about Appalachian Spring reads clearly and fits right, so that I couldn’t imagine changing anything.  Nothing feels wasted.  To the contrary, the music, dance, and design are strong, synchronous, expressive, and seamlessly interwoven.  There are countless picture-perfect moments and gestures that are indelible in my memory.  Each of the characters have distinct voices.  The Followers hop and skip as the music hops and skips along.  Their hands rest under their chins, with their elbows out.  They twist their torsos into gorgeous sculptural shapes.  They bend to the side, their bonnets tilting in unison, their cupped hands facing the audience.  The Preacher jumps up high in second position slapping his thighs.  The Bride is lifted aloft in adoration by the Husbandman.  The Pioneering woman sits elegantly erect in Noguchi’s streamlined rocking chair and cradles an invisible baby.

Unlike a lot of contemporary choreography, Appalachian Spring comes across as unhurried and emotionally direct.  The story may be a tiny bit cryptic, but it’s compelling nonetheless.  In particular, Charlotte Landreau, as the Bride, injected something special into her role.  Her pliable upper body dipped and dove with the swell of the music, bringing forth her character’s innocence and bright forward-looking nature.

1946’s Dark Meadow [Suite] with music by Carlos Chavez, another Library of Congress commission like Appalachian Spring, continues to look fresh and up-to-date, which is really remarkable.  Rather than adhering to any semblance of narrative, Dark Meadow is abstract and aimed at arousing “forgotten memories,” according to the program notes.  The drama is psychological, and the bodies draw complex connections.  Striking are the bare midriffs of the women and the barely clothed men.  Sexuality is not hidden, nor is it flaunted.  The men lean over and cover the women, outstretched on the floor, and later the women drape themselves over the men.  At one point, the women wrap across the men’s backs and face toward the audience, while the men face in the opposite direction.  Also, there is a section in which hands flutter tumultuously, like rapidly beating hearts.  Anne O’Donnell, in the lead duet, in a deep plie pushed her knees far backward, revealing a view that may have been rather startling when it premiered.

As part of the 90th Anniversary of the Library of Congress’s Concert Series, the audience was treated to a new world premiere, Woodland, by the Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg.  The music, Notturno for strings and harp by Irving Fine, related to the program in an interesting way — Fine was actually at the 1944 premiere of Appalachian Spring.  It’s certainly daunting to be placed on a program of Graham’s best works.  Although pleasant and mildly interesting, Woodland, for me, ultimately disappointed, as it was not ground-breaking by any means.  I doubt it will find a place in history to rival anything from Graham.  A female dancer with a low ponytail  in a sweet-looking blue outfit reminiscent of a schoolgirl, looks around and up at the ceiling as if she’s lost in reverie, or maybe she’s just lost.  She engages with dancers wearing blue-hued masks of various woodland creatures (fox, wolf, bird, rabbit?).  Eventually she unmasks a pair.  The atmosphere is more stale than wonderous, more humdrum than dreamy.  Perhaps the most appealing part of the choreography is a group that moves as a huddle and slowly unwinds.  Overall, the choreography is too conventional for my taste.

Closing the program was Cave of the Heart, to the music of Samuel Barber (Medea, Op. 23), with another amazing set by Noguchi.  Greek mythology provides the drama in Cave of the Heart.  Four dancers make up the cast — The Sorceress, Medea; Jason; the Princess, Creon’s daughter; and the Chorus.  The creative use of a single dancer as the Chorus makes plain Graham’s genius.  Noguchi’s genius in Cave of the Heart is evident, too.  His set, featuring a tinkling golden halo of branches, almost becomes a character itself.  Notable was PeiJu Chien-Pott, as Medea, who dominated the stage.  Admittedly, however, she has the juiciest role.  Her snaky head movements were creepy perfection.  As well, the glittery red tendril she pulled from her bosom made an intriguing dance partner, contributing greatly to her scariness.  As witchy as she was, Chien-Pott’s Medea nevertheless aroused some level of sympathy.  A broken heart is awful to suffer.

I felt lucky to be able to attend the sold-out free performance and grateful for the opportunity to see Graham’s choreography live on.  Unfortunately, I was unable to take advantage of the films and lectures that, along with the performance, was part of a week-long “Martha Graham at the Library” Festival exploring Graham’s legacy.