You’ve probably heard Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring at least six times as a solely orchestral piece, but don’t forget that it was commissioned for dance. The Martha Graham Dance Company premiered the piece as a hopeful vision of America’s future after World War II. And, at the time of the work’s 1944 premiere, the United States had reason to be proud on the global stage.
At home, though, Japanese internment camps were active policy, and all Native Americans had been granted U.S. citizenship a mere 20 years earlier. Graham’s use of settler prairie life to embody the mythic American spirit doesn’t age well.
But this is where the hat gets tipped to Janet Eilber, the MGDC artistic director, and Jedediah Wheeler, executive director for Arts and Cultural Programming at Montclair State University. Their November 2019 program marking the 75th anniversary of Appalachian Spring – presented by Montclair’s Peak Performances series, also celebrating its own 15th anniversary – transformed what could have been a static and squirmy celebration into a hopeful review of imperfect social progress—one that begs for a third installment, some years down the road.
Graham recognized that opportunity lay within massive social upheaval, and the similarities between 1944 and 2019 make the lack of cynicism in Spring something worth holding. Inhumane treatment of ethnic minorities, conflicting citizenship discussions, and global upheaval have been as constant in America since 1944 as the dramatic swings of civil rights sentiment and policy.
Despite its problems, Appalachian Spring believes there is something valuable: not exactly something worth preserving, but something worth fighting to evolve. And to sit 75 years later with Spring as a foil to The Auditions (2019), choreographed by Troy Schumacher and scored by Augusta Read Thomas, is to see movement, and even to feel a glimmer of pride that humans just keep fighting the damn fight.
This was top-notch programming for a Sunday afternoon: perfect program length, no program notes, prairie dresses vs. crop top now, and content supple enough to lightly entertain its audience and sustain deeper discussion. Spring moved at butter-churn speed, devoting time to individual interactions but with limited communal enlightenment. The matriarchal American spirit – absolutely commanded by Leslie Andrea Williams as The Pioneering Woman – was its defining presence. She looked after each character, grounded youthful romance or spiritual hustle, and interacted with each individual.
My middle-school seatmate wisely questioned if the Woman was flesh or only experiential; in any case, the characters barely interacted outside of their gendered social hierarchy, nor did they share their spiritual experience of The Pioneering Woman.
The Auditions, however, was fast-paced communal enlightenment. It mimicked a young urban street, with Internet-era attention spans contrasted to the regal, focused attention in Spring. Dancers were engrossed in private trajectories, yet fully aware of one another. One by one, they each were trapped by a spotlight, and a descending string light offered the opportunity to be transported to another world.
Nearly all were transported, and the remaining two danced themselves to death in their desperation to find enlightenment. Effective lighting by Yi-Chung Chen, costumes by Karen Young, and nice articulation by the omnipresent musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble made the story so effective that an engrossed toddler processed every point out loud—something I thought was wonderful, and proof of solid construction.
Thomas created distinct, complicated musical habitats for Schumacher’s physical and emotional movement. She welded music that matched the straightforward drama: friendly pitched percussion and groove animated the sprightly search for meaning, and droning strings floated the calm enlightenment. Within these effective contrasts, however was a vital flexibility and wisdom. Neither musical place was quite what it seemed; high demands on chipper pitched percussion, and a peaceful rhythm unsettled by timbre, dislodged each habitat out of an easy category. Neither place was an ultimate failure or arrival, and Thomas gave a friendly reminder that change is unstoppable and growth is a choice.
Is America grown? Is it maturing how we might wish after 75 years? No. But these two pieces, next to each other, suggested a move from individual settlers toward collective diversity, submerged experience toward shared desires, and an expanding emotional vocabulary. And Montclair University’s Peak Performances series created a pocket of hope that instead of just burning, the future could burn brightly.
Lana Norris is a music journalist and collaborative pianist with a background in sacred music and religious studies. She brings an interest in diplomacy to her dedication to contemporary concert music.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.