Still Unfinished: Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring and Ours

Bonnie Costello

A doorway, a porch, a rocking chair, a small fence—like a minimalist line drawing in three dimensions with bodies moving through it. Less a memory than a ritual. Sometimes the image feels like a mirage, sometimes like a provocation. I first saw Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring in 2019, at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. It was the ballet’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Most live performance paused for nearly two years after that, as dark clouds got darker. But the image kept breaking through in my memory, insisting on its relevance, its optimism. While we return to the public sphere as shutdowns and restrictions lift, it is well to recognize what live performance can do for us. Enacted by and for historical individuals who reshape a work with their own present being, the performing arts do not so much transport us to another world as reveal abiding and malleable elements of our own. In this sense it can offer parable, even paradigm, rather than description. Dance choreography, with its integration of time and space, and with its constant movement marking and revising patterns, responds well to our need to imagine a future that is neither fixed nor haphazard. Graham’s ballet, as it developed in her choreographic process and in its performance history, also shows how we may experience our difference from the past as movement rather than nostalgia or alienation. The dance offered its first audience, and offers us, a paradigm for growth and renewal in a time of great suffering and apprehension.

Just “the inside and outside of a house, something still unfinished,” Graham said of the set she would ask Isamu Noguchi to make. “A set is not a backdrop but a character in the piece.” This one was the “bones of a dwelling.” She liked that word “bone.” It appears again and again in the letters and scripts she sent to the composer Aaron Copland. She liked the Shaker style, its “exquisite simplicity of bone.” The first part of the dance would be a wedding, with a quote from the Bible: “This is bone of my bone / and flesh of my flesh.” Her male lead would have a “raw-boned grace as though he were a creature of American bone.” Not a valley of bones, but living, durable bones. “This is a legend of American living. It is like the bone structure.” 

She did not want the ballet to be a “mural in a middle western railway station,” though she would make use of American vernacular forms. It would evoke aspects of the American past but would not have specific “historical relation.” Not a romanticized representation of American settlement history, then, but an abstract configuration of enduring “traits.” “These figures exist at all times.” She wanted “an internal landscape” yet real, “without symbolism.” Murals, symbols—those are static forms. “It all should by theatrical clarity add up to a sense of place,” an “American feeling of place.” It sounds essentialist and I resist, have been taught to resist. A place is not just a spot of ground, and culture is not bedrock. A place is the life that is lived in it, with different points of view, people coming in and going out, making their shapes, so it is always changing. But perhaps that is why dance might, surprisingly, be the right art form for exploring a feeling of place, and of the future. A choreographed dance changes with each performance, each performer, each audience. 

The program for Appalachian Spring’s first performance in 1944 asked the audience to recognize a connection to this “legend” of America: “Part and parcel of our lives is that moment of Pennsylvania spring when there was ‘a garden eastward of Eden.’ Spring was celebrated by a man and woman building a house with joy and love and prayer; by a revivalist and his followers in their shouts of exaltation; by a pioneering woman with her dreams of the Promised Land.” The program in 2019 dropped the first sentence but kept the rest of the synopsis, suggesting we would be entertained by a period piece. In that way, it evaded the issue of how this story might have relevance to me, in my time. But dance urges this question with its live bodies, its constant renewal. Dancers are not cardboard figures through which we might poke our faces; they exist in our time and space even as they exceed it. 

What had this idyll of the frontier to do with me, or my America? I wondered, for I felt that the dance was prompting this question, which was a question of heritage and patriotism, words now tainted and degraded in the culture wars. And I felt that the choreographer, who had made Appalachian Spring during the crisis years 1942-44, was asking herself this same question, was struggling between nostalgia and a usable past. That, more than any offered paradigm, was what moved me in the dance: that the American feeling of place would come from a stage with many platforms, many crossing sightlines. In December 1936 she and her group had unveiled Chronicle, a dance of dejection, loneliness, homelessness, angry masses, war, catastrophe—her bleak response to the “contemporary situation” as the program for it had stated. The next year, though the contemporary situation remained dire, she began a series of dances evoking the American past. Like so many artists of her generation, she was looking for a distinctly American capacity for renewal, a consequence less of DNA than of living in a place, so that it might pass to any inhabitant, regardless of origin. Appalachian Spring, the capstone of the series, would not be an elegy to a lost world; she would create, “a profile of American life in some way.” “There are certain things that add up to an American, that is, a United States American and I think some of those are very important … . It is a certain quality more than anything else,” she wrote to Copland May 29, 1943. She was having trouble articulating this “quality.” A couple of months later she admitted: “I am not lost completely although I have almost been lost in the writing of this piece.” She was reading a lot of poetry; her idea was “more like a poem than a dramatic happening”—hard to pin down, abstract, ideal, more a “dream” than a fixed concept. Unlike poetry, dance is fully embodied and present as an event in real time. 

To make this “dance of settlement” in unsettling times, she read Thoreau and Dickinson, as well as her modernist contemporaries. She admired William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, and Hart Crane’s The Bridge, especially the section called “The Dance” from which she eventually took her title. Looking at American primitives, she imagined the life of her Pennsylvania forebears, but she also embraced the diversity of America in her own time. Today we tend to see that white settler past as a dangerous supremacist nostalgia, out of touch with our multiracial and multicultural reality. But Graham found a way to represent America as a vital continuum. To make this archetypal American image, Graham collaborated with a Russian Jewish composer and a Japanese American sculptor, and she had brought her Japanese American costume maker, Yuriko Kikuchi, into the corps. Yuriko, who died March 8, 2022 at the age of 102, had been released in the fall of 1943 from the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, and in what seems like a provocative move, Graham cast her as one of the four religious “Followers,” an image of the American collective. “No artist is before her time. She is her time,” Graham would later write. 

But what about my time? In its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2019 I anticipated a legacy piece, an heirloom only. And anyway, these were not my ancestors. Or was the dance asking us to enter in, to walk through these thresholds with these dancers, to see this image as “part and parcel of our lives”? Was the dance asking us to escape into the past, or to bring our own lives to it, moving it forward?

Graham worked out much of her Americana series at Bennington College, where she had been summer artist in residence from 1934-43. I’d seen the pictures of her leaping from this lawn, thighs wide under long skirts, Vermont hills in the background, surrounded by adoring students. This was the same Commons lawn where I sat as a freshman under the dark clouds of 1968, reading Isadora Duncan’s My Life because I was looking for models of pioneering American women, and the dance world was full of them. Founded in 1932, using old farm buildings (the administration was in the chicken coop), Bennington itself was a new and unfinished house in Graham’s time. A radical American alternative to European models (though staffed by innovating European émigrés during the war years), it put the arts on an equal footing with academics. Dance became a model of John Dewey’s progressive American philosophy of “learning by doing.” Choreography was one of my freshman core courses. The college was dedicated to the idea that knowledge was always dynamic, a work in progress. As a small women’s college, it could take risks. While its dorms resembled a colonial village, Bennington was a hotbed of midcentury modernism. And as a student I felt that I was participating in a grand experiment that would by its nature never be finished. And this, I believe, is the message of America in Graham’s Appalachian Spring.

Jacob’s Pillow had an old/new history like Bennington’s, from about the same time. Its founder Ted Shawn and his partner Ruth St. Denis had given Graham her start in Denishawn, a school and touring company that specialized in appropriations of exotic and ethnic dance. After they broke up, Shawn purchased a farm in western Massachusetts for a group he called Shawn and his Men Dancers and began groundbreaking lecture demonstrations. The land had been farmed by the Carter family since 1790, just after the Great Awakening. George Carter had connected the rocky outcroppings with the biblical story of Jacob, and Shawn retained the name. Other traces of the farm remain: the Ted Shawn theatre was built to coordinate with the existing barn, now the Bakalar studio; Blake’s barn, which houses the archive and exhibition space, is an eighteenth-century building; and there’s an old silo off to the side of the rock that Carter identified with the biblical Jacob’s pillow. So, to see Appalachian Spring at Jacob’s Pillow was to feel that the dance had been returned to a site much like the one suggested on the stage: a place at once very old and utterly modern.

This is not a border wall or even the picket fence of small-town morality.

The dance begins with the soft, slow violins in the suffused light of dawn, illuminating the set and hitting the side of the porch as the dancers arrive, one by one. We enter a scene always partly built, always in the making, this opening says to me. The first to walk through the threshold is the itinerant preacher, or “Revivalist,” as Graham called him. I’m prepared not to like him—those hands clenched together more in rage than reverence, chin high, jaw fixed, rigid spine, his heel-punctuated strides more martial than meditative. With his tall, broad-brimmed hat and skirt coat, he suggests Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield; he could be Father Coughlin or Joseph McCarthy, or any proselytizer we listen to today. I recoil from preaching in any creed. “There are many cults here … . it is almost something in the soil,” Graham wrote to Copland. I can’t dismiss him, though. As he takes his place on Noguchi’s little rising “rock,” he lifts his fist not to his collar but to his heart, making the ballet sign for a vow. He is driven by more than a will to authority. On the stage he is not much higher than the others. This is a democratic dance; all voices are respected. 

Still, I much prefer the Pioneer Woman, who enters by the same path. She too holds her hands together as she walks, but they are relaxed in dignified faith. She is not looking for sinners; nor has she turned from the world; she gazes straight ahead toward the “Promised Land,” toe-first strides, spine long rather than rigid. 

The Pioneer Woman of this performance is different from May O’Donnell’s embodiment of her in 1944. The Puritan cap and formal black crepe collar are gone. In 1951, in another radical move, Graham had hired two black dancers. The long-limbed, serene Matt Turney, with her “gift for stillness,” brought new eloquence to the role, and a more independent expression of faith. In the 1959 filmed performance, Turney is bareheaded, her dark red dress less restricting, her sleeves cut just at the elbow to emphasize her open arms and readiness for labor. In this 2019 performance the dancer is darker in complexion, tall and slender like Turney, stalwart as ever, and even more generous in her gestures. She does not illustrate the pioneer woman of yore; she takes possession of her as a living, changing type. She could be Rosa Parks or Marian Anderson; she could be RBG. The dance asks us to recognize our connection to this figure whoever we are. 

After her walk across the stage, the Pioneer Woman turns toward the house and takes a seat in the narrow, armless rocker, yet she never reclines. As Graham would later write: “Looking at the past is like lolling in a rocking chair. It is so relaxing and you can rock back and forth on the porch, and never go forward.” This pioneer woman does not loll, for she will always be needed; she is “part and parcel of our lives.” 

And now comes the Husband, the “Husbandman” as he is called in the 2019 program. I can’t resist this image of radiant masculinity: ambitious, independent, courageous, with nothing to back him except his skill and self-assurance. This dancer in 2019 is short, very different from Eric Hawkins, for whom the part was created. But he dances tall; he is proud rather than haughty. He pauses just to run his hand along the side of the house that will be his, to admire the workmanship, then gazes toward the horizon, legs straddled. His hands are free at his side, ready to take up tool, weapon, or reins. He has the same impatient, restless limbs and appetite for space that Graham gave to her own solo in Frontier (1935). In Blood Memory she would recall the “hold the frontier had on me as an American, as a symbol of the journey into the unknown.” Graham’s abstract “frontier” was perpetual. The actual American frontier had closed long since, and the “appetite for space” had led Germany and Japan into their aggressive acts. What hold does the frontier have on me in 2019, I’m thinking as I watch. Hasn’t my generation dismantled this Daniel Boone-Davy Crockett hero going off whenever he gets the urge, along with all those tame-the-frontier fables that dominated postwar popular culture? The Husbandman has a winning pose and reminds me of the important men in my life, but isn’t he a bit dated? 

When the Husbandman finally stops at his place on the stage, it is by a small fence. “The first fence has gone up,” Graham imagined. It would “signify what a fence means in a new country.” But what can it mean? Ownership? Protection? Boundary? What does it mean now, in our no-longer-new country? This is not a border wall or even the picket fence of small-town morality. All the boundaries in this dance are porous. Perhaps the fence is a claim, or an area of responsibility. He is not called “the Frontiersman.” He’s a spouse and a farmer, not an autonomous being. He is defined by his bond to others and his stewardship of the land. And it is clear in the staging that, for all his independence, he does in fact have a backing, a community that encourages his aspiration. Others have helped him build this house, and he depends on them.

Now his Bride enters, and she is full of wonder and vulnerability, making lyrical turns and flutters. Love is her defining trait; she melts as she gazes at her betrothed, then pulls back in prenuptial modesty. She goes to the fence with him, then back to the house where she waves him goodbye and settles at the knee of the Pioneer Woman. This Bride of 2019 is a marvelous dancer but seems to me at first a bit too gleeful and flirtatious for the pioneer setting. But maybe that is the point, I realize; the dancer does not disappear into the past but embodies the present, individual form of a dynamic paradigm.

Graham, at fifty, had given herself this part, rather than the part of the Pioneer Woman. Perhaps she had become weary in her role as the lonely pioneer. In 1938 she brought a couple of men into her company for the first time, and as happens, they changed things. Graham was exploring her erotic feminine side with Eric Hawkins, her “Husbandman,” her lover, increasingly her manager, and briefly, her husband. Graham continued in the role after their separation, bringing to it both innocence and gravity. As the ballet develops, it becomes clear that the Bride is the lead, or at least the couple is the lead. Not self-reliance, then, but love, erotic and communal, is at the core of this sense of American place, a motive force that generates an organized society. For Graham, though she lived most of her life as a single woman among artists and bohemians with diverse lifestyles, the nuclear family is the figure of that force. But the key to the paradigm is desire and domesticity, which can open many other doors to home.

These four figures, these “traits,” form the constellation of the ballet. There is one more “character,” however: the Followers, or Worshippers as they are sometimes called. Like a Greek chorus, their I is a We, the congregation that also stands in for the collective. These dancers bring in the charivari, the wedding serenade, with a sudden burst of strings in unison, in A-major arpeggios. The sentiment is both elated and religious. I laugh at these chorus girls in Bo-Peep ruffles. They are not the hostile society Graham faced down alone in Heretic, or the fascist army of Chronicle. More like a gaggle of arm-flapping hens clucking around the rooster-preacher, their poke-bonnets bobbing, elbows tight at their sides as hips shift in unison. Their hands make a rhythmic clapping as they open and close their prayer books. Great fun, but tomorrow it’s The Crucible, I worry, as they settle onto the porch bench, which now doubles as a straight-back pew. 

The music returns to moderato. The Pioneer Woman rises now and moves around the stage, almost floats on her toes, lengthening her long torso, stirring these frozen figures and knitting the live community. She is not dull patience but joy in sociability, as critic John Martin clearly recognized: “Graham’s frontier was one defined by its pioneer character, but it was also a space of community building at its most elemental.” This legend of America is not the popular mythology of my youth, which was mostly a story of men, horses, and guns.

Graham does wish us to know these characters better, in themselves and in their relations to each other. As the solos and duets begin, the other figures in turn freeze like old portraits on the walls or move in slow “plastiques” like breathing sculpture—in the scene but not of it. A democratic society is a complex web. The critic Edwin Denby saw this clearly in the 1954 performance. Graham shows us “the individual human being each person in a community remains … . each is an individual dramatic antagonist to the others. So the piece has no passionate monodrama of subjective experience but an objective conflict united in its theme.” 

And that objective conflict remains alive and relevant on the stage in 2019. The dancers do not assimilate themselves into a rigid narrative (a story of long-ago white settlers) that overrides their unique being; rather, they bring their particular experience and presence to the narrative, integrating and thereby altering it, making us see it in relation to them as our contemporaries. Theater, and other ritual-based art forms, can do this as well, but the emphasis on movement in dance, and the set as shaped space rather than backdrop or remote context, makes the objective conflict our conflict.

The Husbandman’s solo, or soliloquy, is first, and he enjoys the image of himself. He shoots an arrow, he rides over the pastures; he is all action, never stumbling. The violence of his energy is here directed to skill, and a winning swagger. He slaps his knees as in a hoedown. “I celebrate myself; I sing myself,” he seems to say. American heroes tend to be single, and they often foreswear all ties in pursuit of the open road, like Thoreau. This Husbandman is drawn like a magnet to that fence, marking the edge of the homestead. And he has little regard for authority or piety, giving a mere nod to the preacher. He recognizes no patriarch. A drive for autonomy was, for Graham, an American trait. Religion does not hold him to the collective. 

Graham is clear that this is not history, which is fixed in time....

But he is not a saunterer. Eros pulls him back as the solo becomes a duet with the Bride, and the man of the frontier becomes husband and husbandman. They shuttle and twirl across the floor from the house to the fence and back, violins swelling and flutes rising. He lifts her up, she grounds him; as their hands clasp, they can bend back in counterweight without falling. For all the social division of space in this dance, here is frontier partnership, full of tenderness but without sentimentality.

The violins step up to country fiddle music as the preacher dances a quasi-erotic “duet” with his flock. This is less a revival meeting than a raucous square dance. The iconoclastic Merce Cunningham at age twenty-five was the first to dance the part, and he seems to have imagined a comic figure (he had joined the company in 1938 to dance Every Soul a Circus). For the dancer in 2019, joy and ecstasy seem stronger than satire. I want to join in for his virtuoso high-stepping cakewalk and squatting kick, ride his whirling dervish coattails. Where the Husbandman defined the horizontal, the charismatic preacher, I see, defines the vertical, first jumping straight up, then rolling on the ground with his worshipers. How rare it is now, how beautiful, I think, this spiritual shining, in which we feel in the collective the presence of something greater than ourselves. Then I think, how easily it turns to something sinister, something hostile to outsiders. 

The Pioneer Woman enters to calm, not dampen, this delirium. Her patient piety has little to do with the preacher. She is “almost the backbone of the piece,” remembered May O’Donnell, whose hand-wringing prayer kept the austerity of old-time religion. In 2019 the Pioneer Woman is still the “backbone,” but now we see more clearly that she is also capable of ecstasy. She doesn’t skip and sidekick like the giddy followers; she jumps in straight verticals, arms darting upwards, and then bounds across the stage; she knows both axes of space. And she can bend that backbone to a remarkable extent, in an arc denoting both strength and exaltation. Graham’s innovations included a radical new use of the floor, but while this figure is grounded, she never falters or falls. She has withstood the long trek to find this land, the crop failures, the hunger and ache; she has seen men falling into despair, children dying. These ordeals have expanded rather than withered her. Now her wide skirt, a Graham sithe gnature, shows its purpose in high kicks—to fill the perpendicular. Arms lifted, reaching out, not clipped to her side like the Followers, her capacious faith directs the dance. Here begins the music of “Simple Gifts,” a tune from the celibate Shakers repurposed for a wedding.  

A piece of American pastoral, then, a joyous contrast to the gloom of Depression and war; also a figure of democratic community as an antidote to fascism. From the perspective of the twenty-first century and its reckoning with American history, this image can seem to cover up more than it reveals, hiding the truth of violence and subjugation that continue to shape the American landscape. But pastoral in America has also been a problem-solving mode, modeling harmonies in times of disharmony. How, under dark clouds, can we imagine a better future? Graham is clear that this is not history, which is fixed in time; she wants us to recognize ourselves in the legend, directing these “traits” toward a productive life. Nostalgia, we think, turns us away from the present, makes us long hopelessly for an idealized past. Yet it can also be a way to find in our past the resources to build and connect rather than destroy and divide. Pastoral brackets out the complexities and divisions of history, but knows they are there. The ballet Graham finally produced focused entirely on a wedding day and community gathering, from morning to night. She took out the violence of American “willfulness” and “irrationality” and presented their ecstatic form. It feels complete. 

But the wedding celebration was only the first half of the script she sent Copland. Et in arcadia ego.

When Graham had first approached Copland in 1941, she was in a darker mood. “I want to do a ‘Medea’ … as an eternal type.” He turned her down; he was busy working on North Star, about the Nazi invasion of Ukraine. A year later she writes another letter—“Here I am again”—this time with a different idea, for an American piece. It would have a male lead called “the Citizen,” setting him in the public sphere. “He is tragic in his dedications as well as heroic.” He is “doom-eager,” a favorite phrase, in that he can pursue no other path than righteousness. The pioneer woman, then called “the Mother” (the bride is called “Daughter” in the script) speaks directly from the Bible. Though a preacher barely appears in the script, it is a Word-permeated world. The first part of the dance should be “a little like a joyous psalm,” she wrote. But the second part, taking up half the script, tells a story of crisis and division. “All Joy is Darkened,” declares the Mother. “The Mirth of the Land is gone.” East of Eden is the land of Cain.

One version of the script suggests a title for the piece: House of Victory. While she was working with archetypes, the Civil War was on her mind. There is an episode called “Fear in the Night,” in which “the Fugitive” stumbles frantically on the stage. “He exists at all time but for us he is particularized by the slave.” While this character disappears after his solo, he triggers the next section, called “The Day of Wrath” in one version, and “Fury” in another. A dumb show on the far side of the stage will present scenes suggesting “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harper’s Ferry.” The Mother bears witness, and the Citizen is exhorted to right this wrong. He has a “fanatical quality,” Graham writes, “the quality of Harper’s Ferry without being literally John Brown” (who did not make a good husbandman, to say the least). “Hidden in every American is the fanatical strain … . Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is misdirected, terrible and cruel with a ruthless selfishness.” The solo would be “angry, violent, possessed.” He would not linger to finish the house; he follows his cause. “After the dance the Citizen exits as though driven by some great voice.” 

Graham eliminated this entire second act and omitted all the biblical recitation. Wartime America did not want preaching, nor did it want to focus on American injustices while it fought them abroad. It wanted Our Town. It wanted Rodeo and Oklahoma! There had been plenty of painful reckoning with the past during the Depression, still going on while she is making this ballet. What was needed was forward-looking affirmation, grounded in an American sense of place. In 1945 she would write: “We look at the dance to impart the sensation of living in an affirmation of life, to energize the spectator into keener awareness of the vigor, the mystery, the humor, the variety, the wonder of life. This is the function of the American dance.” It certainly is the function of Appalachian Spring. But has Graham whitewashed American history?

The dark clouds of the second act are not erased entirely, however, from the dance as we know it: Appalachian Spring. After all, Copland’s score for “Ballet for Martha,” as he called it, was based on the script she had sent. Graham had planned a dance with “moments of almost pastoral peace, with sinister moments of terror. Sometimes the wall between is very thin.” The choreography tipped her story toward newness, hope, and building. But terror remains. This wall is thinnest toward the end of the ballet she made. Graham understood something important about pastoral, about how it can acknowledge the dark patches, the losses, and tensions, absorbing them into a harmonious and amenable world.

After the wedding and Simple Gifts motifs, the music turns thunderous, almost manic. Graham dropped the second act but choreographed that turbulence into the Revivalist’s solo. He is assigned to carry the burden of fury and tragic foreboding, and this gives him a new depth. Some viewers interpret the solo as a sermon, or a warning to the young couple to avoid sin. To me it seems inward, especially as performed in 2019. The rest of the cast is paused again, as if removed from the dimension of the dance. The Followers cluster and hold up his empty hat, but the preacher has moved downstage where he is alone with his god. “Doesn't matter much what the subject is—she always turns it into Grahamiana,” Copland had complained to a fellow composer. But did she? In 2019 Appalachian Spring seemed to me quite different from the Graham dances I had seen at Jacob’s Pillow in 2014, like Lamentation or Errand into the Maze. Where is Graham’s trademark, agonistic contraction-and-release, her “pelvic truth,” I wondered. Well, here it is at last, surprisingly choreographed onto the preacher. The bolt of God’s judgment stabs him again and again; the man who was jumping like a pogo stick in exaltation now falls to his knees, ringing his hands to the sky, then pointing here, there, everywhere at unseen evils. 

He is not the only one with dark premonitions. Even on her wedding day terror rumbles through the Bride’s second solo. She is beginning to know that thin line, and we hear it in the jittery allegro that accompanies her dance. She bows to everyone, one by one; she respects her elders, but more than that, she knows she needs this community, knows it in a way the Husbandman perhaps does not. The Bride paces and pivots, a movement that had become a regular feature of Graham technique; she is frantic as much as excited, head up, skirt lifted; she enjoys being desired, yet senses that the hazards and consequences of love are awesome. Her lyrical back bends are precarious, and at one point she takes a classic Graham spiraling fall, collapsing in joy or panic, it is hard to say which. Graham danced the part without smiling. In 2019 the dancer emphasizes nervous joy, but the movements convey the tension. All could be lost. She strokes her beloved’s arm, a solid form in the wide spaces; she strokes the dear house, as if to reassure herself that it is still there, that it will not all melt into air. She receives a phantom baby, an emblem of the future, from the Pioneer Woman, rocks it in her arms, hands it back. The child she will bear could die. The husband to whom she waves goodbye might never return. As the solo ends, she rushes to her rocking chair and rocks furiously to calm herself. 

In Appalachian Spring we stay in the frame of a wedding day, a day of beginnings. Anxieties are overcome. There are handshakes, embraces, and the blessings of elders. As the sun goes down and the other figures depart, the couple settles in their new home, bride in her rocker, husband behind her, his hand on her shoulder as they gaze out. They recede back into profiles, like the portraits of ancestors. But Graham has shifted the gender paradigm just a bit. It is the bride who now extends her arm into space, into the future, as if to point the way. Perhaps it was a formal choice, for her form should always express “the landscape of the soul.” 

The earth is having its Day of Wrath. How did we get here?

There is another major figure omitted from the first scripts, besides the Fugitive. From the beginning, Graham had planned an “Indian Girl” mostly still, mostly in shadows, but a kind of absent presence always in the scene “like a tree or a rock in her relation to the place.” The script she sent Copland ended this way: the Fury scene is over; the community has quieted down for the evening. “Suddenly on a simple clear line of sound the INDIAN GIRL starts to run strongly and quietly around the stage in a low beautiful free run. She stops as suddenly as she started. CURTAIN.” 

“She is deep in our nostalgia,” Graham explained to Copland. Graham is working decades before the cultural reckoning, still underway today, with the facts of Indian removal and genocide, but her presence suggests Graham’s sense of the burden of displacement. She was not naive about this mythic figure. “She is not an Indian’s Indian but a white person’s Indian.” In fact, she was modeled in part on Hart Crane’s Pocahontas, and similar urban male fantasies of the land as perpetual erotic partner. “She is never seen by the women. She is the dream of the men,” Graham notes. She wanted to convey the earth itself as a spiritual link in the American sense of place, even as the country had been shifting away from an agrarian economy. Ideas in dance need bodies, and this idea of primal connection to the earth had already been mapped onto the Indian body, so she borrowed it. Don’t we borrow it still in many ways? The Indian Girl “is the supreme spectator of all our happenings.” I like this figure of the earth watching us, even if anthropomorphized onto the figure of the Indian. It seems like a spur to conscience. Removed from history and its burden of guilt (Graham’s Pennsylvania ancestors would have settled on what was Indian territory), “she is not a threat but a dream.” She arouses a desire for union, in the men, a desire for human justice and stewardship of the land, in the artist. In the end, though, she confessed in Blood Memory, “it didn’t work.” 

Maybe this borrowed personification was too burdened by the actual history of Indian extinction even in 1944. Or maybe the figure felt too close to the appropriations she had rejected from her early apprenticeship with Denishawn. She was after something more elemental. She assured Copland there would be no Indian dance, no need for Indian music to accompany her Indian girl. In Blood Memory she asserts: “I’ve never done an Indian dance … . I’ve received an excitement and blessing and wonderment from Indians.” On a trip in the thirties to New Mexico with her accompanist and friend Louis Horst, she had observed the “Hopi women in their squash blossom hair arrangement that I was to use [for the Bride] in Appalachian Spring.” This tiny trace of the Indian Girl likely had meaning only for Graham and disappeared from later productions. 

But when I saw Appalachian Spring in 2019, the unsettled links between Indians and our American feeling for place was out of the shadows again. The Director of Jacob’s Pillow, who comes out in front of the curtain to greet the audience before every show, has recently taken to greeting us with these words: “We wish to acknowledge that we dance on the traditional land of the Mohican, Nipmuc, Agawam and Pocumtuc Nations.” Until 2020, to the left of the podium, illuminated by house lights, hung a larger-than-life portrait of Ted Shawn, dressed in a sexualized Hopi Eagle dance costume, done by Albert Herter. A very different kind of tribute. When this painting was made in 1925, the performance of Native American religious dance was prohibited by federal law. If the Indian girl is indeed “the supreme spectator of all that we do,” is she pleased, confused, or appalled, by these recognitions, appropriations, and gestures? In eliminating the Indian Girl, Graham acknowledged her inability to navigate between romantic fantasy and historic reality. That work seems still unfinished in American culture.

In 2020 Jacob’s Pillow cancelled its entire Festival season for the first time in its eighty-eight-year history. The pandemic postponed most weddings, and deep divisions brought our country to what feels like a precipice. The earth is having its Day of Wrath. How did we get here? How do we find our way out? Graham’s unused script feels prophetic: “a great restlessness … . The movements are quick and compulsive. They should give a feeling of hysteria, almost but smoldering. All the movement should seem to be about to break into a flaring scourge at any moment.” Graham wanted to do more than hold up a mirror to history, on the one hand, or provide a diversion from it, on the other. She was after a paradigm. America, she believed, had good bones; it had not and would not collapse in crisis. “Under [the hysteria] is a discipline, a rigid adherence to pattern set up by the ancestors,” says the script. “Pattern” is an aesthetic term, not a political or moral one. Copland, reading the script, would understand her in musical terms: “the Mother,” Graham writes, provides the “feeling of a ground base” as she “moves under and around and serves almost as a restraint to the others.” Dance unfolds its pattern through change, not static form; the “base” of tradition plays under a melody constantly renewed. And as if to remind her audience or herself that in the most tumultuous of times there is still grace and beauty in human affairs, she imagines a final solo for “the Daughter,” which is regenerative rather than rigid. Graham writes: “At the moment of greatest tension when it seems that the whole thing will become a scourge of violence, the Daughter breaks the spell. She begins to dance in some simple way something like a song. This lyric sense gradually stops the tide of the other. As it does the nature of it changes. It becomes more like a psalm in ecstatic quality.” 

As Graham’s idea of the dance took form and became Appalachian Spring, that psalm-like quality is the central blessing of the whole piece. “There is a return to the feeling of … warmth and simplicity … . There is a certain peace and sense of order, a kind of suppressed gayety, and over all, a shimmer of living with eagerness.” In this shaping of the ballet Graham was giving us not so much pastoral as parable.

Graham would not return to American themes, or lyric optimism, after Appalachian Spring. Instead, she would portray Clytemnestra and Jocasta and, finally, Medea. Nevertheless, she continued to dance the Bride into her seventies, and it remains a signature piece in the company repertory.

“No artist is pleased,” she wrote in Blood Memory. “[There is] no satisfaction whatever anytime. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching.” And this may be her most durable message about the American sense of place. Throughout all the changes she made in developing Appalachian Spring, the bones of a dwelling are always there: a doorway, a porch, a rocking chair, a small fence, the “aspects of building,” “the inside and outside of a house, something still unfinished.”


Headshot: Bonnie Costello


BONNIE COSTELLO’s essays on place, the arts, and family history have appeared in many distinguished literary journals. She is also a scholar-critic, known for her work in modern poetry. Her most recent book, The Plural of Us: Poetry and Community in Auden and Others, won the Warren-Brooks Award. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “Still Unfinished: Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring and Ours” is a 2023 Pushcart Prize Nomination.