When composer Aaron Copland was commissioned to compose a score for a Martha Graham ballet in the early 1940s, he wasn’t particularly thinking about capturing the spirit of Appalachia. In the intervening decades, of course, Appalachian Spring has become Copland’s signature work—a soaring magnum opus that evokes the simple beauty of Shaker life and rural New England in the 1800s. But at the time of its composition, the score was known simply as Ballet for Martha.
This Saturday, January 22, State Street Ballet (SSB) and the Santa Barbara Symphony will come together to premiere a 21st-century version of this American masterpiece. Those involved are aware that the unshakable Americana interpretation officially postdates the music itself, but that doesn’t bother them. “It’s iconic, classic,” explained choreographer William Soleau, a frequent collaborator with SSB who’s flying to town to stage the ballet in just a few weeks of rehearsal. “You can’t fight the Appalachian themes.” As part of his research for the new ballet, Soleau has listened to recordings of the score played by various orchestras and has pored over old tintypes and family portraits from the 19th century, trying to absorb a sense of what life might have been like for the simple folk of Appalachia. He’s come up with a story—two families brought together by the marriage of their children—and he’s begun to sketch an outline of the ballet’s scenes. But until he’s in the studio with the dancers, Soleau doesn’t choreograph a single step.
The program marks the first time SSB and the S.B. Symphony have partnered to produce a show, and Soleau is excited by the prospect, though he admits working with a live orchestra—rather than recorded music—has its challenges. “When you’re working with a conductor, you have to think about tempos,” he explained, “so it’s always scary, but that’s what makes it fun.” Luckily, he’s taking the risk on familiar terrain; this ballet marks Soleau’s 14th collaboration with SSB in about as many years. SSB audiences will remember his Carmen from 2005, as well as Carmina Burana, a giant theatrical production done in collaboration with the Santa Barbara Choral Society in 2008 and due to revisit the Granada this coming April. Soleau knows the company well, and artistic director Rodney Gustafson trusts him to pull together a polished, original show in the short time between New Year’s and opening night.
“I have been speaking with Bill about doing new choreography for this classic piece for a long time, and he has finally agreed,” an excited Gustafson explained. “This has always been the signature piece for Martha, and we thought long and hard before embarking upon a new version. We only do it with the greatest respect for her genius and what she brought the world of dance.”
For his part, S.B. Symphony conductor Nir Kabaretti is thrilled to be working with SSB for the first time. “One of the missions of the Santa Barbara Symphony is to collaborate with the leading arts organizations in town,” he noted, adding, “I am sure it will be a wonderful experience for our concert audience to see how this great music—which is so often performed as a concert version—will be interpreted in the original form, with the dancers.”
At approximately 25 minutes in length, Appalachian Spring isn’t an evening-length score. To fill out the program, the symphony alone will open with two works: the suite from Stravinsky’s commedia dell’arte-influenced Pulcinella, and Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, written when the composer was only 19 years old. Then the musicians will move to the pit to make way for the dancers. It’s an arrangement that wouldn’t work in just any theater, but the Granada was designed for just such flexibility.
In the original production of Appalachian Spring, Graham herself danced the role of a young bride at a Pennsylvania barn raising, while Copland’s music picked up the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts,” evoking the joy of coming together in earnest work. More than 66 years later, Soleau and Kabaretti are entering into a similar artistic partnership, bringing the simple gift of their respective art forms and a spirit of cooperation.
State Street Ballet and the Santa Barbara Symphony will perform Appalachian Spring on Saturday, January 22, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 23, at 3 p.m. at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). For tickets, call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.