Mark Godden first became acquainted with the Shakers and their lasting gifts to us by reading a coffee table book. The images from that book led Mark to find out more about these people. He visited museums and read as much as he could on the Shakers and increasingly became captivated by the beauty and simplicity of their life and the environment they built around themselves. The more he learned the more he wanted to know.
At the same time Mark became attracted to and familiar with Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. The most well known section of this composition is based on the Shaker melody 'Tis a Gift to be Simple, a tune also known today as Lord of the Dance.
Being the resident choreographer of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Mark Godden had the opportunity to use these two sources of inspiration to set about creating the ballet Angels in the Architecture. The title is derived from this quote from Thomas Merton: "... The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that an angel might come and sit on it." Strangely enough, Mark was not familiar with the dance by Martha Graham for which the score was written.
Mark did not want the dancers to actually be Shakers but more to have the dance embody the spirit of their beliefs. This, along with their many finely crafted artifacts, is most of what we have left today due to the few members of the sect left alive. The ballet draws upon this in many aspects.
What could more completely depict the Shakers than their famous broom, a symbol of their belief in cleanliness being next to godliness and also of their practical inventiveness. The simple broom that we accept as everyday was actually a Shaker innovation. Until that point in time brooms were a rough bunch of bristles that moved dirt in an indiscriminate manner. The Shakers developed the method of binding a broom that is now one of their enduring legacies to us.
Mark read that 'a well made Shaker broom would stand on its own'. This image was a fascinating one and inspired the opening image of the ballet where six brooms stand alone. It is an arresting sight and totally without tricks. Mark then develops a "broom vocabulary" of movement, first for the women, and then with the men joining. They manipulate and dance with the brooms, eventually hanging them on the set where they become an active part of the stage setting. Later on there are arm movements in the dance that depict the sweeping action of the brooms.
No good Shaker home was without its 'peg rail', a place where all things could be placed away from the floor and its dirt. The stage is set on three sides with such a peg rail from which hang another ubiquitous symbol of the Shakers - chairs. As with the brooms, the chairs are no mere set pieces but become actively integrated into the choreography in the latter portion of the dance.
There are many moves the dancers make that are derived from Shaker life, most obviously perhaps are the praying hands, but there are also moves inspired by the labor of planting the crops, cleaning and the movement of a rocking chair.
The choreographic style of the ballet is founded in a ballet base, but developed and manipulated by Mark Godden based on his own personal experience and taste for movement. It is extremely musical and reflects strongly on the Copland score. Mark extends the body's normal range of movements by fully utilizing the potential of the ladies skirts as well as the chairs and the brooms.
The costumes by Paul Daigle, a long time collaborator with Mark Godden, are not simple replications of 'Shaker-wear', but designed to enhance the choreography at the same time as embodying the earthy tones of the countryside. The lighting is meant to reflect the shafts of clear light cutting into the space one so often sees in the Shaker-built meeting halls.
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The Music, Appalachian Spring
Aaron Copland was in Hollywood working on North Star, when he was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation to write a ballet score for Martha Graham.
Ms. Graham had previously used Copland's Piano Variations for a solo entitled Dithyrambic, which he had found wonderfully realized with "a great understanding of the music". She had approached Copland to create the music for Medea, but he found the script rather severe and so declined the offer.
It was in 1942, at the suggestion of Erick Hawkins, that Ms. Graham and Mrs. Coolidge met and the plan to stage an evening of three new ballets with new music, in the fall of 1943, was laid. The composers chosen were Aaron Copland and Carlos Chavez.
The only stipulations on the score were that it should be about half an hour long and be for a small orchestra of not more than ten or twelve instruments. Copland chose to stay close to the instrumentation that Chavez was using: string quartet, four woodwinds and double bass. Copland used double string quartet, three woodwinds, piano and double bass - thirteen instruments in all.
Ms. Graham was to provide a script from which Copland would work. Though promised by Christmas 1942 this script did not arrive until spring 1943 and had the working title of House of Victory. It was a very involved affair with a Civil War scene and an Indian girl. The final scenario of the dance is much simpler and focuses on a wedding in the Pennsylvania hills. Martha Graham herself said, "Once the music comes I never look at the script. It is only to make a working base for the composer and myself".
When Copland found the song Simple Gifts in a 1940 publication of Shaker tunes he thought it an ideal match to Martha's scenario. Simple Gifts was originally meant to be at a lively tempo with a group singing in the middle of the meeting hall and the brethren and sisters dancing around the outside until all were exhilarated and exhausted. In keeping with its title, Simple Gifts is the exception among Copland's borrowed melodies; he does not modify the meter or add syncopation, but merely uses a set of variations.
By summer 1943, the ballet was only one third written and Chavez was in a worse state. It was decided to postpone the program until the fall of 1944. Subsequently Chavez dropped out and was replaced by Paul Hindemith who created Mirror Before Me (subsequently called Herodiade) for the evening. The program was completed by Milhaud's Jeux de printemps to which Ms. Graham choreographed Imagined Wing.
Having completed the piano score in the spring of 1944, Copland spent $26 recording it on a piano at Nola Studios. One copy was sent to Martha Graham, the other to the Library of Congress. Copland was anxious to learn Ms. Graham's reaction to the music as she had once talked to him of "that dreadful moment when you hear the music for the first time." He need not have worried; her response in this case was, "The music is so knit and of a completeness that it takes you in very strong hands and leads you into its own world...".
Originally titled simply Ballet and then Ballet for Martha the final title of Appalachian Spring was announced by Ms. Graham on the eve of the premiere. It is a line from the poem The Bridge by Hart Crane that actually has nothing to do with the ballet.
The premiere took place October 30, 1944, at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington. With Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, May O'Donnell, Merce Cunningham, Nina Fonaroff, Marjorie Mazia, Yuriko, and Pearl Lang dancing and Louis Horst conducting. Appalachian Spring, A Ballet For Martha was an instant success. For this composition Copland won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music and a few weeks later the Music Critics' Circle of New York's award for best dramatic music. Louis Biancolli wrote in the New York World Telegram, "Ballet is giving rise to a whole new world of serious American music."
Aaron Copland re-orchestrated Appalachian Spring into a suite for an orchestra of modest proportions; it was premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski October 4, 1945. With some of the more choreographic sections omitted, this suite is some eight minutes shorter than the original ballet score and is the one that Mark Godden has used for Angels in the Architecture.
It is interesting to note that the bulk of this music, that so well evokes the spirit of pastoral America, should have been composed in Mexico.
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