Young Baltimore dancers are pioneers in‘Appalachian Spring’

Kitty Kouwenhoven - Junior Ca'Lynn Scruggs (left back) (junior), sophomore Asia Mitchell (left front), senior Lauren Simmons (right back) and junior Kaylah Smith (front right)in rehearsal for the Baltimore School of Fine Arts' Appalachian Spring Festival.

For a celebration of a 69-year-old ballet, this month’s Appalachian Spring Festival at the Baltimore School for the Arts marks many firsts. It’s the first time Martha Graham’s American classic has been performed in Charm City since 1947. It’s the first time “Appalachian Spring” has ever been performed by high school students. Three of the students are donning costumes being worn for the first time since they were submerged for 10 days after Hurricane Sandy flooded the Graham company’s building in lower Manhattan.

And dancing the lead roles of the Bride and the Husbandman, here in Baltimore, in this storied production of an already storied dance? The first two African Americans. Teenagers from Prince George’s County, who like their characters in the ballet have found themselves and their classmates on a pioneering journey.

(Kitty Kouwenhoven/Kitty Kouwenhoven) - Baltimore School of Fine Arts students rehearse for the Appalachian Spring Festival.

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“I am not the same person I was before I started rehearsing ‘Appalachian Spring,’ ” said Lenai Wilkerson, 15, a sophomore from Camp Springs. Every morning, she and her onstage betrothed, 16-year-old Brian Bennett, and two dozen other Prince George’s teens take a MARC train to the public school in downtown Baltimore. They devote their mornings to academic classes and their afternoons to the performing or visual arts. Lately, Brian and Lenai have spent long days in the studio with Graham company principal dancer Miki Orihara, learning the choreography for the ballet first performed at the Library of Congress in 1944. “Appalachian Spring,” with its immortal “ ’Tis a gift to be simple” score by Aaron Copland, tells the story of a young frontier farmer and his bride, whose nuptials are blessed by an elder pioneer woman, an itinerant preacher and four female followers of the Shaker faith.

“The first day of class was nerve-wracking,” said Lauren Simmons, a dancer from Towson who will portray one of the followers. “Miki (Orihara) always tells us she was just as nervous as we were. No one knew what to expect.”

The reason no high school has ever performed “Appalachian Spring” before, according to Graham company artistic director Janet Eilber, is that no high school has ever asked. Even university dance departments usually only request the rights to perform excerpts. That’s because Graham technique — which requires dancers to appear grounded, rather than light and airy, and emotionally invested in each movement — is considered too idiosyncratic and too difficult for younger dancers. But the company’s music director, Aaron Sherber, who had worked with BSA musicians before, assured Eilber that a public high school in a not-so-upscale Baltimore neighborhood would put on a high-quality production.

The curtain won’t rise until Friday, but early indications are that Sherber was right. “I was just amazed,” Orihara said, recalling the first complete run through the 32-minute ballet. “The students have captured and retained so much. They are so professional and so committed.”

Orihara had just nine days to teach a double cast of 14 dancers Graham’s choreography. Thanks to watching snippets on YouTube and DVDs in advance, the students had the steps down by the fourth day. She then turned her attention to refining the details and teaching the students how to connect emotionally to the movement.

“You have to be actors in this piece,” Orihara said. “But these kids are so young. How can they relate to pioneers when they didn’t even grow up watching ‘Little House on the Prairie?’ ”

On this account, Orihara may have underestimated the BSA dancers — and Netflix. Sitting around talking about the rehearsal process, the day after Orihara left Baltimore, a group of students burst out laughing when Brian confessed he’d been watching old Western movies to get into character.

“When I’m onstage, I have this scenario in my head,” he said. “I don’t see the chairs and the audience. I see a house, and the horizon, the land and the sun just coming up. I see a whole different world. I see my house, and the work I put into that house, and I see my beautiful wife.”

He gestured toward Lenai, who blushed. The day before, Orihara had chastised them for being too affectionate in a scene where the Husbandman steps up from behind and holds her by a fence in a gentle embrace. “They said I was too into it,” Brian said.

He’s also been told, for the first time in his life, that he jumps too high. Performing in “Appalachian Spring” is vastly different from Brian’s December star turn as the Nutcracker Prince, or Lenai’s recent shoulder-shaking solo in a jazzy work by Christopher D’Amboise, set to tunes by Dave Brubeck.

“This experience has forced us to be more mature,” Lenai said. “Brian and I are friends, but we have to transfer that friendship into a marriage. We have to become adults, and characters that were more reserved (in the 1800s) then we are now. That’s what Martha created, and that’s what we have to do.”

That American pioneers were historically mostly white, and that the dancers performing in both casts are mostly black and Asian, is less important to the students than being the first high school students to perform “Appalachian Spring.” Thanks to two research trips to the Library of Congress, they know that Graham was ahead of her time in terms of her commitment to diversity. In 1944, dancer Yuriko and set designer Isamu Noguchi both worked on the piece after spending time in Japanese interment camps. In 1951, Graham hired two African American female dancers. Yet as far as company records show, Lenai and Brian, and two students in the second cast, are the first African Americans to dance the leads together.

Lauren, who is Korean American, is thrilled to be dancing a part Yuriko originated. “When (the Graham company) cast us, they weren’t looking at us based on color, they were looking at us as dancers,” she said.

“That, and they were looking for emotional engagement,” added Christopher Ford, the school’s director. To produce the festival, which includes seven evening and school-day performances at the school’s Schaefer Ballroom, plus tangential events on campus and the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the school had to raise nearly $100,000 in private funding. That cost was manageable, but staggering when you consider that the Library of Congress’s commissioner paid Copland just $500 to write the music for a 13-piece orchestra.

Sherber, the Graham music director, will conduct 13 BSA students in the pit, as well as an additional concert of Copland’s music. Nearly the entire student body is somehow involved. Design students recreated Noguchi’s sets. Media arts students made a documentary. Theater students will recite an original prologue explaining the history of “Appalachian Spring” before each show.

Events begin Monday, so the students had only a handful of rehearsals between spring break and the first performances. Both the dancers and the musicians said they’re relying on each other’s professionalism to make the first high school production of “Appalachian Spring” one that would make Graham and Copland proud. At the same time, they also remember: They’re just kids.

“When I’m onstage, I have to keep reminding myself: These are our friends,” Lauren said. “The musicians are people we have classes with every day. And they are making such beautiful music that sounds exactly like the CD. They are so passionate about what they do, and they have a lot of faith in us, the dancers. That gives us hope that everything is going to turn out OK.”

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

Appalachian Spring

Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Baltimore School for the Arts, 712 Cathedral St., Baltimore. 410-347-3043. www.bsfa.org

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