With just a few lines and shapes, Isamu Noguchi’s set design for Martha Graham’s ballet “Appalachian Spring” suggests a landscape and a way of life. The outline of a house, described with soaring beams, is clean and severe. The only furnishings are a narrow bench and a rocking chair. The chair faces toward the imaginary outdoors like a throne, from which the master of this orderly domain can survey the frontier.
In this ballet, Noguchi, an acclaimed sculptor and longtime Graham collaborator, offers the audience a vision of expansive, uncluttered freedom.
But for the dancers? His design is a pain.
Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, remembers when Graham first cast her in the role of the Pioneer Woman in “Appalachian Spring,” Graham’s 1944 masterpiece. It was a great honor, calling for poise, maturity — and thighs of steel. Wearing a long, sweeping dress, the Pioneer Woman is a commanding character with many dramatic moments. In one of them, she slowly settles herself onto that slender Noguchi rocking chair like a queen, completely at ease.
Even though her quads are burning.
“It’s all about the work of the thighs,” Eilber says. “You’ve got this huge skirt on, and as you’re lowering your body, you’re just hoping your sitting bones are going to land. Your thighs have got to be so sure and steady while you’re making sure you’re going to find it.”
Once she has made contact with Noguchi’s cruelly skinny chair, the Pioneer Woman “sits” only in the vaguest way. She’s certainly not at rest, and neither are the four young women in the role of the Followers, once they perch themselves on Noguchi’s bench.
“That little bench is tiny, eight inches wide at most, and it’s on a slant,” Eilber says. “They are holding themselves up with their thigh power.”
This is the dark side of those beautiful Noguchi designs: From the dancers’ perspective, they’re kind of a nightmare.
A performance on March 3, in conjunction with the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit “Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern,” will explore the dancers’ view of Noguchi’s works. The Graham company will perform “Cave of the Heart,” with music by Samuel Barber, in the American Art Museum’s auditorium, and Eilber will talk about what it’s like to interact with the designs Noguchi made for that ballet. The event is sold out, but ticket seekers can take in another Noguchi collaboration on April 8, at George Mason University. That engagement will feature the second act of Graham’s “Clytemnestra,” with Noguchi’s spears, throne, bier and other props; also on the program are Graham’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and two works by other choreographers.
The two artists came from different backgrounds — Noguchi, a Japanese American, spent his childhood in Japan; Graham had a strict Puritan upbringing in Pennsylvania. But they shared a fascination with organic shapes, mythic themes and the emotional power of strict simplicity. Even before she started working with Noguchi, Graham was exploring space the way a sculptor does, as a volume to be shaped through an emotionally powerful arrangement of bodies, with dancers in geometrical formations or elevated on ramps.
In the 1920s, Graham commissioned Noguchi to sculpt a bust of herself — he was making his living at the time doing such celebrity portraits — then she launched their partnership in 1935 with her solo “Frontier.” Noguchi created an exquisitely simple set for it from a bit of fencing and two ropes, stretching out and up to suggest the empty, infinite sky of the prairie.
“It’s not the rope that is the sculpture,” he once said of that work, “but it is the space which it creates that is the sculpture.”
In all, he made sets and props for about 20 Graham dances.
But Noguchi’s designs don’t simply sit there and look great. The dancers must engage with them — rolling around on his tilted, sharp-edged bed (in “Phaedra”), climbing onto his rigid mini-landscapes (in “Cave”), and wearing his bulky, unyielding accessories.
In “Errand Into the Maze,” for instance, the male character known as the Creature of Fear wears a large curved horn on his head and bears a long staff like a yoke across his shoulders. That staff gives rise to some interesting partnering, Eilber says, even if it takes a couple of months of rehearsal to figure out how to wield it without killing anyone.
“It’s something to be tamed,” she says. “It’s like a partner on the stage you have to work with.”
Among the 74 works on display in the Smithsonian’s Noguchi exhibit (which will close March 19) is the Spider Dress that Noguchi created for the character of Medea in Graham’s “Cave of the Heart,” from 1946. The ballet distills the Greek legend of Medea into a few taut scenes. At the end, once Medea (Graham’s role, originally) has killed and destroyed those around her, she lowers Noguchi’s “dress” over her body. It’s more of a cage than a garment; crafted from brass wire, it has long, spiny blades that wave and shimmer. Medea looks like she’s wearing an arsenal of knives.
Then she climbs on top of the Noguchi sculpture that has been dubbed the “aorta,” because it resembles a sliced-open heart with the stumps of four arteries. In this climactic moment, Medea has to affix the thin legs of her brass cage on each of the aorta’s stumps, which means controlling the delicate, shivering brass while disguising the struggle. God forbid one side of the cage should slip off its little pedestal, or the long gown Medea is wearing underneath gets caught around the metal legs.
Those legs “are very bendy and very willful,” Eilber says. “There’s a certain way to do it. Martha used to scoot her body down in a snakey way to set the front legs, and then she’d look behind her in a snakey way to set down the back legs. It all has to be finessed.”
Yet even with the difficulties, or maybe because of them, working alongside those bold, eye-catching Noguchi pieces forces the dancers to be big and bold onstage, too, Eilber says. Otherwise, the designs lose their emotional power.
“To make them art, as part of a Graham choreography, they have to be used in the most specific and extraordinary ways, and you can’t do that without being inventive and rehearsing very carefully.”
Of course, Graham and Noguchi aren’t the only pairing of great artists in the dance world. Robert Rauschenberg frequently created sets for Merce Cunningham (a former Graham dancer). Noguchi worked with other choreographers besides Graham, including George Balanchine. But the Graham-Noguchi pairing was unique.
“They were the revolutionaries,” Eilber says. “They broke the mold . . . rejecting the decorative arts of Europe and finding an American art form that was plain-spoken and stripped down, with stark, modern ways of speaking as a dancer and as a sculptor.”