“Sometimes art is made by one artist, working alone, but sometimes it is the result of artists working together—collaborating—to forge something new.” That’s the opening passage of Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca, which Roaring Brook/Flash Point/Neal Porter published this past August. But the line also applies to the creation of the book itself, a picture book that PW called an “inspired book about collaboration,” as well as to the unique events that it has spawned.
Ballet for Martha tells the story of how Martha Graham, Aaron Copland, and Isumu Noguchi worked together to create the ballet Appalachian Spring, which debuted in 1944 and went on to become an American favorite. In a rare move, the two authors, the illustrator, and the book’s editor, Neal Porter, met in person numerous times while they were working on the book. Most of the time, a picture book’s author and illustrator barely interact, but as Floca, whose recent work includes Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, said, “What was unusual with this book was that we did get together... It was Neal’s sense that we should work together and that we’d all get along. We met at Neal’s apartment and sat around and talked about the book and what we knew and what we’d learned, and questions we had. It was a very generous, interested set of conversations. We were all really interested in this material and how to frame it and convey it to a younger audience. It created a very supportive context for the whole conversation.”
Jordan said she and Greenberg have worked together for so long (on Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond, Chuck Close Up Close, and several other books about art and artists) that they “sort of finish each other’s sentences about a lot of things.” But whereas in most cases “you just turn your text over and the artist takes it,” Porter consulted with Jordan and Greenberg about the illustrator for Ballet. They were happy to work with Floca. “You don’t get an artist like Brian working on your book and then expect to hold his pencil. There were things he did that pleased us enormously,” Jordan said.
Ballet for Martha has received widespread praise, with starred reviews from PW, Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus, and School Library Journal, and a review is forthcoming from the New York Times Book Review. And given that the book brings together music, art, and dance, and that it discusses a work considered to be an American classic, it’s perhaps not surprising that it appeals to many different constituencies of readers.
One of those is David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony. When Ballet was still in its infancy, Greenberg happened to sit next to Robertson on a flight. They struck up a conversation, and Robertson suggested that when the book came out, the symphony could perform the score of Appalachian Spring while images from the book were projected onstage. “When I saw the images,” Robertson said, “I realized they were perfect for projection behind the orchestra. Rather than making a commentary, we could let the images speak for themselves, because they are extraordinarily powerful.”
The Ballet for Martha concerts took place October 1 and 3, and during intermission, the authors signed books. And on October 2, the St. Louis Public Library Foundation hosted a private reception for the authors followed by a public panel discussion with all three authors and Porter, then a Q&A and book signing. “To hear the opening strains of Appalachian Spring and see Brian's striking portrait of Copland, with the score behind him, was electrifying,” said Porter. “I thought the symphony did a masterful job of matching images to appropriate points in the music. I confess I got a bit weepy.”
More performances of Appalachian Spring will follow in November. Porter said the concert may be performed at the Aspen Music Festival next summer, and he is hoping other orchestras around the country pick up on the idea of combining the Appalachian Spring score with images from the book and narration—as the collaborative element of Ballet for Martha continues to grow.
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca. Roaring Brook/Flash Point/Porter, $17.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-59643-338-0