If there is a single work that captures the essence of America in sound and movement, it's "Appalachian Spring," the ballet with music by Aaron Copland and choreography by Martha Graham that premiered in 1944 at the Library of Congress.
Although the sonic part of the piece is never out of earshot, thanks to the perennially performed orchestral suite Copland fashioned from the score, the opportunity to experience the music and dance in its original form doesn't come around every day.
Since last fall, students at the Baltimore School for the Arts have been delving into the ballet from every angle, preparing for "An Appalachian Spring Festival," an interdisciplinary project that includes an art exhibit, a concert and panel discussions.
The main event is a presentation of the complete ballet, which depicts a pioneering couple and their new home in the Pennsylvania hills, a scenario redolent of old-time values, universal doubts and dreams.
This marks the first time that the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance has granted permission to a high school to produce the ballet in its original form. The project has involved quite an eventful learning curve.
"When I first heard the name 'Appalachian Spring,' I thought of the Appalachian Trail, which is pretty embarrassing," said Kimberly Bill, a 16-year-old violinist who will be playing in the orchestra for the ballet. "But I can say it's now my favorite piece I've ever played. The way Copland writes it, the emotion is almost overwhelming when you play it."
That music, with its spare harmonies and compelling use of the vintage Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," requires a lot in the way of sensitivity and technical polish from players. But at least the notes are all recognizable. The choreography requires a new way of moving and thinking by dancers.
The school does not offer training in the Martha Graham technique, a groundbreaking style of modern dance that is more likely to be taught at the college level. Graham applied this technique, with its distinctive angular shapes and pelvis-centered movements, on "Appalachian Spring" to great effect.
Lauren Simmons, one of the dancers in the school's production, entered the project as a novice and is finishing up as a convert.
"I had heard of 'Appalachian Spring,' but it never occurred to me how great it was," Simmons, 17, said. "We're continuing a legacy that's so amazing. I never had training in Graham technique before this. It is not just step after step. There is a whole philosophy behind every move; every small movement has a story behind it."
Auditions were held months ago to fill the eight roles in the ballet (two casts were chosen, allowing for alternating performances) and to form the small orchestra — Copland wrote the original score for a chamber ensemble of 13 players, all that could fit in the Library of Congress' Coolidge Auditorium for the premiere.
"The ballet fits young dancers, and the music fits young people, too," said Chris Ford, director of the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Throughout the school year, others joined in the adventure. Student designers and technicians have re-created the original set by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose strikingly minimalist design became an integral part of the ballet.
A group of students made a trip to the Library of Congress in September to delve into the extensive Copland and Graham archives there. That research generated another element in this week's festival — theater students have fashioned a prologue they will perform before the ballet, providing historical background.
Two veterans of the New York-based Martha Graham Dance Company have been regular visitors to the school, providing the finishing touches on the project.
Principal dancer Miki Orihara, a company member since 1987, is guiding the ballet students through their moves. She knows "Appalachian Spring" intimately, having frequently performed the role of the Bride that was created and danced by Graham.
Peabody Institute and Yale University alum Aaron Sherber, music director of the Graham company since 1998, is conducting the student orchestra for the ballet performances.
"At the Martha Graham Dance Company, we like to foster collaborative things," Sherber said. "It's great to see how the whole school here is involved in this. The kids really don't know the piece at all, but there's a really different energy the kids bring to this, a pure, raw excitement."
The impetus for "An Appalachian Spring Festival" came from Rheda Becker, an arts advocate who is on the school's board of overseers. She was inspired by "Ballet for Martha," a 2010 children's book by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (the book's illustrator, Brian Floca, will participate in the festival).
At the end of the book, which tells the story of the creation and first performance of "Appalachian Spring," the authors write: "New dancers will take their turns to move to Aaron Copland's music, to interpret Martha Graham's steps, to dance through Isamu Noguchi's set. And the collaboration will be created anew."