Friday, September 17, 2010

Introducing Ballet for Martha

I am happy to announce the publication of Ballet for Martha:Making Appalachian Spring (written with Sandra Jordan. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Roaring Brook Press)(For ages 6 through 10). The book tells the story of the collaboration between the dancer Martha Graham, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who designed the set, and Aaron Copland, who composed the music for Martha's most famous dance about America. Here is the blog Sandra and I wrote together for about the genesis of book, inspired by a trip to the awesome Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. In this age of helmets for every sport and hovering helicopter parents, what do we make of 13 year old Isamu Noguchi, who in 1917, while the world was at war, sailed by himself on the long steamship journey from Japan--destination a boarding school in Indiana that his mother read about in a magazine? Six weeks later, when the young Japanese-American reached the school, he found it closed. The United States had entered WWI. He couldn’t go back to Japan—the seas were blocked by warring navies. So young Isamu….well, it’s a wonderfully dramatic story. We wrote briefly about it in our chapter on Noguchi in The American Eye (1995). We always had it in our minds to write something longer about him.We read about an exhibit of dance sets created by Isamu Noguchi for Martha Graham on view at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. We thought this angle might fuel the book we wanted to write on the artist.The next week in New York, off we went to the Noguchi Museum to check it out. We love field trips, and the Noguchi Museum is one of our favorite places, a rather anonymous looking industrial brick building on the outside, with a discreet side entrance. Inside is a whole other story. It certainly is the best place we know of to see Noguchi’s sculpture (although by itself Noguchi’s Momo Taru, a permanent installation at the Storm King Art Center--the mind-blowing 500 acre sculpture park in Mountainville, New York-- is worth a trip).Anyway, we were glad for any excuse to visit the Noguchi Museum. In addition to his artworks, the artist created a number of stage sets for dance. The majority of these were for Martha Graham, that icon of modern dance. (Noguchi’s half sister Ailes Gilmour danced with Graham early in her career.) We prowled around the sets and pieces on view, looking at stuff and wondering how we could translate it into a book. Many of Graham's works present big challenges for children’s book writers. For example, the sculptural bed from Night Journey is gorgeous, but the tale of Oedipus and Jocasta, as interpreted by Martha, would have to be written as YA. Finally, we found the study center in the museum where videos of the dances were on view. We settled down to watch. Appalachian Spring quickly became our favorite candidate. However, it was clear that we couldn’t do the project without also writing about the music, now as iconic as the dance, commissioned by Martha from composer Aaron Copland. With three protagonists we feared this could become a very unwieldy book.We asked Neal Porter, who has been our trusted editor on several books that didn’t exactly fall into the ‘no brainer’ category, to go out to the Noguchi and have a look at the exhibit with a book in mind. Then we had a serious elbows-on-the-table editorial discussion over lunch. We noodled around with several ideas, but for all of us Appalachian Spring clearly was the best candidate. If only, we could figure out how to do it. We left the lunch buoyed by Neal’s enthusiasm, scheduled some interviews, and settled down with our piles of books.Jan lives in St. Louis and Sandra lives in New York, so twenty years ago when we started writing, the Fed-X office was a weekly destination. We often scheduled three or four day long sessions when we got together to work. Since the internet entered our lives, we are able to pass paragraphs back and forth several times in an afternoon. That changed our working patterns, but it hasn’t made the actual writing any faster.Then there are the interviews. We spent an afternoon watching the Appalachian Spring videos with a dancer who called out the movements—contraction, release, right fall, sparkle, sparkle, sparkle—until the dance slowed down visually enough for us to see what was going on. There were rehearsals of the modern Graham company, performances of the dances, and talks with music conductors and musicians who had performed Copland’s music.There seemed to be so much material to cover, so many fascinating lives and stories, that for a while it looked as if we were going to have a sixty page manuscript. At least. We took a deep breath and pared the material down to our core story, pausing only briefly to weep over the great anecdotes left on our cutting room floor. We consoled ourselves with the thought that there’s always another book. For this one we wanted to narrow the focus to the actual creation of Ballet for Martha. We crossed our fingers and sent the manuscript to our agent George Nicholson, as well as to Neal Porter. Their positive responses spurred us on. We entered a whole new process that turns a manuscript into a book. We were excited when Neal suggested the terrific Brian Floca as an illustrator. An old friend and designer of several of our books, Jennifer Browne, also was on board. Our work was far from over. We had input to give and hundreds of nit picking details to fix and fuss with, but the most difficult part for us was finished.“That’s all fine,” you say, “the book moved forward. Great. But what about Isamu?” When we left him, he had arrived at a closed school with no money, and no other place to go. In one version of the story Noguchi later told, the school was now an American army camp. The troops training to go overseas adopted him for a while as a kind of a mascot. Isamu was rescued from a long chilly winter in the Indiana woods by the former headmaster Dr. Rumely, who placed him with a family in the nearby town of LaPorte. There he graduated from the local high school under the name Sam Gilmour. Dr. Rumely then helped him get an internship with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor today best known for carving the presidential faces on Mt. Rushmore. The crusty artist told the boy he had no talent at all. Isamu moved to New York and proved Borglum wrong by becoming a world famous sculptor with his own museum. We love a happy ending.
Labels: art, biography, Brian Floca, dance, Jan Greenberg, music, non-fiction, Sandra Jordan, sculpture

No comments: