Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi: A multi-decade collaboration

Martha Graham and ensemble in Appalachian Spring, Photo: Library of Congress

This spring’s Meadows at the Winspear event included a performance by the Meadows Dance Ensemble and Meadows Symphony Orchestra of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, one of the best known choreographic works of Graham’s repertoire, which premiered in 1944. For the production of this dance, Graham enlisted the collaboration of Aaron Copland, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the music, and the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, who designed the spare set suggestive of prairie construction. Noguchi’s and Copland’s individual contributions to the ballet were both influenced by Shaker design. The rocking chair, featured prominently downstage in the dance was, according to Noguchi, “a Shaker rocking chair, a seat which is also a sculpture or a sculpture which may be a sat on.”[1] Clearly, the artist thought of these sets as an extension of sculpture in space. He reveals that he conceived of large spaces “as relationships to a whole.”[2]

While Noguchi is more widely known for his furniture and lamp designs, and his gardens, he also made a significant impact on theater design. He did his first set for a Noh dance in 1926, and his collaboration with Martha Graham began in 1935 for her ballet Frontier. Around this period of the thirties, his sister was in the Martha Graham Group, and his mother made costumes for the company. The sculptor also designed and made sets for other choreographers, including George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. However, Noguchi’s professional relationship with Graham was the most significant collaboration of his career with a choreographer, and one that continued through several decades, culminating in twenty-five sets for her ballets.

Further reading

In addition to Robert Tracy’s Spaces of the Mind: Isamu Noguchi’s Dance Designs, please see the following titles for more about Noguchi’s life and his designs.

Ashton, Dore. Noguchi East and West. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Herrera, Hayden. Listening to Stone: the Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Rychlak, Bonnie. Design: Isamu Noguchi and Isamu Kenmochi. New York: Five Ties Pub. in association with the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, 2007.

Wolf, Amy J. On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and his Contemporaries, 1922 – 1960. Long Island City, New York: Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, 2010.

[1] Robert Tracy, Spaces of the Mind: Isamu Noguchi’s Dance Designs (New York: Limelight Editions, 2000), 44.

[2] Tracy, 4.

Beverly Mitchell | Assistant Director, Art and Dance Librarian | Hamon Arts Library

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