On a recent afternoon, Baltimore School for the Arts [BSA] director Chris Ford walks the halls pointing out student work related to this week’s Appalachian Spring Festival. The BSA is the first high school given permission by the Martha Graham Center to produce the classic ballet, and they’ve used the opportunity to foster a variety of cross-disciplinary collaborations. There’s evocative and sculptural artwork, storyboards for an animation project, stereo equipment playing a remix of Aaron Copland’s score, and panels of text about American multiculturalism. Ford also notes that a group of students has been researching Appalachian Spring at the Library of Congress, where Graham debuted the piece in 1944.
“This is the first project to engage so many students from across the school,” says Ford, who’s led BSA for the past two years. “It was a goal of mine to have a piece that involves everybody and crosses disciplines, because, nowadays, artists work across disciplines. And the important aspect of all this is the collaborative nature of it. It pushes us forward using the people who should be pushing us forward—the kids.”
Ford steps into the auditorium before a rehearsal gets under way and huddles with conductor Aaron Sherber. A Baltimore resident, Sherber has been music director of the Martha Graham Dance Company for the past 15 years. He says the Graham Center mostly licenses work to universities, but he felt the level of talent at School for the Arts justified consideration, as well. “I thought these students could pull it off,” says Sherber, “and the Graham Center agreed.”
Sherber notes that BSA was also granted permission to construct its own copy of the set, which was originally designed by acclaimed artist Isamu Noguchi. “It’s a great experience for the production design students,” he says, nodding towards the stage. “They’ve done a great job with it. It looks just like our set up in New York.”
“It perfectly models the professional-type experiences we want our students to have,” adds Ford, before nodding to Melicina Edwards, head of BSA’s music department, and taking a seat.
As the rehearsal unfolds, Ford can’t resist commenting on the orchestra’s exuberant playing, nuanced elements in the music and dance, and the dancers’ overall professionalism and spirited performance. “They’re not only ready for this week’s shows, they’re also ready for the real world,” says Ford, who points out that there are two separate, but equally talented, casts for the upcoming shows.
BSA senior Asya Shaw will be playing the Bride, the role Graham danced in the original production. “It’s nerve-wracking to play the role Martha Graham choreographed for herself,” says Shaw. “I’m constantly studying, watching YouTube videos of her, and asking myself, `Is mine an acceptable portrayal?’”
As Shaw speaks, she exudes a confidence that implies the answer to the question is a resounding, Yes. The same goes for her classmate, BSA junior Horizon Logan, who plays the Groom. Shaw and Logan have prepared for the roles almost like method actors, spending as much time together as possible. “We’ve been together non-stop ever since we got these roles,” says Shaw. “I’m like, ‘That’s my husband.’ That behind-the-scenes connection and chemistry helps fuel the piece. So, onstage, when we’re just married and have to dance like a happily married couple, it isn’t fake.”
Logan nods in agreement.
“Appalachian Spring is appropriate for these kids, this age group,” says Ford. “The couple is young and thinking of their future, which is the sort of thing that’s going on with these kids right now. It turns out to be a great match for them.”
Appalachian Spring premieres at School for the Arts tomorrow night at 7 pm. Performances are also scheduled for 11 am and 3 pm on Saturday. Visit bsfa.org for a complete listing of events and to purchase tickets.