With just a few lines and shapes, Isamu Noguchi’s set design for Martha Graham’s ballet “Appalachian Spring” suggests a landscape and a way of life. The outline of a house, described with soaring beams, is clean and severe. The only furnishings are a narrow bench and a rocking chair. The chair faces toward the imaginary outdoors like a throne, from which the master of this orderly domain can survey the frontier.
In this ballet, Noguchi, an acclaimed sculptor and longtime Graham collaborator, offers the audience a vision of expansive, uncluttered freedom.
But for the dancers? His design is a pain.
Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, remembers when Graham first cast her in the role of the Pioneer Woman in “Appalachian Spring,” Graham’s 1944 masterpiece. It was a great honor, calling for poise, maturity — and thighs of steel. Wearing a long, sweeping dress, the Pioneer Woman is a commanding character with many dramatic moments. In one of them, she slowly settles herself onto that slender Noguchi rocking chair like a queen, completely at ease.
Even though her quads are burning.