UVM dance faculty prepare fresh take on "Appalachian Spring"

On a recent Saturday afternoon in the UVM Recital Hall, three UVM faculty members are taking a short break during a rehearsal for “Appalachian Spring,” a new collaboration between the UVM Dance Department and the Burlington Chamber Orchestra.

Paul Besaw, professor of dance and chair of the department of music and dance, lecturer Clare Byrne, and Yutaka Kono, artistic director of the BCO and conductor of the UVM Orchestra, discussed some of their past collaborations, though this is the first time all three have worked so closely together on a single piece. It may be the most ambitious undertaking of all—a performance that includes three iconic works combining challenging elements of music and dance.

The pieces include “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” a tone poem composed by Claude Debussy with a score inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “Afternoon of a Faun,” in which a faun (the half-man, half-goat creature from Greek mythology) awakens to revel in sensuous memories of forest nymphs. “Afternoon of a Faun” is also a famous ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes in 1912. Besaw is choreographer, with performers including UVM faculty members Paula Higa, Julie Peoples-Clark and Avi Waring.

Yvonne Desporte's “Naissance d'un papillon pour clarinet” (The Birth of a Butterfly for Clarinet), choreographed and performed by Byrne, is a leaner piece featuring a single dancer with clarinet by UVM affiliate artist Steve Klimowski, who is also a musician in the BCO. The piece reflects the life stages of the butterfly: worm, cocoon, and butterfly, and Byrne is turning to a Martha Graham piece for inspiration.

“I went through a ‘Martha Graham’ period for a while,” Byrne said. “There’s a great film of her performance ‘Lamentation’ in the public domain, and I remember watching it on old reel-to-reel tape of it at the Lincoln Center and scribbling notes as fast as I could. She seems to be twisting and writhing in this purple tube.”

The signature piece, Copland's “Appalachian Spring,” is an iconic piece made famous by Graham’s performance as lead dancer in its 1944 debut.

The artists admit that the responsibility for giving a contemporary take on three such iconic pieces is a great artistic challenge, but Besaw also sees it as a way of showcasing talent in the department.

“I think this performance will demonstrate our creative reach,” he said. “We’re drawing on the talents of people across the department and the community.”

During the rehearsal, Byrne gives direction to Besaw, Waring, lecturer Chong Ho Kim, Marc Wennberg and Winnie Looby. The stage is strewn with colorful balloons, which add a light, atmospheric touch.

“Maybe if you are moving slowly to center, carrying on a conversation,” she calls out to two performers at stage left.

Byrne says she wants to give individual performers the space to lend their interpretive talents to the larger vision.

“It’s part of the risk inherent in art,” she explains. “These artists really had to take big risks to produce their work. Now were exploring this territory with new eyes and ears, and that means being a little risky ourselves.”

The degree of difficulty is heightened with the integration of music. The musicians, principal players in the BCO many of whom teach in the UVM music department, occupy the stage with the dancers.

“It’s pretty hard to throw Yutaka off,” Besaw remarks as Kono explains the delicate timing required to seamlessly weave together music and movement.

“It’s a marriage of excellent musicians, excellent dancers,” Kono says. “It all comes together the last three days before the performance—that will be the first time we are all together on stage.”

"Appalachian Spring" is Saturday, March 3 and Sunday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the UVM Recital Hall. Tickets are $30 for adults and $10 for students, and are available at Flynntix.org or by calling 802-86-FLYNN.


Kevin Coburn