The way I understand art is through other art. Like I don’t just look at something and say to myself, “Oh here we have a rare example of Midwestern Stick Style architecture from the 1880’s.”
What I actually think is “Oh here we have an example of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring in the form of a building.”
I saw Martha Graham’s company perform Appalachian Spring at my job a dozen years ago. (You can see the dance as performed in 1945, the year after it was created, with Martha Graham herself—in her 50’s!—dancing the role of the Pioneer Bride in the videos above).
The ballet tells the story of an American pioneer bride and groom staking a claim to homestead in the midwestern frontier. Their idealism of their new life is tempered by a sober, more experienced pioneer woman and an alarmingly long-waisted preacher man with his adoring flock of young, female followers.
So what does Appalachian Spring have to do with All Saints Episcopal Church? Hold on, I’m getting to that.
All Saints Episcopal Church, in Chicago’s north side Ravenswood neighborhood, was built in an architectural style known as Stick Style. Architect John Cochrane designed it in 1883 and though it may seem traditional at first glance, the church doesn’t really have much to do with other Victorian era church architecture.
I lived near this church for four years, and when I’d walk by, I could never decide if it was a fancy church pretending to be severe, or a severe church pretending to be fancy.
There are lots of sneaky decorative bits.
But the church tower is has more to do with crafty angles than the usual soaring-up-to-heaven business.
Appalachian Spring is like that too—full of crafty angles and dancers that leap but don’t soar. While most ballet strives for the appearance of weightlessness, Martha Graham’s choreography never lets you forget gravity. Her dancers seem to end up on the floor a lot, but they never writhe around in the way you see in so much mediocre contemporary dance.
Appalachian Spring’s set designer, Isamu Noguchi, took a minimalist approach, suggesting a farm with a few props much as the interior of All Saint’s church suggests a barn with a few prominent timbers.
The score of Appalachian Spring is by Aaron Copeland and it interweaves the theme from Simple Gifts, a traditional Shaker hymn. All Saints church uses Lift Every Voice and Sing II, a compilation of African-American hymns and gospel songs, in their church services.
Here is HOB ringing the church bell at All Saints. This has nothing to do with Appalachian Spring but I wanted to put him in because he’s cute.