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Isamu Noguchi

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Set for Appalachian Spring from Aaron Copland Collection, 1944


Best known for his sculptures and influential interior design, Isamu Noguchi was a revolutionary designer of sets and props for dance, particularly through his collaborations with choreographer Martha Graham. Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi was the son of a Japanese father and American mother, who introduced him to art-making at an early age; he was heavily influenced by studying with Japanese craftsmen before his return to the United Stated in 1918. Noguchi’s first design for dance was for Graham’s Frontier in 1935, and he created designs for her seminal Appalachian Spring as well as many of her works drawing on Greek mythology. While sets for dance had traditionally consisted of flat scenery, Noguchi pioneered three-dimensional sets that sculpted the space of the stage and became an integral part of the dance itself. He also designed props and masks, including a lyre, one of the props designed for George Balanchine’s Orpheus (1947), which remains the symbol of New York City Ballet. Noguchi also worked with Merce Cunningham on Seasons (1947), for which he designed lighting and costumes as well as sets and masks. Noguchi died in 1988, and his legacy has been carried on by the Noguchi Museum and Sculpture Garden in Long Island City, New York, as well as the dance companies that still use his designs.

Pictured above: Noguchi’s set for Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944, seen here with the original cast including Graham and Erick Hawkins) re-framed the stage space, while its stripped-down simplicity alluded to Shaker designs, complementing the Shaker melody incorporated into the score by composer Aaron Copland. (Aaron Copland Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.) 

Cave Heart (1946) Set, from Martha Graham Collection
Cave Heart (1946) Set, from Martha Graham Collection

Pictured: Noguchi’s designs for Cave of the Heart (1946) were integral to the dance itself, as seen here in the photograph of Graham performing with one of his creations. Noguchi spoke of the magical way that Graham used his props as extensions of her own anatomy. (Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.) 








Herodiade (1944), Martha Graham Collection at LOC


Pictured right: Noguchi called his designs for Graham’s Herodiade (1944), which are seen here with dancer May O’Donnell, “the most baroque and specifically sculptural” of his creations for dance. At the beginning of a collaboration, Graham would tell Noguchi the idea, theme, or myth on which the work was based and any specific requirements: here she requested a mirror, a chair, and a clothes rack, which Noguchi interpreted in highly surreal and expressive designs. (Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.)




Essay by Martha Ullman West -- Selected Resources