Research Tour of the Southwest

During late August I had the privilege to delve into ideas for my new ballet Martha (The Searchers). The research tour began in Denver with a visit to Denver Art Museum's exhibition, The The Western: An Epic in Art and Film; "the first major exhibition to examine the Western genre and its evolution from the mid-1800s to the present through fine art, film, and popular culture. Featuring 160 works, the exhibition explores gender roles, race relations, and gun violence—offering a visual journey that is about more than cowboys, bandits, and barroom brawls." This unique exhibition included an examination of director, John Ford's oeuvre (among others) with specific attention on the iconic Martha and only a few other women present (Calamity Jane, Joan Crawford as Vienna in "Johnny Guitar", Charles Marion Russell's "Waiting and Mad", and William Koerner's "Madonna of the Prairie"). The women in the exhibition appear to be hidden in coaches as in Bierstadt's "Wagon Train". The whole exhibition is exquisite and heightened my engagement with the interaction of the Western in film and the tensions of the actual era.

Next we visited Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs where a picket fence against the red rock made me think of Martha.

Then on through Alamosa and into Pagosa Springs. I couldn't help but consider how brief our visit would be compared to the migrants' daily 10-mile journeys. I rode in a car with a suspension on paved roads. I wasn't walking by the side of a wagon or ox and riding in a bouncing behemoth of discomfort. 

The next day we visited Four Corners where I spoke with William Redbird, a Kiowa, friends of the Comanche, who figure prominently in the Alan Le May novel The Searchers. I haven't deeply interrogated the truths within the book. That is for historians. But I am glad to consider a dialogue across time between stories and histories, identity and groups as I piece together a world for Martha - one that she inhabits, creates, influences, or is merely a symbol. 

The highlight of the journey was a visit to Monument Valley, including a guided tour by Will Cowboy whose relatives acted in many of the John Ford Westerns. He took us to John Ford Point. and many other locations. It was easy to understand why John Ford was willing to pretend that Monument Valley was Texas. The beauty of the geography was compelling, stark yet elegant, turbulent and yet majestic. It provided just the right conflict and contradiction to be a perfect stage for the story - for the misery of Ethan and the stalwart Martha with "a will that could and blaze like a grass fire".

There are so many things to be considered in this ballet. The research opens more and more avenues into new ideas, questions that can't easily be answered, stories told from so many perspectives, injustice, hate, desire and greed... and through it all, the drudgery of finding food, feeding the cattle, cleaning clothes and cooking, finding water, conserving supplies, sweeping and building, sewing and teaching. But Martha was so much more than domestic. In the West domesticity seems to be a misnomer, so often associated with comfort.

More thoughts on the second half of the trip to follow.