Martha Graham

Martha Graham (1894-1991), American dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was the world's leading exponent of modern dance.

Martha Graham was born in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, in May 1894. Her family moved to California when she was 10. Graham became interested in dance when she saw Ruth St. Denis perform in 1914. Overcoming parental restraint, Graham enrolled in the Denishawn Studio. This small, quiet, shy, thin, but perceptive and hardworking girl impressed the leader of the studio, Ted Shawn, and toured with his troupe in a production of Xochitl, based on an Aztec Indian legend. In 1923 she left this company to do 2 years of solo dancing for the Greenwich Village Follies.

In 1925 Graham became dance instructor at the Eastman School of Music and Theater in Rochester, N.Y. She began experimenting with modern dance forms. "I wanted to begin," she said, "not with characters or ideas but with movement…. I wanted significant movement. I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge." She rejected the traditional steps and techniques of classical ballet, for she wanted the dancing body to be related to natural motion and to the music. She experimented with what the body could do based on its own structure, developing what was known as "percussive movements."

Graham's first dances were abstract and angular, almost "cubist" in execution. "Like the modern painters," she said, "we have stripped our medium of decorative unessentials." The dances were performed on a bare stage with only costumes and lights. The dancers' faces were taut, their hands stiff, and their costumes scanty. Later she added scenery and costumes for effect. The music was contemporary and usually composed especially for the dance. Whereas Isadora Duncan, the first modern dancer, had used music to inspire her works, Graham used music to help dramatize hers.

Martha Graham's process of creation usually began with what she called a "certain stirring." Inspiration might come from classical mythology, the American past, biblical stories, historical figures, primitive rituals, contemporary social problems, Zen Buddhism, the writings of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the poems of Emily Dickinson the flower paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, or the puberty rites of Native Americans. After the initial inspiration she developed a dramatic situation or character to embody the emotion or idea. She then found music, or commissioned new music from her longtime collaborator Louis Horst, to sustain the inspiration while she created movements to express it.

The purpose of Graham's dance was to evoke a heightened awareness of life, to develop psychological insights about the nature of man. Dance was to her an "inner emotional experience." Her themes were often overtly psychological. Characters in her dance plays were divided into two complementary parts, each representing an aspect of the psyche. Her stage sets were filled with huge phallic symbols, as in Phaedra, a rite of sexual obsession.

Martha Graham introduced a number of other innovations to modern dance. She established the use of mobile scenery, symbolic props, and speech with dancing and was the first to integrate her group racially, using blacks and Asians in her regular company. She replaced the traditional ballet tunic or folk dress with either a straight, dark, long shirt or the common leotard. Using the stage, the floor, and props as part of the dance itself, in all she produced a whole new language of dance.

In 1926 Graham introduced this new language of dance in her first solo recital in New York. Her first large group piece, Vision of the Apocalypse, was performed in 1929. The most important early work was a revolutionary piece called Heretic.

Graham toured the United States for 4 years (1931-1935) in the production Electra. During this trip she became interested in the American Indians of the Southwest. One of the first products of this interest was Primitive Mysteries. Her increasing interest in the American past was seen in her dance on the American pioneer women, Frontier (1935), and culminated in her famous Appalachian Spring (1944), in which she recreated in dance what composer Aaron Copland had done in his music. Among her other accomplishments during the 1930s was her performance of the principal role in Igor Stravinsky's American premiere of Rite of Spring (1930). She was the first dancer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship (1932), and she danced for President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in 1937.

Graham founded the Dance Repertory Theater in New York in 1930. She helped establish the Bennington School of Arts at Bennington College in Vermont, where her teaching made Bennington the mecca for avantgarde dance in America. With the later establishment of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York, she taught a large number of modern dancers who have spread her ideas, techniques, and style to the rest of the world.

Graham danced her last role in 1969, but she continued to choreograph. In 1976 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A year before her death, in 1990, she choreographed Maple Leaf Rag, a show that featured music by Scott Joplin and costumes by Calvin Klein. Today, her name is synonymous with modern dance. She died April 1, 1991, known as one of the 20th century's revolutionary artists.

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Further Reading on Martha Graham

One biography is Agnes DeMille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991). A biographical study is LeRoy Leatherman, Martha Graham: Portrait of the Lady as an Artist (1966). Merle Armitage, ed., Martha Graham (1966), is an anthology of articles discussing Miss Graham's contributions and significance to modern dance. See also Barbara Morgan, Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs (1941).