Martha Graham was born in 1894 in a small
city outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father was an "alienist,"
the term then used to describe a physician who specialized in human
psychology. Dr. Graham was particularly interested in the way people
used their bodies, an interest that he passed on to his eldest daughter.
In later years, Martha Graham often repeated her father's dictum: "movement
Graham and Denishawn
In 1908, the Graham family moved to Santa
Barbara, California. Graham finished her secondary schooling, attended
a school of dramatics for three years, and then in 1916 began studying
at Denishawn. During the next seven years, Graham evolved from a student,
to a teacher, to one of the company's best-known performers. She often
worked as Ted Shawn's partner, and became the co-star of "Xochtil,"
his famous duet about an Indian girl and an Aztec emperor.
Graham left Denishawn
in 1923 to take a job with the Greenwich Village Follies, where she
gained a reputation for her ballet balleds. In the next three years,
she became a part of the Greenwich Village art scene, and saw the work
of Eleanora Duse, the Moscow Art Theatre, and Max
Reinhardt. In 1925 she left the Follies to begin an independent career.
In order to support herself during this period, she took teaching positions
at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY and the John Murray
Anderson School in NYC.
April 18, 1926, her company, featuring students from Eastman, debuted
in New York City. The program was heavily derived from the Denishawn
repertory, featuring Graham in exotic solos and her students in a ballet
ballad called "The Flute Of Krishna." A review from The Dance,
described Graham as "clad in a heavy gold kimona, making patterns
with her body against a screen of brilliant lacquer...Martha Graham
presents a series of pictures that fire the imagination and make a hundred
stories for every gesture. Shall we say her dances are motion pictures
for the sophisticated."
1927, Graham had resigned from the faculties of the Eastman and Anderson
schools and was working full-time as a dancer and choreographer in New
York City. She soon began working with Louis Horst, whom she knew from
Denishawn, where he had been the musical director and resident accompaniest.
Horst was a major figure in the modern dance scene of the 1920s, 30s
and 40s. For a period of time in the 1930s, he was the accompaniest
for almost all of the leading dancers in New York City. But his closest
association was with Martha Graham, whose artistic vision he remained
devoted to throughout his lifetime. Horst introduced Graham to the work
of the great German modern dancer, Mary
Wigman, and to the innovations of the school of modern painting,
including the works of the Cubists
and Wassily Kandinsky. But perhaps most importantly, Horst taught Graham
about musical form and encouraged her to work with contemporary composers
rather than making dances to eighteenth and nineteenth-century music,
as her solo dance predecessors had done.
the dances Graham created in the late 1920s were derivative of Denishawn
pieces, by 1930 she was beginning to identify a new system of movement
and new principles of choreography. Based on her own interpretation
of the Delsartean principle of tension and relaxation, Graham identified
a method of breathing and impulse control she called "contraction
and release." For her, movement originated in the tension of a
contracted muscle, and continued in the flow of energy released from
the body as the muscle relaxed. This method of muscle control gave Graham's
dances and dancers a hard, angular look, one that was very unfamiliar
to dance audiences used to the smooth, lyrical bodily motions of Isadora
Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. In her first reviews, as a result, Graham
was often accused of dancing in an "ugly" way.
critics and audiences soon became accustomed to Graham's innovative
style of movement and she developed a following among serious dance
patrons, scholars and critics. During the early 1930s, her work was
focused on emotional themes. Her famous solo, "Lamentation,"
for example, was a portrait of a grieving women, sitting alone on a
bench and moving to an anguished Kodaly piano score. The scholar Elizabeth
Kendall has written that "Lamentation (image)" is both a piece
about the emotion of grief and a visual homage to contemporary architecture,
most notably the new skyscrapers that were beginning to fill the New
York skyline. She describes Graham's figure in the dance as "a
skyscraper reeling," making a connection between the two impulses
of Graham's aesthetic vision. Graham's "Primitive Mysteries"
a trip to the American Southwest in 1931, Graham became interested in
making dances on the theme of American history. In "Primitive Mysteries,"
the choreographer combined her interest in the religious rites of American
Indians with an exporation of other religious rites, including pagan
and Catholic ceremonies. In this 1931 work, Graham danced the priestess
figure called the Virgin, and her ensemble become the society of independent
women who surround her and worship her. "Primitive Mysteries"
represents a number of important advances for Graham. First, the choreographic
focus is firmly on the corps of dancers rather than on the solo figure,
pointing to a fundamental shift in the way Graham was approaching the
architecture of dance. Second, the narrative of the dance is not presented
in a literal way, but uses only a pure, abstract movement vocabulary
to bring its story to life. And finally, "Primitive Mysteries"
was Graham's first critical masterpiece, garnering attention from critics,
artists and audiences around the world.
Graham's American Themes
apotheoses of Graham's "American period" were the creations
of the solo piece "Frontier" in 1935 and the seminal dance/theatre
work, "Appalachian Spring," a decade later in 1944. In both
pieces, Graham used a simple set designed by the sculptor Isamu
Noguchi to help evoke the frontier landscape, and her own unique
movement vocabulary to flesh out the soul of the pioneer women at the
heart of each dance. The footage of "Appalachian Spring" clearly
illustrates how Graham adapted her percussive, angular movement style
to fit the period setting of the piece.
Graham died in 1991, after a career that lasted 75 years and produced
some of the greatest masterpieces of the American modern dance. The
Martha Graham Dance Company is still a vital force and can be seen in
residence in New York City and on tour. Since this tutorial is designed
to cover the origins of the modern dance and its first decade, the rest
of Martha Graham's story will not be told here. We encourage you to
turn to the reference and bibliography sections of the tutorial for
guidance about further reading.
Martha Graham's innovations:
movement system and her theory of contraction and release are central
to the development of modern dance in the United States.
was the first modern dance choreographer to fully use collaborations
with other modern artists to create her dance theatre masterpieces.
Her collaboration with Isamu Noguchi and Aaron
Copland in "Appalachian Spring," for example, remains
one of the dance's great masterpieces.
birth in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) on May 11, her father was a doctor.
childhood years were a balance of dark and light.
her family moved to Santa Barbara (California).
she saw a performance of Ruth Saint-Denis and decided to become a dancer.
went to the theatre, the Mason Opera House, with a dark dress and a
hat my father had bought for me.(...) He pinned a corsage of violets
to my gray dress and that night my fate was sealed. The curtain parted.
The audience was still. Miss Ruth was doing a program that included
her famous solos -"The Cobras", "Radha", and "Nautch".
Also on the program was her famous dance "Egypta".
she studied theater and dance at the University of Cumnoch (and graduated
she joined the Denishawn School in Los Angeles (school of Ruth Saint-Denis
and Ted Shawn). There she danced several important roles, including
Shawn's Xochtil (1920), and met the composer Louis Horst.
she left the Denishawn (with Horst).
she taught at the Eastman School of Rochester. she gave her first recital
in New-York (48th Street Theatre) on April 18, with Betty McDonald,
Evelyn Subier and Thelma Braerce. It included 18 short pieces (musics
of Scriabine, Debussy, Satie, Ravel and Horst).
first concert was held at the 48th Street Theatre on April 18, 1926.
I danced solos to the ;usic of Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, and others.
Louis Horst was my accompanist. (...) I did many dances, and everything
I did was influenced by Denishawn. There was an audience. They came
because I was such a curiosity- a woman who could do her own work.
opening of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. Her pieces
in that period often dealt with social problems (Immigrant, Vision of
her first non-solo ballet, Heretic.
because of the economic crisis, her ballets had no sets, and she made
most of the costumes herself.
she refused to go the Olympic Games in Berlin.
formal invitation arrived, late in 1935. It never entered my mind to
say yes.How could I dance in Nazi Germany? I replied:
"I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present
time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecutes,
have been deprived of the right to work for ridiculous and unsatisfactory
reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by
accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things
created Chronicle (against imperialism), Deep Song (about the Civil
war in Spain), Primitive Mysteries
and Frenetic Rhythms (about Indian and Mexican traditions)...
She was invited by Mrs Roosevelt at the White House, and created American Document
(dealing with American Independence and Abraham Lincoln).
1937, I danced at the White House for the first time for President amd
Mrs. Roosevelt; I would dance there for seven other presidents. I danced
in a little garden that was filled with flowers.
Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins (who was to become her husband) joined
her company toured in the USA and in Cuba. She created El Penitente and
to the World at the Bennington Festival, and also Appalachian Spring
(1944), which was her first collaboration with the set designer
Many of her ballets in that period dealt with mythology :Cave of the heart
into the Maze (the Minotaur), Night Journey (Oedipus
she got married with Erick Hawkins.
danced with my company, and gradually we had a very deep love affair.
After eight years of living together, Erik decided we should marry.
I didn't want to but I did. During that ninth year it all fell apart.
It shows. Never try to hold on anything.
first tour of her company to Paris (her ballets were booed by the audience...)
Paul Taylor entered her company (as a dancer).
she won the Dance Magazine Award.
she created Episodes with Balanchine,
(ballet danced by her company and the New-York City Ballet).
Balanchine was wonderful to work with, considerate and concerned- a
joy to be with.
1970: she stopped dancing. Then she had to face some very hard years
of depression and health problems, before creating new ballets again.
dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first,
the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond
as you would wish. After all, I choreographed for myself. I never choreographed
what I could not do. I changed steps in Medea and other ballets to accomodate
the change. But I knew. And it haunted me. I only wanted to dance. Without
dancing, I wished to die.
last time I danced was in Cortege of Eagles. I was seventy-six years
old. (...) I did not plan to stop dancing that night. It was a painful
decision I knew I had to make.
She created Lucifer and The Scarlet Letter for Rudolf Nureyev and Margpot
people have asked me why I did Lucifer with Rudolf Nureyev. Lucifer
is the bringer of light. When he fell from grace he mocked Gosh. He
became half god, half man. As half man, he knew men's fears, anguish,
and challenges. He became the god of light. Any artist is the bringer
of light. That's why I did with Nureyev. He's a god of light.
And Margot Fonteyn was such a glorious complement to him at it. Luminous
When I first saw Margot Fonteyn she was a great and beautiful figure.
The magic of Margot's presence is an elusiveness of spirit that defies
Her company was invited by Rudolf Nureyev at the Paris Opera, and
she was given the Légion d'Honneur by the French government.
1980. a well-meaning fundraiser came to see me and said, "Miss
Graham, the most powerful thing you have going for you to raise money
is your respectability." I wanted to spit. Respectable! Show me
any artist who wants to be respectable.
death on April 1. She was working on a new ballet for the Olympic Games
of Barcelona, called The Eye of the Goddess.
asked so often at ninety-six whether I believe in life after death.
I do believe in the sanctity of life, the continuity of life and of
energy. I know the anonimity of death has no appeal for me. It is the
now that I must face and want to face.
Martha Graham changed modern dance.
She did not invent it, but she did refine it and define it. Her style
was that of abrupt, harsh movements, and complex floor work that others
neglected. It was a stark style, but one that today serves as the basis
for teaching modern dance, and made her the "Mother of American dance."
was born May 11, 1894 in Pittsburgh. Her father was a doctor in that
city. Her family moved to Santa Barbara, CA, in 1908, and in 1911 she
saw a performance of Ruth
Saint-Denis that inspired her so much she decided to become a dancer.
She later would study at Saint-Denis' dance school, Denishawn, which
she ran with her husband, Ted Shawn. In 1926, she took a teaching job
at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester,
NY, and gave her first recital at the 48th Street Theatre in New York
City. In 1927, she opened her own school, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary
fame and reputation grew. In 1936, Graham established the
school of modern dance at Bennington
College. She was invited to perform at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin,
but declined because of the German persecution that she had become aware
of. In 1937, she gave her first performance at the White House for the
Roosevelts. She would also dance for seven other presidents. She married
Erick Hawkins, a dancer in her company, in 1948, but the marriage didn't
most notable and probably longest lasting work was Appalachian Spring,
which she choreographed in 1944. Graham didn't
stop dancing until 1970, when she was 76 years old. She received the
Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976, and in 1984 she was awarded the
Legion of Honor by the French government. She continued writing ballets
until her death on April 1, 1991.