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Graham, Martha

Martha Graham

Born: May 11, 1894
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: April 1, 1991
New York, New York

American dancer, choreographer, and teacher

Martha Graham, American dancer, choreographer (one who creates and arranges dance performances), and teacher, is considered one of the major figures of modern dance.

Early life

Martha Graham was born in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 11, 1894, one of George and Jane Beers Graham's three daughters. Her father was a doctor who treated people with nervous disorders. When she was ten years old, and after one of her sisters developed asthma (a breathing problem), the family moved to California because the weather was better. Graham became interested in studying dance after she saw Ruth St. Denis (c. 18801968) perform in Los Angeles, California, in 1914. Her parents did not approve of her becoming a dancer, so she enrolled in the Cumnock School, a junior college.

Graham's father died in 1914, after which she felt free to pursue her dream. After graduating from Cumnock, she enrolled in the Denishawn Studio, a dancing school operated by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (18911972). Graham had never had a dance lesson up to that point, but the small, quiet, shy, but hardworking girl impressed Shawn and toured with his troupe in a production of Xochitl, based on an Indian legend. In 1923 Graham left this company to do two years of solo dancing for the Greenwich Village Follies.

Becomes dance instructor

In 1925 Graham became dance instructor at the Eastman School of Music and Theater in Rochester, New York. She began experimenting with modern dance forms. "I wanted to begin," she said, "not with characters or ideas but with movement." She rejected the traditional steps of classical ballet; 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 performed on a bare stage with only costumes and lights. The dancers' faces were tight, their hands stiff, and their costumes short. Later she added more scenery and different costumes for effect. The music was modern and usually composed just for the dance. Isadora Duncan (18781927), the first modern dancer, had used music to inspire her works, but Graham used music to make her works more dramatic.

Graham's process of creation usually began with what she called a "certain stirring." Inspiration might come from a classical myth, an event in American history, a story from the Bible, historical figures, current social problems, writings, poems, or paintings. She would then develop a dramatic situation or character to express the feeling or idea. She then found music, or asked for new music from her longtime collaborator (cocreator), Louis Horst, to maintain the inspiration while she created movements to express it. The purpose of Graham's dance was to bring about an increased awareness of life and a greater understanding of the nature of man. Dance was to her an "inner emotional experience."

Graham introduced a number of other new features to modern dance. She established the use of moving scenery, used props as symbols, and combined speech with dancing. She was also the first to integrate her group, using African Americans and Asians in her regular company. She replaced the traditional ballet folk dress with either a straight, dark, long shirt or the common leotard (a tight, one-piece garment worn by dancers). Using the stage, the floor, and the props as part of the dance itself, she produced a whole new language of dance. In 1926 Graham introduced this new language in her first solo recital in New York City. Her first large group piece, Vision of the Apocalypse, was performed in 1929. Her most important early work was a piece called Heretic.

Popular success

After Graham's performance as the lead role in composer Igor Stravinsky's (18821971) American premiere of Rite of Spring (1930), Graham toured the United States for four years (193135) 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 based on the lives of American pioneer women, Frontier (1935), and in her famous Appalachian Spring (1944). In 1932 she became the first dancer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship (an award to promote artistic research and creation), and she danced for President Franklin Roosevelt (18821945) at the White House in 1937.

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

Later years

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 (18681917) and costumes by Calvin Klein (1942). Her name is still linked with modern dance in many people's minds. Martha Graham died on April 1, 1991, known as one of the twentieth century's revolutionary artists.

For More Information

DeMille, Agnes. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. New York: Random House, 1991.

Freedman, Russell. Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.

Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

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Martha Graham

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.

Further Reading

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). □

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Graham, Martha

Martha Graham, 1894–1991, American dancer, choreographer, and teacher, b. Pittsburgh. Her family moved from Allegheny, Pa., to Santa Barbara, Calif., when she was 14. After 1916, Graham attended the Denishawn School, Los Angeles; in 1920 she made her debut in Ted Shawn's Xochitl, which was created for her. She left the Denishawn company in 1923 to dance in musical revues and to make her independent debut (1926). Graham first appeared with her own group of dancers in 1929, began her tours after 1939, and became, according to many critics, the seminal figure in modern dance. Her choreography, which requires great discipline and flexibility to perform, is highly individual, stark, and angular. Her dances became more explosive and less abstract in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as she achieved her mature style.

Graham's dances often draw upon historical and mythological subjects. After World War II, she created works based increasingly on Freudian and Jungian themes and centered on the female figure. Her works include Primitive Mysteries (1931), Letter to the World (1940), Deaths and Entrances (1943), Appalachian Spring (1944), Cave of the Heart (1946), Seraphic Dialogue (1955), Phaedra (1962), and Archaic Hours (1969), created the year she retired from dancing. Because so many of her students themselves became choreographers and leaders of companies, her influence on modern dance is especially widespread. Her own troupe, the oldest dance company in the United States, faced problems a decade after her death. Internecine struggles caused the closure (2000–2002) of the Martha Graham Dance Center, but a legal decision in late 2002 allowed the company to regroup, and they began to perform her dances again in early 2003.

See her Notebooks (1973) and her autobiography, Blood Memory (1991); R. Tracy, ed., Goddess: Martha Graham's Dancers Remember (1996); biographies by D. McDonagh (1973) and A. de Mille (1991); E. Stodelle, Deep Song (1984); M. Franko, Martha Graham in Love and War (2012).

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Graham, Martha

Graham, Martha (b Allegheny, 1894; d NY, 1991). Amer. dancer, choreographer, teacher, and ballet company director. Began studying at Denishawn 1916, member of Denishawn Dancers till 1923. Founded own co. 1929. Developed own technique and became leading exponent of modern dance in USA, exerting enormous influence and producing many famous pupils. Comps. who wrote ballets for her co. incl. Hindemith, Hunter Johnson, Copland, Chávez, Barber, Menotti, Schuman, Dello Joio, Hovhaness, and Seter. Cond. ballet at Salzburg Fest. 1989.

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Graham, Martha

Graham, Martha (1894–1991) US choreographer and dancer, a leading figure in modern dance. In the early 1920s, she began to break with traditional ballet, employing highly individual forms based on natural movement.

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