(b. 11 May 1894 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania; d. 1 April 1991 in New York City), dancer, choreographer, teacher, and leading member of the pioneering generation of dancer-choreographers who established American modern dance as a serious form of artistic expression.
Graham was one of four children (one of whom died in childhood) of George Greenfield Graham, a physician, and June Beers, a homemaker. She grew up in the prosperous city of Allegheny, at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, which was later absorbed into the city of Pittsburgh. Her father, who specialized in mental disorders, gave Graham her first inkling that inner thoughts and feelings could be physically expressed and understood when he caught her in a childish deception and explained: “The body doesn’t lie.”
Physically she took after her mother, who was pretty and petite; like her father, Graham was an observant Presbyterian. She retained a profound religious sensibility throughout her life and expressed it in her work. Her sister Mary’s asthma led the family to move away from smoke-polluted Pittsburgh to Santa Barbara, California, where the clean sea air would benefit her. Mary’s health improved, but the most profound effect was on Graham, who became aware of a liberating social climate removed from the strict Eastern world that had circumscribed her life. She was an excellent student, and her father wanted her to go to college. In 1913 he took her for an outing to Los Angeles as a present for her graduation from Santa Barbara High School. They saw Ruth St. Denis dance, and Graham was, in her own words, “chosen” for her future career. Her father wanted her to attend prestigious Vassar College in the East, but she persuaded him to allow her to attend Cum-nock Junior College in Los Angeles, where the curriculum emphasized “expression” as well as academic study.
During her years at Cumnock (1913–1916), the first Denishawn (Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn) dance school was established in Los Angeles, and it was there that she took her initial dance classes in 1916. Her idol St. Denis largely ignored her, but Shawn encouraged her. During the next several years Graham began to teach at Denishawn (in Los Angeles and, after 1920, in New York City) and Shawn choreographed a romantic drama set in ancient Mexico, Xochitl (1921), around her. She had a smoldering quality that lent itself to the exotic repertory of the company, which drew on the myths of Asia and the Americas for subjects. At Denishawn she also met the composer Louis Horst, who, as her longtime musical director and adviser, would contribute much to her artistic success.
In New York City, dissatisfied with the progress of her artistic career, Graham joined the cast of John Murray Anderson’s 1923 edition of the Greenwich Village Follies on Broadway; she also taught at the Anderson-Milton professional school for a time. During this transitional period the director Rouben Mamoulian recruited her to teach at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where she prepared students for weekly performances from 1924 to 1925. From among these students she drew her first small performing ensemble, three young women who joined her on Broadway at the Forty-eighth Street Theater on 18 April 1926 for a program of eighteen dances choreographed by Graham. It was the start of her independent career. She was not even thirty-two years old.
In 1927 she founded the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City. Two years later she introduced her all-female dance company Martha Graham and Dance Group, and presented her first works free of the Denishawn influence, shedding its aesthetic of the exotic and embracing instead the hard-edged realities of blunt emotions. Audiences were not quick to embrace those realities, however, and her work was often subjected to ridicule. Small wonder, perhaps, that her first non-solo work, Heretic (1929), pitted a lone dancer in white against a “jury” of twelve stern figures clad head-to-toe in black. Overall, the work of this period concentrated on plotless dances that were geometrically structured, stark in costuming and makeup, and devoid of theatrical glamour; emphasizing spare, percussive gestures, they had an astringent, minimalist beauty. Primitive Mysteries (1931), which examined the ceremonial rite of passage of a young aspirant into a group, was the most powerful work of the first two decades. Revived thirty years later, it still astounded audiences with its formal rigor and stark, unadorned costuming. In three sections, it explored the emotional climates of joy, suffering, and glorious acceptance.
Of this period Graham later said: “I went on stage with a whip in my hand.” Her dancers were not selected for having any particular body type but were generally of sturdy stock. “We never dieted,” recalled Sophie Maslow, a member of that early ensemble. To study with another dance teacher was regarded as disloyalty to the aesthetic ideals of the group. If anyone took a class elsewhere, they didn’t speak openly of it. They were ideologically motivated. Most held daytime jobs, rehearsed in the evenings, and were paid $10 per performance. Graham’s finances remained precarious throughout her lifetime.
During the years she worked exclusively with female dancers (1926–1937), nearly half of the dances she created were solos. (This form would diminish to a trickle in the latter stages of her career.) Her most publicized solo concert occurred in the White House on 26 February 1937, when, with Louis Horst at the piano, she danced a short program as part of an after-dinner entertainment. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt then commented on the evening in her syndicated newspaper column, “My Day.” It was the most widely reported concert of Graham’s early career and drew attention to the special position she held in the emerging world of modern dance.
In the spring of 1938 the ballet-trained Erick Hawkins took classes in Graham’s studio and was invited to join her at Bennington College in Vermont for the six-week Summer School of the Dance, culminating in the Bennington Festival that took place during the last week of the session. When she choreographed American Document (1938), she gave Hawkins a major role in it. Soon two other male dancers, Mercé Cunningham and John Butler, were added to the ensemble, which now became the Martha Graham Company. The inclusion of men opened up a new range of dramatic possibility that fueled her creative efforts until the end of her life. By putting aside the instructional “whip” in favor of the more familiar—and at times amusing—cudgels of the battle of the sexes, Graham also found wider acceptance among the theatergoing public. A popular cartoonist of the era, Helen Hockinson, portrayed two plumpish matrons emerging from a Graham concert, conversing animatedly: “Either she’s getting worse or we’re getting better, because I liked it.”
During the late 1930s and 1940s, Graham peered into the human heart with a relentlessness that resulted in a body of work unmatched in the field. In this “American” period she examined the work of the poet Emily Dickinson in Letter to the World (1940) to find the solitary comfort of the dedicated artist. She expressed the defiant triumph of passion in American Document, in which recited passages from Solomon’s “Song of Songs” were contrasted with the rebuking words of the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather. She took a lighthearted look at the alternating female roles of virgin and temptress in the street-theater presentation El Penitente (1940). The choice between free and fettered emotional companionship in Every Soul Is a Circus (1939) found her coming down on the side of the fettered commitment. Appalachian Spring (1944), her signature piece, with the music of Aaron Copland, emerged triumphantly from the tangled emotions of this period. It told of the hopes of a young married couple, inheriting their own land and facing the future standing together. Meanwhile, at the age of fifty, Graham had found the mature love of her life; Hawkins danced the Husbandman onstage and was her lover offstage. They married in 1948 and divorced six years later in 1954.
Graham’s imagination was cosmic in scope, and her choice of heroines evolved from American historical figures to personages of classical myth and the Bible. What remained constant was the imagination of a woman who conceived of her life experiences as being archetypal and who sifted through history for correspondent lives to develop whatever aspect of experience she wished to explore. The martyred Joan of Arc in Seraphic Dialogue (1955) reflected Graham’s own steadfastness and faith in her work despite personal and professional disappointments. The evening-long Clytemnestra (1958) detailed the process of a soul achieving peace beyond the world of the living.
In 1969, at the age of seventy-five, health problems forced her to retire from the stage. She reclaimed her company in 1973, no longer as a dancer but as director of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. Increasingly limited by arthritis, she continued to choreograph, but the fire of her imagination was severely diminished. The pieces she produced for her company lacked the emotional heat that had been one of the major hallmarks of her mature work. Acts of Light (1981), for example, was essentially a demonstration of her dancers’ physical prowess.
Despite her waning creative powers, during the final years of her life Graham had the satisfaction of receiving virtually every award that can be bestowed on an American artist. In 1976 President Gerald Ford awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom; she was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 1979, and in 1985 she was one of the first to be honored with the National Medal of Arts. Her honors in the artistic world stem from the fact that her modern dance technique is the most widely taught technique in the world.
Graham’s final work as a choreographer, the Maple Leaf Rag (1990), is a humorous one. In it she created a wryly dolorous role representing herself as an anxiously pin-wheeling figure in an enormous skirt who crossed in front of the stage. Behind her, dancers in bright-colored costumes gamboled insouciantly to Scott Joplin’s music and even quoted overwrought, dramatic gestures from her repertory. The “high priestess” of modern dance impishly left with a choreographed smile. She died of pneumonia and cardio-pulmonary arrest shortly before her ninety-seventh birthday.
In six-and-a-half decades onstage, Graham created a whole vocabulary of dance movement out of her need to express the intensity of her perceptions about life. She created the most widely taught modern dance technique and continually revised and expanded it to meet her creative needs as she progressed through her long performing career. As a result, various versions of the Graham technique exist and are perpetuated by teachers in slightly differing forms. What these teachers all agree on is the use of the floor as a source of energy and on the importance of the disciplined breathing that Graham characterized as contraction and release of energy.
Graham’s company was the cradle out of which a family of choreographers emerged to build on her work and carry its principles into the next generation. Among them were Mercé Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Erick Hawkins, Anna Sokolow, John Butler, Pearl Lang, May O’Donnell, and Stuart Hodes. She always identified herself as a dancer first, and secondarily as a choreographer. Ironically, it is Graham the choreographer and teacher, not the dancer, who is most honored.
Graham’s autobiography Blood Memory was posthumously published in the fall of 1991. This somewhat meandering book with occasional informative passages appears to have been prepared from tape-recorded interviews late in her life when memory can be deceiving. It contains errors of memory or transcription that suggest she never reviewed the final manuscript. Agnes de Mille, a longtime admirer, prudently published Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham in 1991, after Graham’s death. It reveals much about her personal life that was scanted in the autobiography. Don McDonagh, Martha Graham: A Biography (1973), was the first comprehensive look at her life and career. Ernestine Stodelle, Deep Song: The Dance Story of Martha Graham (1984), is a respectful but somewhat florid account of her creative life. The July 1991 memorial issue of Dance magazine contains an excellent anthology of articles about Graham. An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Apr. 1991).
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. 1880–1968) 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 (1891–1972). 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 (1878–1927), 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.
After Graham's performance as the lead role in composer Igor Stravinsky's (1882–1971) American premiere of Rite of Spring (1930), Graham toured the United States for four years (1931–35) 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 (1882–1945) 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.
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 (1868–1917) 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.
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.
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). □