Graham, Martha (1894–1991)

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Graham, Martha (1894–1991)

American founder and major leader of the modernist movement in American dance and one of the most famous dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on May 11, 1894; died on April 1, 1991, in New York City; daughter of Dr. George Graham (a physician) and Jane Beers Graham; graduated from Santa Barbara High School, 1913; attended Cumnock School of Expression, 1913–16; married Erick Hawkins, on September 20, 1948 (divorced 1952).

Enrolled in Ruth St. Denis School of Dancing and the Related Arts (the "Denishawn" school of dance, 1916); scored success in title role of Denishawn production of Xochitl (1920); performed in Greenwich Village Follies (1924–25); taught at Milton School of Dance (1925); began teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse (1928); began teaching dancing at the Eastman School of Music (1925); performed first solo dance recital (1926); premiered Revolt (1927); premiered Lamentations (1930); appeared in performance of Rite of Spring with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra (1930); premiered Primitive Mysteries (1931); was first dancer to win a Guggenheim fellowship (1932); performed at opening gala of Radio City Music Hall (1932); taught at Bennington College Summer Dance Festival (1934–38); began collaboration with designer Isamu Noguchi in Frontier (1935); performed at White House (1937); premiered American Document (1938); premiered Appalachian Spring at the Library of Congress (1944); premiered Judith (1951); opened the Martha Graham Dance Company and School of Contemporary Dance (1952); toured Europe (1954, 1963); toured Asia and Israel (1955); received Dance Magazine award (1957); premiered Episodes in joint dance program with George Balanchine (1959); retired from performing (1970).

Major dances:

Revolt (1927); Primitive Mysteries (1931); Frontier (1935); American Document (1938); Appalachian Spring (1944); Judith (1951); Episodes (1950). Published The Notebooks of Martha Graham (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973).

The actress Katharine Cornell called her the greatest artist that the United States has produced. A critic labeled her work "wholly disarming in its simplicity but curiously profound in its complexity." Another critic insisted that she made special demands on her audiences—she required her audiences to think. The object of their comments was the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, whose avant-garde work, starting in the 1920s, made her the leader of the modernist movement in dance in the 20th century. The best-known dancer in America, she also became one of the best-known and most-respected choreographers and dancers in the world.

Born in Pennsylvania coal country on May 11, 1894, Graham was descended, on her father's side, from ten generations of New England and New York Dutch; on her mother's side, she was a direct descendant of Miles Standish. The smallest and oldest of three daughters, Graham became aware that she was not the prettiest of the three, and she made no effort to appear so. Instead, she copied her grandmother's severe hair style by parting her hair down the middle and gathering it into a clump on the top of her head. Headstrong, with what one of her adult friends, fellow dancer-choreographer Agnes de Mille , called a "wicked temper," Graham once recalled that when her mother Jane Beers Graham discovered her trying to jump rope while standing in the branch of an oak tree, she was no longer "allowed out for some time without supervision." "They wanted to me to be a good little Presbyterian," she later reminisced. "But good little Presbyterians bored me to death."

Graham was particularly close to her father George Graham, whom she remembered as a "handsome" man notably saddened by the death of an only son William at two years of age. A physician and an avid bettor, George took Martha with him to the track and let her bet on a horse race. She came to adore her father for teaching her many lessons about life. He was sometimes amused by her misbehavior, and he praised her assertiveness, telling her: "If you're going to create a scandal, Martha, be sure to create a good one." When a glass of seemingly "pure" water was revealed, under his microscope, to be full of "wiggles," he warned her: "Just remember this all of your life Martha.… You must look for the truth." When he detected her lying, he explained that her body positions gave her away and told her—in words she remembered—that "movement never lies."

George also tried to enlarge his children's imaginations. Martha remembered being taken, at age 6, to a Punch and Judy show: "There was another world. It was a frontier for me that I could enter completely." (Frontier, significantly, was the name of one of her later dances.) He also filled his children's minds with stories of Greek myths—stories, she said, "that existed only in history and remembrance." Some of these myths later become the basis of her dances.

Because her sister Mary Graham suffered from asthma, the family in 1908 visited the warmer climate of California. That same year, the Grahams moved from Pennsylvania to Santa Barbara. Thus, they left the closed society of eastern Pennsylvania for the more open lifestyles of California. Her father, who retained his physician's practice in Pennsylvania, made periodic trips back to California to be with his family.

For Martha, who was 14 years of age, Santa Barbara, with its mixture of Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish cultures, was an exotic realm totally unlike anything she had seen in Pennsylvania. "No child," she later declared, "can develop as a real Puritan in a semitropic climate." She gained an appreciation for Asian culture, not only because there were "Chinese things in our home" but because "we were surrounded by Chinese people." Taken by her mother to a Catholic mission, she was fascinated by the "Native Americans on horseback" that she saw outside the mission. Neighbors included the family of Alfred Dreyfus, the French army officer whose trial for treason in France had become an anti-Semitic cause celebre; she sometimes played with the Dreyfus children. During the visit to the mission, she noticed a poster of the popular "artistic" dancer, Ruth St. Denis , who occasionally gave performances in nearby Los Angeles. When her father took her to see St. Denis in 1911, it was the first dance performance Martha had ever attended.

In high school at Santa Barbara, Graham was physically short—she eventually grew to 5′2"—and chose activities where determination counted more than beauty, becoming editor of the high-school magazine and captain of the girls' basketball team. When she graduated in 1913, her father wanted her to attend an Eastern school like Vassar. A compromise was struck, and she was sent to the Cumnock School in Los Angeles, which described itself as a school for "boys and girls of 10–20 years of age in their pursuit of learning and expression." Graham's father died from a heart condition during her first year at the school. Although his estate was less than the family anticipated, she chose to return to Cumnock for a second year, using her share of the inheritance.

The artist is not ahead of his time, the artist is of his time. It is for the audience to catch up.

—Martha Graham

In 1916, Graham enrolled in the dance school of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. The "Denishawn" dance technique combined stage dancing with ballet skills. Heavily steeped in the costumes and sets of Orientalism, the school promoted an "exoticism" which was part of the Art Nouveau period's revolt against the machine age. Many of the group's performances were in vaudeville theaters.

Graham was a puzzle to some of the school's teachers, who were not sure how to use her in performances. Though she danced with passion and energy—St. Denis wrote that she would move onto the stage "like a tornado"—Graham was convinced that St. Denis and Shawn considered her a "nincompoop." St. Denis, who favored another dancer, Doris Humphrey , thought Graham too ugly to be cast as a girl; thus initially, Graham's breasts were taped flat, and she performed as a boy. She also did not have the "peachy skin" and blonde hair of many in the troupe. When the company went on tour, unlike many of the other women, she refused to peroxide her hair. Shawn, however, was convinced of her talent and decided that her dark hair and high cheekbones made her suitable for "exotic" roles. Cast as a Mayan-Aztec princess in Xochitl, she performed with the same abandon as before, frequently scratching Shawn with her fingernails during a rape scene of the dance. For this, she received favorable critical notices, many of which were more favorable than the ones accorded St. Denis. Graham, worried that she would be fired, began intercepting and destroying local newspapers before the troupe could read them.

In 1924, she began a two-year stint with John Murray Anderson's Greenwich Village Follies while teaching at the Denishawn school. Her dances were Moorish and Oriental in flavor, often in the Denishawn tradition of using veils. "To see that I remained a lady," wrote Graham, her mother temporarily moved to New York City, sleeping in her bedroom. In 1925, Martha began teaching at the Milton School of Dance in New York City. She also accepted a position as dance instructor in the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

At Rochester, Graham had own her own studio and "all the students I could wish," but she was restless. She was using dances derived from Denishawn techniques in the Rochester and Neighborhood Playhouse courses—because "that was all I knew"—but Shawn threatened to charge her $500 for their use. His demand, intended to convince her to return to Denishawn, had the opposite effect, convincing her to break free of their techniques and begin formulating her own movements.

Her first solo dance recital, in 1926 in New York City, was a financial success and was followed by two more in 1927–28. Reflecting her belief that dance is related to the community from which it comes, her style attempted to portray the vigor and technological orientation of American society. Gradually forsaking the "Oriental" styles of Denishawn, she began to move into percussive movements, using an all-female dance troupe that rejected the style of classical ballet.

Consciously avoiding the five basic positions of arms and feet which were central to ballet and rejecting ballet's leg extensions and leaps as foreign to the "way normal people moved," she sought as a model the "nervous, sharp, zigzag movements of life." Her dancers did not glide across the stage gracefully but appeared propelled across the stage by a series of jerks and spasms. The result has been called "angular, cold, and stylized." It was a mode particularly demanding on an audience, described by one critic as "asymmetrical counterpoint." Deliberately creating dances that were not pretty to look at, Graham was challenging audiences to devote the kind of attention that they might give to a poem or a complex stage play.

Starting in 1928, Graham taught movement and dance at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, where her students included Gregory Peck, Woody Allen, and Joanne Woodward . Woodward was convinced that Graham's breathing exercises helped her to play multiple personalities in her Oscar-winning performance in the film The Three Faces of Eve. Bette Davis said of Graham: "I worshipped her. She was all tension." With "a single thrust of her body," she could portray either anguish or joy.

Her early choreography and teaching, which emphasized mass group movements, attracted a coterie of devoted women who accepted long (sometimes all night long) rehearsals and little pay (except for the teaching jobs and private lessons she scrounged for them at the Neighborhood Playhouse). Since modern dance in the 1920s and 1930s was not considered socially acceptable, these were dancers whose work was rejected by many of their peers. Yet their devotion to Graham's work went beyond mere enthusiasm. For Graham, these were strong and powerful women to be proud of, who did not do theatrical "creations" but strode boldly across the stage, responding to the earth, pounding the earth instead of leaping. No one dieted; no one wore make up except for dark shadows under the eyes, intended to give every dancer's face a mask-like appearance. She insisted that her dancers not count the music but respond to their own breathing, moving according to a sense of "inner purpose."

From 1926 through 1930, Graham created 64 dances, as she developed the movements and style that would be central to her choreography. Well into the 1930s, she was the company's teacher, choreographer, set designer (generally a simple, dark backdrop), costume designer (she sometimes did the sewing), performance manager (she personally made arrangements for rehearsals and theaters), and business manager.

Her Revolt (1927) was an intense work in which she wore a simple, undecorated dress as her costume; whether it represented a personal revolt or a work of social commentary was not clear. In her Lamentations (1930), she remained seated for the entire dance, covering herself with a tube of fabric which she manipulated as she rocked and writhed. Her feet remained planted on the stage. Although the style of the dance suggested Greek and Hebraic influences, she intended the dance to be a depiction of what grief feels like. "It was a period that critics called my woolen dances of revolt," wrote Graham. Instead, she added, she was "really casting off Denishawn and its exoticism with a vengeance." In dances like these, she often used breath control to produce special effects, since she had discovered that varying the pace of breathing in and out produced physical changes in her body which were visible even in the rear of the theater.

After she observed Native American dances in Mexico, Graham began to place more emphasis on ritualism and mysticism in her dancing, as reflected in her Primitive Mysteries (1931). This dance, in which Graham played the Mary the Virgin , culminated with the Resurrection of Christ as a symbol of the victory of spirit over death. Her Primitive Mysteries was given 23 cheering curtain calls by the opening night audience; 50 years later, some critics were still labeling it as a "masterpiece" and her "signature work." Other dances featured diverse themes, sometimes including social commentary. Her Ceremonials (1931–32) was focused on ancient Mayan and Aztec tribal dances. Deep Song (1937) highlighted the devastations of war.

With Revolt, she began a longterm collaboration with a number of American composers. Revolt featured music by Arthur Honegger; Appalachian Spring (1944), soon to become a classic, introduced music by Aaron Copland. When she choreographed Dithyrambic in 1931, she was the first to use Copland's music for dance. In time, she devised a particular method for working with composers. At the start of a collaboration, she would give the composer a detailed script, comprising notes from her readings and some quotations, plus ideas as to where particular dancers might perform a solo or duet. Only after she received a draft of music did she begin to choreograph, although it was not unusual for her to change her mind, at that point, on how she would adapt a movement to the music. While she insisted that she "never, ever cut a note of music," composer Gian-Carlo Menotti complained to Copland at one point that the dance she had designed bore no relationship

to what she had planned in her original notes. Copland reportedly responded, "Oh, Gian-Carlo, she does that all the time."

Beginning with Frontier (1935), Graham also experimented with set designs, moving away from the stark, black curtain that was typical for her early dances. Her Panorama (1935) and Horizon (1936) featured designs by Alexander Calder; in the latter dance, the performers moved Calder's mobiles around. After that, most of her scenery and props came from Isamu Noguchi, whose abstract designs frequently functioned as both props and sets. For Frontier, which was a dance about distances, Noguchi designed two wooden poles, which could be assumed to be either a barrier or the beginning of a new adventure. Years later, she realized how strongly "American" Frontier was, when a European admirer mentioned that many Europeans thought of a frontier as a barrier. To Graham, a frontier was a symbol of hope—"a frontier of exploration, of discovery, and not … a limitation."

It was an uphill struggle for acceptance. Ballet was regarded, by dance audiences and critics alike, as serious, elevated, and European. Graham defined her style as "relevant" and "American." Puzzled when an unidentified man told her at a party, "You don't know anything about body movements," she was not at all upset when someone informed her that the man was noted ballet choreographer Michel Fokine. She was not particularly bothered when another representative from the world of ballet, Fredrick Ashton, wrote a hostile article about her style and tersely commented, when asked for a capsule description, that "she is theatrical." Graham did not think of herself as a choreographer. When she received the first award honoring her for her choreography, she reported that it was a "great shock." And she objected to the term "modern dancing," arguing that "modern ages so quickly." She preferred the term "contemporary dance" because "it is of its time."

Graham's work began to garner recognition. In 1930, she was asked to dance in Rite of Spring in a performance with the conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1932, she was the first dancer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, which she used to visit Mexico and the American Southwest, two areas where she frequently sought inspiration. In 1933, she was invited to participate in a new dance curriculum at Sarah Lawrence College. She was one of the first dance teachers at the Bennington Summer Dance Festival, in which she participated from 1934 to 1938.

She also began to gain public attention, becoming a celebrity beyond the world of dance. Graham and her troupe were among the performers at the opening-night gala for Radio City Music Hall in New York City in 1932. In fact, the appearance of her troupe backstage—determined-looking women all dressed in a single solid color—drew a great deal of puzzled and bemused attention. The magazine Vanity Fair featured Graham in a 1934 issue, along with the "exotic dancer" Sally Rand . In 1937, Graham performed at the White House for the Roosevelts.

By 1940, she had gained enough prominence that she was asked to participate in the radio broadcasts for the March of Dimes, the national charity which raised funds to conquer polio. Under the name of "Miss Hush," Graham was the mystery voice that listeners could identify to win prizes. The comedian Fanny Brice , in Broadway appearances, and actor-comedian Danny Kaye, in motion pictures, satirized her dance troupe as "Graham crackers." A football coach offered to pay her if she would share the "secret signals" she used to induce her students to follow her around the stage. Not all of the attention was wanted. Invited by the Nazi government of Germany to perform during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, she replied that three-quarters of her dancers were Jewish and that she would not visit a country where their coreligionists were treated with such brutality and cruelty. After World War II, she would perform in Germany, but the dance would be Judith (1951), the story of a Jewish heroine.

Two men were formative in Graham's work to establish her own distinctive styles. The first was Louis Horst, ten years older than Graham. Horst had been piano accompanist for the Denishawn company when the two had met. Joining Graham when she left to form her own company, he provided the musical scores for many of her early dances and served as teacher and dance master in her troupe. She often relied on his judgment regarding changes that needed to be made in her dances before public performances. They became more than friends, and he encouraged her to read the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, whose sense of restlessness sometimes paralleled her moods. Later, in 1934, Horst founded the publication Dance Observer, which he used as a forum to promote and defend Graham's style of dance. When Horst died in 1964, Graham, as one of his executors, destroyed all personal correspondence between them.

Equally influential was Erick Hawkins, a Harvard-educated dancer, more than ten years her junior, whom she met at one of the Bennington Summer Dance Festivals. One result of her romance and collaboration with Hawkins was to include more ballet steps in the company's training. Hawkins' ballet background, plus his strong personality, sometimes met with a hostile reception from Graham's regular dancers, who were accustomed to regarding ballet as the enemy. Graham made Hawkins her personal dance consultant, appointing another member of the company as the group's director and teacher.

Hawkins' arrival marked a shift in the membership of the company, as Graham began accepting men into her troupe, though some, including Horst (with whom she maintained a continuing friendship), wanted the group to remain all female. In American Document (1938), Hawkins was the sole male dancer, although another male spoke as the interlocutor. During the 1950s, Hawkins would bring some male dancers into her group who later achieved considerable independent success, such as Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. The new male-female dichotomy would transform the nature of many of her dances, bringing sexual themes and psychodrama into her performances, as shown in her Night Journey (1947), the story of Oedipus and Jocasta, and Phaedra (1962), performed in such abbreviated costumes that two members of Congress complained that the State Department should not be sponsoring Graham's tours abroad.

Hawkins assumed the difficult job of fund raiser for the company, scoring some important successes. In 1944, he had convinced the Coolidge Foundation to fund two new dances by Graham, one of which was Appalachian Spring. That same year, he observed that among the students in her dance classes was a member of the Rothschild family, Bethsabée de Rothschild , who had recently fled from Nazi-occupied Europe. He convinced Rothschild to contribute $500 to Graham's company, the first of many financial contributions she would make over the years.

After Graham and Hawkins made the sudden decision to be married in 1948 in New Mexico, they grew increasingly apart. Some have speculated that, as much as she loved Hawkins, she could not share her company, her creation, with others. Her temper was legendary: she later wrote that she had forgotten slapping Noguchi during a dress rehearsal and hoped he had forgotten it as well. She was known for shouting at Horst during rehearsals, and she and Hawkins sometimes argued in front of the company. Hawkins and Graham would divorce in 1952, although Graham wrote in her memoirs that she had mentioned the word "divorce" partly to hurt him and wished she could have taken her taunt back.

When she reluctantly agreed to go on a European tour planned by Hawkins in 1950, disaster struck: during a performance in Paris before Eleanor Roosevelt and other dignitaries, Graham reinjured a knee. By the end of the performance, it had swollen to the "size of a grapefruit," and the tour had to be canceled. Graham rejected the idea of an operation to mend her knee, embarking instead on a regimen of exercise with weights. In 1951, she launched her comeback as a dancer, appearing that year in the premiere of Judith. Although 56 years of age, she performed an unusually long 20-minute solo. In 1954, she returned to Europe for a highly successful tour; the following year, she and her troupe were sent by the State Department as dance ambassadors to Asia. In Rangoon, close to 5,000 came to see her.

When a representative of the world of ballet, George Balanchine, asked her to make a joint appearance in 1959, she used her half of the program to present a new dance, Episodes, which was based on the historical rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots . The dance ended with an innovative high-stakes tennis match. Graham appeared as Mary, dancing despite increasing pain from arthritis.

In between a tour of the Middle East and Europe in 1963 and frequent trips to Israel to help create the Batsheva Dance Company for Bethsabée de Rothschild, Graham continued to create new dances. One of the most successful was Acrobats of God (1960), which used intricate acrobatic movements to tell the story of a choreographer who hides when dancers turn to her for help. When the first-night audience responded with unexpected laughter, Graham deliberately added comic touches to the dance.

Most of the movements in Graham's classic dances were retained only in her mind, because she resisted the idea of documenting her major dances on film. In the decade of the 1970s, however, she did allow her notebooks to be published. When Connecticut College asked her to recreate Primitive Mysteries and Frontiers for a memorial concert for Horst, her assistants had to interview former dancers of her troupes to help bring these dances back to life. Now, leaving accurate accounts of her dances for posterity became a real concern to Graham.

The decade of the 1970s was difficult for her. In 1970, she was hospitalized for an intestinal illness. Then, before a planned appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, her company, a nonprofit organization with an independent board, asked her not to dance with the troupe. She reported that she fell into bouts of increasing depression. Her famous feistiness remained: told by an interviewer that her respectability was her best fund-raising tool, she responded, "I wanted to spit. Respectable! Show me an artist who wants to be respectable."

By 1974, at age 80, she was back in control of her (now reorganized) dance company but confined her work to choreography and other company matters; her days as a dancer were over. When a special benefit was held to raise money for her company in 1975—with ticket prices as high as $10,000—the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev volunteered to perform. The division between ballet and "modern dance" was disappearing. Modern dance was exerting more influence on ballet than vice versa, and some of her movements were being co-opted by ballet practitioners.

Honors poured in. In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given to American citizens. Graham was the first dancer and choreographer to be so honored. Among the imposing lists of awards that were given her were the New York Public Library Dance Collection Honors in 1974, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1984, the Knight of the French Legion of Honor in 1984, and the Order of the Precious Butterfly with Diamond from Japan in 1990.

Martha Graham battled health problems throughout the 1980s. Felled by a stroke at the start of the decade, she overheard a young doctor say her chances were not good. She vowed to recover. Graham not only improved but later that year choreographed Night Chant, based on Navajo rituals, and Maple Leaf Rag, with music by Scott Joplin. She even accompanied her troupe on a 55-day tour of the Far East in late 1990 and then stopped in Hawaii to recuperate. Graham became ill at Diamond Head, Hawaii, and was returned to New York City. She died at a hospital there on April 1, 1991.

In June of the same year, her company presented a memorial concert featuring many of her now-classic dances (out of more than 150 in her career) to a sold-out audience of 2,500. When the performance was over, the curtain was not lowered on the empty stage. It was a gesture to indicate that the spirit of Martha Graham—who had taught and influenced generations of modern dancers, ballet choreographers, and dance directors of musicals—was still present.


De Mille, Agnes. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. NY: Random House, 1991.

Graham, Martha. The Notebooks of Martha Graham. NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973.

Horosko, Marian, comp. Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training, 1926–1991. Pennington, NJ: A Capella Books, 1991.

Probosz, Kathilyn Solomon. Martha Graham. Parsippany, NJ: Dillon Press, 1995.

Stodelle, Ernestine. Deep Song: The Dance Story of Martha Graham. NY: Schirmer Books, 1984.

suggested reading:

McDonagh, Don. Martha Graham: A Biography. NY: Praeger, 1973.

Terry, Walter. Frontiers of Dance: The Life of Martha Graham. NY: Thomas W. Crowell, 1975.


Although Graham reportedly destroyed her correspondence with Horst and with her mother after their deaths, material relating to her career, including interviews with some of her associates, is housed in the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library.

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois

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Graham, Martha (1894–1991)

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