Martha Graham: American Modern Dance Pioneer

Martha Graham in Deaths and Entrances (1943). Photo by Chris Alexander, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

One of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, Martha Graham (1894–1991) helped lead the American modern dance revolution, breaking from the traditions of classical ballet as well as the romantic style of earlier modern dance pioneers. The Pennsylvania native came to dance relatively late: At 22 she began studying with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and joined the Denishawn dancers soon after. Graham formed her own performance troupe in 1926, and in order to train dancers for her work, she developed a codified technique. Her movement vocabulary stemmed from breathing: the changes in one's body from the actions of exhale (contraction) and inhale (release). Over time, she developed a series of complex floor-work exercises (also including falls and spirals) that evolved into what we know as Graham technique.


Fun Facts:

  • To help fund her burgeoning company, Graham taught a movement for actors class in Greenwich Village. Students included Bette Davis, Gregory Peck and Orson Welles.
  • Invited by Eleanor Roosevelt, Graham was the first dancer to perform at the White House—for President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937.
  • Graham received a Dance Magazine Award in 1956 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976.
  • Erick Hawkins was the first male dancer in Graham's company. They were married for two years.

Vocabulary

  • CONTRACTION: The percussive action of exhale; it's a curved lower spine and rounded pelvis—initiated from the pelvis.
  • RELEASE: The action of inhale. Initiated with the pelvis, it's an extended lower back and elongated spine.
  • INNER LANDSCAPE: "The soul of man." It was Graham's fundamental quest to express the human psyche.

The Work:

Capturing human emotion, desire and suffering, Graham's dramatic and often politically charged works draw inspiration from American life, ritual and Greek mythology. She often starred in her pieces and didn't retire from the stage until well into her 70s. Notable works include:

  • Lamentation (1930): Perhaps Graham's most famous work, the grieving performer is constrained by a tube of fabric.
  • Chronicle (1936): Graham choreographed this work after rejecting Nazi Germany's invitation to perform at the Berlin Olympics. It expresses the plight of the suffering during the Great Depression and wartime devastation.
  • Appalachian Spring (1944): Created in collaboration with composer Aaron Copland, this American masterpiece illustrates a young pioneer couple on their wedding day.
  • Night Journey (1947): It's the story of Oedipus from Jocasta's perspective, with a set by Isamu Noguchi and music by William Schuman.
  • Maple Leaf Rag (1990): A departure from Graham's usual dramatic work, this humorous piece is set to the music of Scott Joplin.

The Legacy Lives On:

*Led by artistic director Janet Eilber, Martha Graham Dance Company continues to tour internationally. It performs Graham's masterpieces as well as works by contemporary choreographers like Doug Varone, Lar Lubovitch and Richard Move, who is best known for his critically acclaimed impersonations of Graham.

*The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance is now located in the historic Westbeth studios of Manhattan's West Village. Virginie Mécène directs the school and its performance troupe Graham II.

*Former members of MGDC include Jacqulyn Buglisi, Merce Cunningham, Pearl Lang, Elisa Monte, Pascal Rioult, Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor and Glen Tetley.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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