Legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894– 1991) transformed the art of dance: A true pioneer in the development of modern dance in the U.S., Graham created her own technique, founded a company that achieved international acclaim and gave the world choreographic masterworks, often collaborating with artists from different media.
Her sharp, angular movement style broke with not only the conventions of classical ballet, but also the styles of earlier modern dance innovators. She created 181 works over a 70-year span and became one of the most celebrated figures in American modern dance. She was honored with the 1976 Medal of Freedom from President Ford and the 1985 National Medal of Arts from President Reagan. In addition, Graham trained many dance greats, including Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, and taught actors Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Gregory Peck and Tony Randall how to use the body as an expressive instrument.
After seeing Ruth St. Denis perform in 1911, Graham discovered dance relatively late in life, starting studies at age 22. Initially she trained at Denishawn, the famed school run by St. Denis and her partner Ted Shawn. In 1925, she took a teaching position at Eastman School of Music in New York. She used this opportunity to develop her own style and experiment with choreography, forming her first dance company, Martha Graham and Dance Group, with her Eastman students in 1926.
Graham’s early teaching was based on breathing and the bodily changes that occur as a dancer inhales and exhales. Capitalizing on this, Graham explored the idea that movement originates in the tension of a contracted muscle and continues in the flow of energy release as the muscle is relaxed. She emphasized the effort behind the movement in a more rugged way than her predecessors St. Denis and Isadora Duncan. After leaving Eastman a year later, Graham began working with Louis Horst, a composer from Denishawn. Horst introduced her to the work of German dance master Mary Wigman and to modern and cubist art. Horst also taught her about musical form and encouraged her to work with contemporary composers. From these influences, her revolutionary movement style began to emerge, based on angularity and dramatic falls that focused on spiritual themes and explored the characters’ inner emotions and desires.
Graham’s works drew from sources such as American frontier life, the religious ceremonies of Native Americans and Greek mythology. Inspired by cubism, Graham created Lamentation (1930), a solo in which she wore a tube of fabric that stretched to create a moving sculpture expressing struggle, confinement and grief. Another of her iconic dances, Primitive Mysteries (1931), is based on the rituals of Christianized Native Americans in the American Southwest. In this dance, Graham shifted her choreographic focus from the solo figure to the corps. This was Graham’s first critical success, garnering attention from critics, artists and audiences worldwide.
After the Depression, she made dances that reflected the shaping of American culture, returning again and again to the triumphs and struggles of both great and ordinary women. Many of the roles she created portray great historical and mythological women—Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Joan of Arc and Emily Dickinson. Graham performed the lead roles in most of her ballets, until severe arthritis forced her to retire from the stage in 1971. Nevertheless, she continued to think of herself as a dancer and never a choreographer.
As one of the first creators in modern dance to collaborate extensively with other modern artists, Graham worked with Isamu Noguchi and Aaron Copland. It was Frontier (1935) that inaugurated her decades-long collaboration with Noguchi, a sculptor known for his use of natural materials. He went on to design more than 20 sets for Graham, including one for Appalachian Spring, which stands to this day as one of her greatest masterpieces. In 1944, she sent written scripts to Copland, describing the narrative. He responded by sending sections of sheet music. Graham wanted a truly American theme, settling on a depiction of a Quaker newlywed couple building their first home. Copland’s use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” is perhaps the most memorable musical section of the piece.
Graham collaborated with many other artists including actor/director John Houseman, fashion designers Halston, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein and renowned composers Samuel Barber, William Schuman and Gian Carlo Menotti.
Today, Graham technique has become known for its powerful pelvic contractions and demanding floor work. Training in the technique has been structured as a set of exercises that become more difficult as the dancers’ skills and strength increase, resulting in bodies with strong core muscles ready to handle the demanding choreography.
The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in New York is home to the Martha Graham Dance Company, headed by Graham’s former students, artistic co-directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin and the Martha Graham School, the oldest school of modern dance in the world. There, dancers train in the Graham technique or at a professional training program, which prepares students for the Martha Graham Ensemble, an educational touring company.
Last August, an appellate court upheld a 2002 ruling that awarded the Center the rights to 45 Graham works, effectively ending the legal battle between the Center and Graham’s heir, Ron Protas. The Martha Graham Dance Company continues to perform the Graham masterworks nationally and internationally. DT
Maureen Janson is a dancer, educator, choreographer and freelance writer in Madison, WI.