(May 11, 1894 – April 1, 1991) was
an American dancer and choreographer
regarded as one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance
, whose influence on dance can be
compared to the influence Stravinsky
had on music, Picasso
had on the
visual arts, or Frank Lloyd
had on architecture. Graham was a galvanizing performer,
a choreographer of astounding productivity and originality. She
invented a new language of movement, and used it to reveal the
passion, the rage and the ecstasy common to human experience.
and choreographed for over seventy years, and during that time was
the first dancer ever to perform at The White House, the first dancer ever to travel abroad as a
cultural ambassador, and the first dancer ever to receive the
highest civilian award of the USA: the Medal of Freedom.
In her lifetime
she received honors ranging from the key to the City of Paris to
Japan's Imperial Order of the Precious Crown. She said "I have
spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. It's permitting
life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not
pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is
Martha Graham was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania
in 1894. Her
father George Graham was what in the Victorian era was known as an
"alienist," an early form of Psychiatry. The Grahams were strict
Presbyterians. Dr. Graham was a third generation American of Irish
descent and her mother Jane Beers was a tenth generation descendant
of Puritan Miles Standish. With a physician's salary, the Grahams
had a high standard of living. Dr. Graham often brought home to his
wife strawberries in the dead of winter when they were very exotic
and difficult to come by. The Graham children were looked after by
a live-in Irish maid. They were a proper family in the upper
echelon of Pittsburgh society. While the social status in which she
was raised contributed to her access to education and refinement,
it would also work against Martha as the eldest daughter of a
prominent physician would be strongly discouraged from considering
any career in the performing arts.
A new era in dance
In 1926, the Martha Graham Center
of Contemporary Dance
was established. One of her students was
heiress Bethsabée de
with whom she became close friends. When Rothschild moved
to Israel and
established the Batsheva Dance
Company in 1965, Graham became the company's first director,
groomed its first generation of dancers, and created dances for the
In 1936, Graham made her defining work, "Chronicle", which signaled
the beginning of a new era in contemporary dance. The dance brought
serious issues to the stage for the general public in a dramatic
manner. Influenced by the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression
and the Spanish Civil War, it focused on depression and isolation,
reflected in the dark nature of both the set and costumes.In 1948,
Graham married Erick Hawkins
principal dancer in her company), who was fifteen years younger
than she was. Although Graham was not really interested in marriage
as an institution, she felt that after eight years of living with
Hawkins that marriage would be an appropriate step.
largest-scale work, the evening-length Clytemnestra, was created in 1958,
and features a score by the Egyptian-born
composer Halim El-Dabh.
also collaborated with composers including Aaron Copland
, such as on Appalachian Spring
, Louis Horst
, William Schuman
, Norman Dello Joio
, and Gian Carlo Menotti
Graham's mother died in
Santa Barbara in 1958. Her oldest friend and musical collaborator
Louis Horst died in 1964. She said of Horst "His sympathy and
understanding, but primarily his faith, gave me a landscape to move
in. Without it, I should certainly have been lost." Graham's
lighting designer Jean Rosenthal
of cancer in 1967.
Graham actually despised the term "modern dance" and preferred
"contemporary dance." She thought the concept of what was "modern"
was constantly changing and was thus inexact as a definition.
For a majority of her life Graham resisted the recording of her
dances and would not allow them to be filmed or photographed. She
believed the performances should exist only live on the stage and
in no other form. At one point she even burned volumes of her
diaries and notes to prevent them from being seen. There were a few
notable exceptions. For example, she worked on a limited basis with
still photographers, Imogen
in the 1930s, and Barbara Morgan
in the 1940s.
Graham considered Philippe
's photographs of "Dark Meadows" the most complete
photographic record of any of her dances. Halsman also photographed
in the 1940s: "Letter to the World", "Cave of the Heart", "Night
Journey" and "Every Soul is a Circus." In later years her thinking
on the matter evolved and others convinced her to let them recreate
some of what was lost.
Graham started her career at an age that was considered late for a
dancer. She was still dancing by the late 1960s, and turned
increasingly to alcohol to soothe her own despair at her declining
body. A younger generation who had heard of her legend went to her
later performances and were confused about what all the fuss was
about. Her works from this era included roles for herself which
were more acted than danced and relied on the movement of the
company dancing around her. Graham's love of dance was so profound
that she refused to leave the stage despite critics who said she
was past her prime. When the chorus of critics grew too loud,
Graham finally left the stage.
In her biography Martha
Agnes de Mille cites Graham's last
performance as the evening of May 25, 1968 in a 'Time of Snow'. But
in A Dancer's Life
biographer Russell Freedman lists the
year of Graham's final performance as 1969. In her 1991
autobiography Blood Memory
Graham herself lists her final
performance as her 1970 appearance in "Cortege of Eagles" when she
was 76 years old.
Those who had the privilege of seeing her perform in her prime have
attested to her precision, form and mesmerizing brilliance as a
dancer on stage. Though she is arguably one of the most important
choreographers in the history of dance (and perhaps one of the most
important artists of the 20th century) she always said that she
preferred to be known and remembered as a dancer. In the years that
followed her departure from the stage Graham sank into a deep
depression fueled by views from the wings of young dancers
performing many of the dances she had choreographed for herself and
her former husband Erick Hawkins
Graham's health declined precipitously as she abused alcohol to
numb her pain. In Blood Memory
It wasn't until years after I had relinquished a ballet
that I could bear to watch someone else dance it.
I believe in never looking back, never indulging in
nostalgia, or reminiscing.
Yet how can you avoid it when you look on stage and see
a dancer made up to look as you did thirty years ago, dancing a
ballet you created with someone you were then deeply in love with,
I think that is a circle of hell Dante omitted.
[When I stopped dancing] I had lost my will to
I stayed home alone, ate very little, and drank too
much and brooded.
My face was ruined, and people say I looked odd, which
I agreed with.
Finally my system just gave in.
I was in the hospital for a long time, much of it in a
Graham not only survived her hospital stay but she rallied. In 1972
she quit drinking, returned to her studio, reorganized her company
and went on to choreograph ten new ballets and many revivals. Her
last completed ballet was 1990's Maple Leaf Rag
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
in 1976 by President Gerald Ford
First Lady Betty
had danced with Graham in her youth).
Graham choreographed until her death from pneumonia
in 1991 at the age of 96. She was cremated, and
her ashes were spread over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in
In 1998, Time
listed her as
the "Dancer of the Century" and as one of the most important people
of the 20th century.
The most requested dance materials at the New York Public Library
have to do with the work of Martha Graham.
Martha Graham Dance Company
Graham Dance Company is the oldest dance company in America and
continues to perform, including at the Saratoga
Performing Arts Center in June 2008, a program consisting of: Ruth St. Denis' The Incense;
Graham's reconstruction of Ted Shawn's
Serenata Morisca; Graham's Lamentation; Yuriko's reconstruction of Graham's
Panorama, performed by dancers from Skidmore
College; excerpts from Yuriko's and Graham's reconstruction of the
latter's Chronicle from the Julien
Bryan film; Graham's Errand into the Maze and
Maple Leaf Rag.
According to Agnes de Mille: "I was bewildered and worried that my
entire scale of values was untrustworthy. ... I confessed that I
had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.
Martha said to me, very quietly,
- There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that
is translated through you into action, and because there is only
one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you
block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will
be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to
determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with
other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and
directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe
in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware
to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No
artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that
keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."
- :from The Life and Work of Martha Graham
"It was [Robert Edmond] Jones who used to say to his classes,
Some of you are doomed to be artists.
Martha picked up
this phrase and used it many times thereafter. She also borrowed
from him the phrase doom-eager
, which he had borrowed from
- :from The Life and Work of Martha Graham
Quotes from the public
- :1998, TIME Magazine
- Named as one of the Female "Icons of the Century"
- :1998, People Magazine
- "Brilliant, young dancer"
- :1998, New York Times
- :1976, President Gerald R. Ford
So many important dancers appeared in Graham's company that any
listing involves editorial decisions that leave out deserving
performers. Some lists made by scholars include:
"Graham's original girls were superb - Bessie Schonberg, Evelyn
Sabin, Martha Hill, Gertrude Shurr,
Anna Sokolow, Nelle Fisher, Dorothy
Bird, Bonnie Bird, Sophie Maslow,
May O'Donnell, Jane Dudley, Anita Alvarez, Pearl Lang - as were the second group - Yuriko, Ethel Butler, Ethel Winter, Jean Erdman, Patricia
Birch, Nina Fonaroff, Matt Turney, Mary Hinkson. And
the group of men - Erick Hawkins, and
after him Merce Cunningham, David
Campbell, John Butler, Robert Cohan,
Stuart Hodes, Glen Tetley, Bertram Ross,
Paul Taylor, Mark Ryder,
Graham also taught movement classes to actors including Woody Allen
was a pupil of Graham's as
well in the 1980s.
Later former dancers
Pearl Lang,Linda Hodes,Elisa Monte,Takako Asakawa,Lyndon
Branaugh,Christine Dakin,Peggy Lyman,Terese Capucilli
Herring,Jacqulyn Buglisi,Dudley Williams,Tim Wengerd,Dan
,Pascal Rioult,Kenneth Topping,Steve Rooks, Dorothea
Douglas, Douglas Dunn