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Martha Graham

This article is about the choreographer. For the supercentenarian, see Martha Graham (supercentenarian).

Martha Graham
File:Martha Graham 1948.jpg
Martha Graham by Yousuf Karsh (1948)
Born (1894-05-11)May 11, 1894
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died April 1, 1991(1991-04-01) (aged 96)
New York City
Nationality American
Known for Dance and choreography
Movement Modern dance
Awards Kennedy Center Honors (1979)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (1976)
National Medal of Arts (1985)

Martha Graham (May 11, 1894 – April 1, 1991) was an American modern dancer and choreographer whose influence on dance has been compared with the influence Picasso had on the modern visual arts,[1][2] Stravinsky had on music, or Frank Lloyd Wright had on architecture.[3]

She danced and choreographed for over seventy years. Graham was the first dancer ever to perform at the White House, travel abroad as a cultural ambassador, and receive the highest civilian award of the US: the Presidential 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, in the 1994 documentary The Dancer Revealed, "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 inevitable." [4]

Her style, the Graham technique, fundamentally reshaped American dance and is still taught worldwide.[5]

Early life

Graham was born in Allegheny City - later to became part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - in 1894. Her father George Graham practiced as what in the Victorian era was known as an "alienist", a practitioner of an early form of psychiatry. The Grahams were strict Presbyterians. Dr. Graham was a third-generation American of Irish descent. Her mother Jane Beers was a second-generation American of Irish and Scots-Irish descent and was also a sixth-generation descendant of Myles Standish. While her parents provided a comfortable environment in her youth, it was not one that encouraged dancing.[6]

The Graham family moved to Santa Barbara, California when Martha was fourteen years old.[7] In 1911, she attended the first dance performance of her life, watching Ruth St. Denis perform at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles.[8] In the mid-1910s, Martha Graham began her studies at the newly created Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn,[9] at which she would stay until 1923. In 1922, Graham performed one of Shawn's Egyptian dances with Lillian Powell in a short silent film by Hugo Riesenfeld that attempted to synchronize a dance routine on film with a live orchestra and an onscreen conductor.[10]


In 1925, Graham was employed at the Eastman School of Music where Rouben Mamoulian was head of the School of Drama. Among other performances, together they produced a short two-color film called The Flute of Krishna, featuring Eastman students. Mamoulian left Eastman shortly thereafter and Graham chose to leave also, even though she was asked to stay on.

In 1926, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was established. On April 18 of the same year,[9] at the 48th Street Theatre, Graham debuted with her first independent concert, consisting of 18 short solos and trios that she had choreographed. She would later say of the concert: "Everything I did was influenced by Denishawn."[11] On November 28, 1926 Martha Graham and others in her company gave a dance recital at the Klaw Theatre in New York City. Around the same time she entered an extended collaboration with Japanese-American pictorialist photographer Soichi Sunami, and over the next five years they together created some of the most iconic images of early modern dance.[12]

One of Graham's students was heiress Bethsabée de Rothschild 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.

New era in dance

In 1936, Graham created Chronicle which brought serious issues to the stage in a dramatic manner. Influenced by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Great Depression that followed, and the Spanish Civil War, it focused on depression and isolation, reflected in the dark nature of both the set and costumes.

In 1938 Erick Hawkins was the first man to dance with her company. The following year, he officially joined her troupe, dancing male lead in a number of Graham's works. They were married in 1948. He left her troupe in 1951 and they divorced in 1954.

On April 1, 1958, The Martha Graham Company premiered the ballet Clytemnestra, based on the ancient Greek legend Clytemnestra and it became a huge success and great accomplishment for Graham.[13] With a score by Egyptian-born composer Halim El-Dabh, this ballet was her largest scale of work and her only full-length work. Graham originally choreographed the title role for herself, with the ballet's principal dancer spending almost the entire duration of the performance on the stage. The ballet was based on the Greek mythology of the same title, it tells a tale of Queen Clytemnestra who is married to King Agamemnon. Within the ballet, Clytemnestra has an affair with Aegisthus, while her husband is away battling at the Trojan War. Upon Agamemnon's victorious return he discovers his wife has had an affair, and in revenge Agamemnon offers their daughter, Iphigenia to be sacrificed. Later in the ballet, Clytemnestra is murdered by her other child, her son, Orestes, and the audience experiences Clytemnestra in the afterworld. This ballet was deemed a masterpiece of 20th-century American modernism and was so successful it had a limited engagement showing on Broadway.[citation needed]

Graham collaborated with many composers including Aaron Copland on Appalachian Spring, Louis Horst, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Carlos Surinach, Norman Dello Joio, and Gian Carlo Menotti.[14] 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."[15]

Throughout her career Graham resisted requests for her dances to be recorded because she believed that live performances should only exist on stage as they are experienced.[16] There were a few notable exceptions to her dances being taped. For example, she worked on a limited basis with still photographers Imogen Cunningham in the 1930s, and Barbara Morgan in the 1940s. Graham considered Philippe Halsman's photographs of "Dark Meadow" 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.

File:Martha Graham and Bertram Ross.jpg
Martha Graham with Bertram Ross (1961)

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.

Retirement and later years

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. Graham's health declined precipitously as she abused alcohol to numb her pain. In Blood Memory she wrote,

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, your husband? I think that is a circle of hell Dante omitted.

[When I stopped dancing] I had lost my will to live. 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 coma.[17]

After a failed suicide attempt[citation needed] she was hospitalized. 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.


Graham choreographed until her death in New York City from pneumonia in 1991, aged 96.[18] Just before she became sick with pheumonia, she finished the final draft of her autobiography, Blood Memory, which was published posthumously in the fall of 1991.[19] She was cremated, and her ashes were spread over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico.

Influence and legacy

Graham has been sometimes termed the "Picasso of Dance," in that her importance and influence to modern dance can be considered equivalent to what Pablo Picasso was to modern visual arts.[1][2] Her impact has been also compared with the influence Stravinsky had on music, or Frank Lloyd Wright had on architecture.[3]

To celebrate what would have been her 117th birthday on May 11, 2011, Google's logo for one day was turned into one dedicated to Graham's life and legacy.[20]

Martha Graham has been said to be the one that brought dance into the 20th century. Due to the work of her assistants, Linda Hodes, Pearl Lang, Diane Gray, Yuriko, and others, much of Graham’s work and technique have been preserved. They taped interviews of Graham describing her entire technique, and videos of her performances.[21] As Glen Tetley told Agnes de Mille, “The wonderful thing about Martha in her good days was her generosity. So many people stole Martha’s unique personal vocabulary, consciously or unconsciously, and performed it in concerts. I have never once heard Martha say, 'So-and-so has used my choreography.'"[22] An entire movement was created by her that revolutionized the dance world and created what is known today as modern dance. Now, dancers all over the world study and perform modern dance. Choreographers and professional dancers look to her for inspiration.[23]

According to Agnes de Mille:

The greatest thing [Graham] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft's restaurant over a soda. 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."[24]

Martha Graham Dance Company

The Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest dance company in America,[25] founded in 1926. It has helped develop many famous dancers and choreographers of the 20th and 21st centuries including Erick Hawkins, Anna Sokolow, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. It 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.[citation needed] The company also performed in 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, with a program consisting of: Appalachian Spring, Embattled Garden, Errand into the Maze, and American Original.[26][27]

Early dancers

Graham's original female dancers consisted of 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, and Marjorie G. Mazia. A second group included Yuriko, Ethel Butler, Ethel Winter, Jean Erdman, Patricia Birch, Nina Fonaroff, Matt Turney, Mary Hinkson. The group of men dancers was made up of Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, David Campbell, John Butler, Robert Cohan, Stuart Hodes, Glen Tetley, Bertram Ross, Paul Taylor, Mark Ryder, and William Carter.[28]


In 1957 Graham was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[29] She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by President Gerald Ford (the First Lady Betty Ford had danced with Graham in her youth). Ford declared her "a national treasure".[30]

Graham was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.[31]

In 1998 Graham was named "Dancer of the Century" by Time magazine,[5] and one of the female "Icons of the Century" by People.[32] The New York Times called her a "brilliant, young dancer".[citation needed]


This excerpt from John Martin’s reviews in The New York Times provides insight on Graham’s choreographic style. “Frequently the vividness and intensity of her purpose are so potent that on the rise of the curtain they strike like a blow, and in that moment one must decide whether he is for or against her. She boils down her moods and movements until they are devoid of all extraneous substances and are concentrated to the highest degree.”[33]

Year Performance Music Notes
1926 Chorale César Franck
1926 Novelette Robert Schumann
1927 Lugubre Alexander Scriabin
1927 Revolt Arthur Honegger
1927 Fragilité Alexander Scriabin
1927 Scherza Robert Schumann
1929 Figure of a Saint George Frideric Handel
1929 Resurrection Tibor Harsányi
1929 Adolescence Paul Hindemith
1929 Danza Darius Milhaud
1929 "Vision of the Apocalypse" Hermann Reutter
1929 Moment Rustica Francis Poulenc
1929 Heretic from folklore Old Breton song – de Sivry
1930 Lamentation Zoltán Kodály
1930 Harlequinade Ernst Toch
1931 Primitive Mysteries Louis Horst
1931 Bacchanale Wallingford Riegger
1931 Dolorosa Heitor Villa-Lobos
1933 Romeo and Juliet Dance sequences for a Katharine Cornell production
1935 Praeludium Paul Nordoff
1935 Frontier Louis Horst
1935 Course George Antheil
1936 Steps in the Street Part of Chronicle
1936 Chronicle Wallingford Riegger Lighting by Jean Rosenthal
1936 Horizons Louis Horst
1936 Salutation Lehman Engel
1937 Deep Song Henry Cowell
1937 Opening Dance Norman Lloyd
1937 Immediate Tragedy Henry Cowell
1937 American Lyric Alex North
1938 American Document Ray Green
1939 Columbiad Louis Horst
1939 Every Soul is a Circus Paul Nordoff
1940 El Penitente Louis Horst
1940 Letter to the World Hunter Johnson
1941 Punch and the Judy Robert McBride
1942 Land Be Bright Arthur Kreutz
1943 Deaths and Entrances Hunter Johnson
1943 Salem Shore Paul Nordoff
1944 Appalachian Spring Aaron Copland
1944 Imagined Wing Darius Milhaud
1944 Hérodiade Paul Hindemith
1946 Dark Meadow Carlos Chávez Sets by Isamu Noguchi, costumes by Edythe Gilfond, and lighting by Jean Rosenthal.
1946 Cave of the Heart Samuel Barber
1947 Errand into the Maze Gian Carlo Menotti Sets by Isamu Noguchi and lighting by Jean Rosenthal
1947 Night Journey, Martha Graham William Schuman
1948 Diversion of Angels Norman Dello Joio
1950 Judith William Schuman
1951 The Triumph of St. Joan Norman Dello Joio
1954 Ardent Song Alan Hovhaness
1955 Seraphic Dialogue Norman Dello Joio
1958 Clytemnestra Halim El-Dabh
1958 Embattled Garden Carlos Surinach
1959 Episodes Anton Webern Commissioned by New York City Ballet
1960 Acrobats of God Carlos Surinach
1960 Alcestis Vivian Fine
1961 Visionary Recital Robert Starer Revised as Samson Agonistes in 1962
1961 One More Gaudy Night Halim El-Dabh
1962 Phaedra Robert Starer
1962 A Look at Lightning Halim El-Dabh
1962 Secular Games Robert Starer
1962 Legend of Judith[34] Mordechai Seter
1963 Circe Alan Hovhaness
1965 The Witch of Endor William Schuman
1967 Cortege of Eagles Eugene Lester
1968 A Time of Snow Norman Dello Joio
1968 Plain of Prayer Eugene Lester
1968 The Lady of the House of Sleep Robert Starer
1969 The Archaic Hours Eugene Lester
1973 Mendicants of Evening David G. Walker Revised as Chronique in 1974
1973 Myth of a Voyage Alan Hovhaness
1974 Holy Jungle Robert Starer
1974 Jacob's Dream Mordechai Seter
1975 Lucifer Halim El-Dabh
1975 Adorations Mateo Albéniz
Domenico Cimarosa
John Dowland
Girolamo Frescobaldi
1975 Point of Crossing Mordechai Seter
1975 The Scarlet Letter Hunter Johnson
1977 O Thou Desire Who Art About to Sing Meyer Kupferman
1977 Shadows Gian Carlo Menotti
1978 The Owl and the Pussycat Carlos Surinach
1978 Ecuatorial Edgard Varèse
1978 Flute of Pan Traditional music.
1978 or 1979 Frescoes Samuel Barber
1979 Episodes Anton Webern reconstructed and reworked
1980 Judith Edgard Varèse
1981 Acts of Light Carl Nielsen
1982 Dances of the Golden Hall Andrzej Panufnik
1982 Andromanche's Lament Samuel Barber
1983 Phaedra's Dream George Crumb
1984 The Rite of Spring Igor Stravinsky
1985 Song Romanian folk music played on the pan flute by Gheorghe Zamfir with Marcel Cellier on the organ
1986 Temptations of the Moon Béla Bartók
1986 Tangled Night Klaus Egge
1987 Perséphone Igor Stravinsky
1988 Night Chant R. Carlos Nakai
1990 Maple Leaf Rag Scott Joplin costumes by Calvin Klein
1991 The Eyes of the Goddess Unfinished

See also

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  1. 1.0 1.1 Bondi (1995) p.74 quote: "Picasso of Dance [...] Martha Graham was to modern dance what Pablo Picasso was to modern art."
  2. 2.0 2.1 Agnes de Mille (1991) p.vii quote: "Her achievement is equivalent to Picasso's," I said to Mark Ryder, a pupil and company member of Graham's, "I'm not sure I will accept him as deserving to be in her class."
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Martha Graham: About the Dancer". American Masters. NPR. September 16, 2005. Archived from the original on 2013-10-10. 
  4. The Dancer Revealed, American Masters: Season 8, Episode 2, PBS, 13 May 1994
  5. 5.0 5.1 "TIME 100: Martha Graham". Time. August 6, 1998. Archived from the original on 2011-07-06. 
  6. Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life by Russell Freedman, p. 12
  7. Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life by Russell Freedman, p. 20
  8. Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life by Russell Freedman, p. 21
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bryant Pratt (1994)[full citation needed]
  10. "Music Films", Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), May 21, 1922, p. 5
  11. Mansfield Soares (1992) p.56
  13. Martha Graham: A special issue of the journal Choreography and Dance, By Alice Helpern
  14. Archived January 10, 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  15. Freedman, p. 134
  16. Women in Leadership: Contextual Dynamics and Boundaries, by Karin Klenke
  17. Graham, Martha (1991). Blood memory. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-26503-4. 
  18. Kisselgoff, Anna (April 2, 1991). "Martha Graham Dies at 96; A Revolutionary in Dance". The New York Times. 
  19. Susan Ware (1998). Letter to the World: Seven Women who Shaped the American Century. W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-04652-6. 
  20. "Google Doodle Celebrates Martha Graham and Dynamic Web". PC World. May 11, 2011. Archived from the original on 2013-07-02. 
  21. De Mille (1991), p. 409.
  22. De Mille (1991), pp. 409–10.
  23. Gerald, Newman (1998). Martha Graham: Founder of Modern Dance. Danbury, Connecticut: Franklin Watts. 
  24. De Mille (1991) p. 264.
  25. "Martha's back! Famed dance company in residence during June." Scope Online. Skidmore College
  26. "Martha Graham Dance Company". Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Archived from the original on 2011-09-19. Retrieved 2011-08-08. 
  27. Darnell, Tracie (2007-04-17). "Martha Graham Dance Company returns to Chicago for long-awaited performance at MCA". Medill. Archived from the original on 2013-10-12. Retrieved 2011-08-08. 
  28. De Mille (1991) p.417
  29. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter G" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 29, 2014. 
  30. Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life by Russell Freedman, p. 142
  31. Cross, Mary (ed). One Hundred People who Changed 20th-century America. p. 156. 
  32. Women in Leadership: Contextual Dynamics and Boundaries, By Karin Klenke
  33. Armitage, p. 9.
  34. Moving force, Haaretz Archived February 25, 2012 at the Wayback Machine


  • Bryant, Paula Pratt (1994). Martha Graham (The Importance Of... Series). Detroit: Gale. 
  • Martha: The Life and Work Of Martha Graham A Biography, by Agnes De Mille, 1991
  • Martha, by Alice Helpern, 1998
  • Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work, by Mark Franko, 2012
  • Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training, by Marian Horosko, 2002
  • Freedman, Russell (1998). Martha Graham – A Dancer's Life. New York City: Clarion Books. ISBN 978-0-395-74655-4. 

Further reading

  • Hodes, Stuart, Part Real-Part Dream, Dancing With Martha Graham, (2011) Concord ePress, Concord, MA.
  • Bird, Dorothy; Greenberg, Joyce (2002). Bird's Eye View: Dancing With Martha Graham and on Broadway (reprint ed.). Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 978-0-8229-5791-1. 
  • Graham, Martha (1991). Blood Memory An autobiography. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-26503-4. 
  • Hawkins, Erick (1992). The Body Is a Clear Place and Other Statements on Dance. Hightstown, New Jersey: Princeton Book Co. ISBN 978-0-87127-166-2. 
  • Horosko, Marian (2002). Martha Graham The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training. Gainesville, FL: Univ. Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-2473-8. 
  • Morgan, Barbara (1980). Martha Graham Sixteen Dances in Photographs. Morgan & Morgan. ISBN 978-0-87100-176-4. 
  • Newman, Gerald (1998). Martha Graham: Founder of Modern Dance. Danbury, Connecticut: Franklin Watts. 
  • Soares, Janet Mansfield (1992). Louis Horst Musician in a Dancer's World. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1226-0. 
  • Taylor, Paul (1987). Private Domain An Autobiography. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-51683-7. 
  • Tracy, Robert (1997). Goddess – Martha Graham's Dancers Remember. Pompton Plains, New Jersey: Limelight Editions. ISBN 978-0-87910-086-5. 
  • Layman, Richard; Bondi, Victor (1995). American Decades 1940-1949. Gale Research International, Limited. ISBN 978-0-8103-5726-6. 
  • de Mille, Agnes (1991). Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-394-55643-7. 

External links

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