Martha Graham Biography | American Masters | PBS
“I wanted to start not with characters or ideas, but with movement. . .wanted a significant move. I didn’t want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be full of inner meaning, with enthusiasm and enthusiasm.”
Martha Graham’s impact on dance was astounding and is often compared to Picasso’s on painting, Stravinsky’s on music, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s on architecture. His contributions transformed the art form, revitalizing and expanding dance throughout the world. In his quest to express himself freely and honestly, he created the Martha Graham Dance Company, one of the oldest in America. As a teacher, Graham trained and inspired generations of fine dancers and choreographers. His alumni included such greats as Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, and many other artists, actors, and dancers. He collaborated with some of the foremost artists of his time, including composer Aaron Copland and sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
Born in 1894 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Graham spent most of her formative years on the West Coast. Her father, a doctor specializing in nervous disorders, was very interested in diagnosis through attention to physical movement. This belief in the body’s ability to express its internal senses was central to Graham’s desire to dance. Athletic when she was a child, Graham didn’t find her calling until her teens. In 1911, ballet dancer Ruth St. denis performed at the mason opera house in los angeles. inspired by st. Performance by Denis, Graham enrolled in an arts-oriented high school and later the newly opened Denishawn School. Denishawn was founded by Ruth St. denis and her husband ted shawn to teach american and world dance techniques. For eight years, both as a student and instructor, Graham made Denishawn her home.
Working primarily with Ted Shawn, Graham improved his technique and began dancing professionally. In “Xochital,” a dance done specifically for her by Shawn, Graham danced the role of an attacked Aztec maiden. it was the wildly emotional performance of this role that earned her first critical acclaim. In 1923, eight years after entering Denishawn, she was ready to expand. She found an opportunity for herself dancing in the Greenwich Village Folies vaudeville revue. At the Greenwich Village Follies, Graham was able to design and choreograph her own dances. Although this job gave her some financial and artistic independence, she longed for a place to do more experiments with dance. It was then that she took a position at Eastman’s School of Music, where she was freed from the constraints of public performance. At Eastman, Graham was given full control over her classes and the entire dance program. Ella Graham saw this as an opportunity to involve her best students in the experiential dance she was beginning to create.
These early experiments at Eastman proved to be the spark for a new mode of dance that would revolutionize movement theories in all of the performing arts. For Graham, ballet’s preoccupation with fluidity and grace left behind the more violent traditional passions. Graham believed that through spastic movements, trembling, and falling, she could express emotional and spiritual themes ignored by other dances. she wished to evoke strong emotions and achieved these visceral responses through the repetition of violent and explicitly sexual disjunctive movements. Starting with her Eastman students, she formed the now famous Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York. One of the company’s first pieces was “Frontier” (1935), a solo performance about the pioneering woman. this piece brought together the two men who would be close collaborators throughout her life. isamu noguchi, the japanese-american sculptor, created an understated and beautiful design that replaced flat backgrounds with three-dimensional objects. Together Graham and Noguchi revolutionized set design through this inclusion of sculpture. “Frontier” also featured sound design by Louis Horst, a close friend and strong influence throughout Graham’s life.
shortly after “frontier,” graham brought a young ballet dancer named erick hawkins into the company. together they appeared in one of his main works, “American Document” (1938). for the next ten years he would remain with the company and perform in many of its great pieces. The most famous work from this period was “Appalachian Spring” (1944), for which Aaron Copland wrote the score. In 1948 Graham and Hawkins were married, but the marriage was short-lived. they continued to work together for a while and then made a permanent breakup. After this break, Graham dove deeper into his work and in 1955 presented to the world one of his best pieces, “Seraphic Dialogue”. “Seraphic Dialogue” was a powerful and moving take on the story of Joan of Arc. Throughout Graham’s career, she would return time and again to the struggles and triumphs of great and ordinary women. Despite her age, she continued to dance throughout the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1969 that Ella Graham announced her retirement from the stage.
For Graham, however, life outside of prom was impossible. Although she was no longer able to perform, she continued to teach and choreograph until his death in 1991. Martha Graham’s influence is nearly impossible to trace. Everyone from Woody Allen to Bette Davis cites her as a major influence on her. she is universally considered the greatest ballerina of the 20th century and the mother of modern dance. She performed at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor. she was the first choreographer to regularly employ Asian and African-American dancers. her contributions to the art of stage design and dance production are innumerable. Martha Graham’s continued experimentation and her constant attention to human emotion, fragility, and perseverance is one of the greatest individual achievements in American cultural history.