Over the span of her career, Martha Graham created one of the only fully comprehensive sets of techniques that exist in modern dance. Like ballet, she created her own rules and exercises to train her dancers. The Graham technique is so precise and different than other dance styles that it takes 10 years of training to master.
Graham’s language of dance is based on two main principles: contraction and release. Her dancers create tension through contracting a muscle, and then use the flow of energy when the muscle is relaxed to initiate the movement. This creates a very choppy, tight movement. Also, the contracting of the spine and rib cage make the female dancers look more aggressive, like they are ready to attack and push toward the ground. In the 1930s, Graham’s physicality as a dancer was shockingly different from smooth and graceful ballerinas. Ballets were arranged to appear effortless, while Graham’s muscular movement made the effort visible in the choreography.
The Human Heart in Motion
Graham’s main goal as a choreographer was to emote an internal feeling through the movement of her body. Aside from her expressive face, she used dance to express how she felt as a woman in both small and large moments of daily life. For example, in her pieces “Deaths and Entrances,” which is based on the work of the Bronte sisters, there is a moment when Graham stands tall and stiffly while naturalistically portraying a Victorian woman, then suddenly bends her knees and plunges backward, so her torso is parallel with the floor. When asked what this moment meant, she explained that this is to illustrate how a woman feels when she sees a man she once loved across the room at a party. For centuries, many women felt constricted both physically and emotionally. Graham not only moved in a way that was radical for women at the time, but did it to express her deepest emotions.
In her 1953 essay “An Athlete of God,” Graham refers to dance as “the performance of living,” always aware that her instrument as a dancer is “also the instrument through which life is lived: the human body.” The daughter of an “alienist,” which at the time described a physician specializing in psychology, her father was interested in how people use their bodies to express how they feel and passed his curiosities along to Graham.
Graham initially studied drama, but became attracted to dance at the age of 22, which is very late for a dancer. With a less-than-ideal body type, she used her differences to her advantage and developed her own pieces for herself. As a result, she often had trouble passing along her choreography to other dancers, as she had built all of her works on her own body. While many dancers retire by the age of 30, Graham’s late start didn’t slow her down, and she danced professionally until the age of 76.
The American Experience
Much of Graham’s work focuses on women throughout history, as well as American ideas of industry and the innovation. In one of her works created during the 1930s, “Lamentation,” she uses her body to represent a skyscraper. She explored themes such as mythology, the experiences of American Indians, and the American West. Though still focusing on small emotional moments as a dancer, Graham created bold statements on society through the staging and design of her pieces.
Called “the Picasso of dance,” she came to personify the changing dance of the 20th century. She worked with visual artists, composers, and theater directors on her pieces. In the 1950s, she worked with legendary ballet choreography George Balanchine on “Episodes,” a program that combined both ballet and modern dance. Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland‘s landmark orchestral score, was commissioned by Graham for her company. Even actors such as Bette Davis and Gregory Peck worked with her to learn principles of movement. Because she worked with other artists from different mediums, Graham’s impact on art is immeasurable.