Who Was Martha Graham?
As a child, Martha Graham was influenced by her father, a doctor who used physical movement to remedy nervous disorders. Throughout her teens, Graham studied dance in Los Angeles at Denishawn. In 1926, she established her own dance company in New York City and developed an innovative, non-traditional technique that spoke to more taboo forms of movement and emotional expression. She danced well into her 70s and choreographed until her death in 1991, leaving the dance world forever changed.
Early Years and Inspiration
Born in a suburb of Allegheny (now Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, on May 11, 1894, Graham was influenced early on by her father, George Graham, a doctor who specialized in nervous disorders. Dr. Graham believed that the body could express its inner senses, an idea that intrigued his young daughter.
In the 1910s, the Graham family moved to California, and when Martha was 17, she saw Ruth St. Denis perform at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. After the show, she implored her parents to allow her to study dance, but being strong Presbyterians, they wouldn't permit it.
Still inspired, Graham enrolled in an arts-oriented junior college, and, after her father died, at the newly opened Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, founded by St. Denis and her husband, Ted Shawn. Graham spent more than eight years at Denishawn, as both a student and an instructor.
From Dancing to Choreography
Working primarily with Shawn, Graham improved her technique and began dancing professionally. Shawn choreographed the dance production "Xochitl" specifically for Graham, who performed the role of an attacked Aztec maiden. The wildly emotional performance garnered her critical acclaim.
Graham left Denishawn in 1923 to take a job with the Greenwich Village Follies. Two years later, she left the Follies to broaden her career. She took teaching positions at the Eastman School of Music and Theater in Rochester, New York, and the John Murray Anderson School in New York City to support herself.
In 1926, she established the Martha Graham Dance Company. Its incipient programs were stylistically similar to those of her teachers, but she quickly found her artistic voice and began conducting elaborate experiments in dance.
Evermore bold, and illustrating her visions through jarring, violent, spastic and trembling movements, Graham believed these physical expressions gave outlet to spiritual and emotional undercurrents that were entirely ignored in other Western dance forms. The musician Louis Horst came on as the company’s musical director and stayed with Graham for nearly her entire career. Some of Graham’s most impressive and famous works include “Frontier,” “Appalachian Spring,” “Seraphic Dialogue” and “Lamentation.” All of these works utilized the Delsartean principle of tension and relaxation—what Graham termed “contraction and release.”
Despite the fact that many early critics described her dances as “ugly,” Graham’s genius caught on and became increasingly respected over time, and her advances in dance are considered by many to be an important achievement in America’s cultural history. The Graham technique is a highly regarded form of movement taught by dance institutions across the globe.
Graham continued to dance into her mid-70s and choreographed until her death on April 1, 1991, at the age of 96, leaving behind a legacy of inspiration not only for dancers but for artists of all kinds. Her company continues to perform internationally with a varied repertory.
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