Chapter 3: The Modern Dancers

Martha Graham (1894-1991)

Martha Graham was born in 1894 in a small city outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father was an "alienist," the term then used to describe a physician who specialized in human psychology. Dr. Graham was particularly interested in the way people used their bodies, an interest that he passed on to his eldest daughter. In later years, Martha Graham often repeated her father's dictum: "movement never lies."

Graham and Denishawn

In 1908, the Graham family moved to Santa Barbara, California. Graham finished her secondary schooling, attended a school of dramatics for three years, and then in 1916 began studying at Denishawn. During the next seven years, Graham evolved from a student, to a teacher, to one of the company's best-known performers. She often worked as Ted Shawn's partner, and became the co-star of "Xochtil," his famous duet about an Indian girl and an Aztec emperor.

Graham and the Greenwich Village Follies

Graham left Denishawn in 1923 to take a job with the Greenwich Village Follies, where she gained a reputation for her ballet balleds. In the next three years, she became a part of the Greenwich Village art scene, and saw the work of Eleanora Duse, the Moscow Art Theatre, and Max Reinhardt. In 1925 she left the Follies to begin an independent career. In order to support herself during this period, she took teaching positions at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY and the John Murray Anderson School in NYC.

On April 18, 1926, her company, featuring students from Eastman, debuted in New York City. The program was heavily derived from the Denishawn repertory, featuring Graham in exotic solos and her students in a ballet ballad called "The Flute Of Krishna." A review from The Dance, described Graham as "clad in a heavy gold kimona, making patterns with her body against a screen of brilliant lacquer...Martha Graham presents a series of pictures that fire the imagination and make a hundred stories for every gesture. Shall we say her dances are motion pictures for the sophisticated."

Graham and Horst

By 1927, Graham had resigned from the faculties of the Eastman and Anderson schools and was working full-time as a dancer and choreographer in New York City. She soon began working with Louis Horst, whom she knew from Denishawn, where he had been the musical director and resident accompaniest. Horst was a major figure in the modern dance scene of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. For a period of time in the 1930s, he was the accompaniest for almost all of the leading dancers in New York City. But his closest association was with Martha Graham, whose artistic vision he remained devoted to throughout his lifetime. Horst introduced Graham to the work of the great German modern dancer, Mary Wigman, and to the innovations of the school of modern painting, including the works of the Cubists and Wassily Kandinsky. But perhaps most importantly, Horst taught Graham about musical form and encouraged her to work with contemporary composers rather than making dances to eighteenth and nineteenth-century music, as her solo dance predecessors had done.

Graham's Technique

Though the dances Graham created in the late 1920s were derivative of Denishawn pieces, by 1930 she was beginning to identify a new system of movement and new principles of choreography. Based on her own interpretation of the Delsartean principle of tension and relaxation, Graham identified a method of breathing and impulse control she called "contraction and release." For her, movement originated in the tension of a contracted muscle, and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed. This method of muscle control gave Graham's dances and dancers a hard, angular look, one that was very unfamiliar to dance audiences used to the smooth, lyrical bodily motions of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. In her first reviews, as a result, Graham was often accused of dancing in an "ugly" way.

Graham and "Lamentation"

But critics and audiences soon became accustomed to Graham's innovative style of movement and she developed a following among serious dance patrons, scholars and critics. During the early 1930s, her work was focused on emotional themes. Her famous solo, "Lamentation," for example, was a portrait of a grieving women, sitting alone on a bench and moving to an anguished Kodaly piano score. The scholar Elizabeth Kendall has written that "Lamentation (image)" is both a piece about the emotion of grief and a visual homage to contemporary architecture, most notably the new skyscrapers that were beginning to fill the New York skyline. She describes Graham's figure in the dance as "a skyscraper reeling," making a connection between the two impulses of Graham's aesthetic vision.

Graham's "Primitive Mysteries"

After a trip to the American Southwest in 1931, Graham became interested in making dances on the theme of American history. In "Primitive Mysteries," the choreographer combined her interest in the religious rites of American Indians with an exporation of other religious rites, including pagan and Catholic ceremonies. In this 1931 work, Graham danced the priestess figure called the Virgin, and her ensemble become the society of independent women who surround her and worship her. "Primitive Mysteries" represents a number of important advances for Graham. First, the choreographic focus is firmly on the corps of dancers rather than on the solo figure, pointing to a fundamental shift in the way Graham was approaching the architecture of dance. Second, the narrative of the dance is not presented in a literal way, but uses only a pure, abstract movement vocabulary to bring its story to life. And finally, "Primitive Mysteries" was Graham's first critical masterpiece, garnering attention from critics, artists and audiences around the world.

Graham's American Themes

The apotheoses of Graham's "American period" were the creations of the solo piece "Frontier" in 1935 and the seminal dance/theatre work, "Appalachian Spring," a decade later in 1944. In both pieces, Graham used a simple set designed by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi to help evoke the frontier landscape, and her own unique movement vocabulary to flesh out the soul of the pioneer women at the heart of each dance. The footage of "Appalachian Spring" clearly illustrates how Graham adapted her percussive, angular movement style to fit the period setting of the piece.

Graham's Career

Martha Graham died in 1991, after a career that lasted 75 years and produced some of the greatest masterpieces of the American modern dance. The Martha Graham Dance Company is still a vital force and can be seen in residence in New York City and on tour. Since this tutorial is designed to cover the origins of the modern dance and its first decade, the rest of Martha Graham's story will not be told here. We encourage you to turn to the reference and bibliography sections of the tutorial for guidance about further reading.

Martha Graham's innovations:

  1. Graham's movement system and her theory of contraction and release are central to the development of modern dance in the United States.
  2. Graham was the first modern dance choreographer to fully use collaborations with other modern artists to create her dance theatre masterpieces. Her collaboration with Isamu Noguchi and Aaron Copland in "Appalachian Spring," for example, remains one of the dance's great masterpieces.

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