How did martha graham change the world of dance

History - Martha Graham Dance Company

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HistoryM Sherwood2022-05-03T17:01:52-04:00

Martha Graham is recognized as a primal artistic force of the 20th century, alongside Picasso, James Joyce, Stravinsky, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

TIME magazine named Martha Graham “Dancer of the Century,” and People magazine named her among the female “Icons of the Century.” As a choreographer, she was as prolific as she was complex. Graham created 181 ballets and a dance technique that has been compared to ballet in its scope and magnitude. Her approach to dance and theater revolutionized the art form and her innovative physical vocabulary has irrevocably influenced dance worldwide.

Martha Graham’s extraordinary artistic legacy has often been compared to Stanislavsky’s Art Theatre in Moscow and the Grand Kabuki Theatre of Japan, for its diversity and breadth. Her legacy is perpetuated in performance by the Martha Graham Dance Company and Graham 2, and by the students of the Martha Graham School.

In 1926, Martha Graham founded her dance company and school, living and working out of a tiny Carnegie Hall studio in midtown Manhattan. In developing her technique, Martha Graham experimented endlessly with basic human movement, beginning with the most elemental movements of contraction and release. Using these principles as the foundation for her technique, she built a vocabulary of movement that would “increase the emotional activity of the dancer’s body.” Martha Graham’s dancing and choreography exposed the depths of human emotion through movements that were sharp, angular, jagged, and direct. The dance world was forever altered by Martha Graham’s vision, which has been and continues to be a source of inspiration for generations of dance and theatre artists.

Martha Graham’s ballets were inspired by a wide variety of sources, including modern painting, the American frontier, religious ceremonies of Native Americans, and Greek mythology. Many of her most important roles portray great women of history and mythology: Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Medea, Phaedra, Joan of Arc, and Emily Dickinson.

As an artist, Martha Graham conceived each new work in its entirety – dance, costumes, and music. During her 70 years of creating dances, Martha Graham collaborated with such artists as sculptor Isamu Noguchi; actor and director John Houseman; fashion designers Halston, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein; and renowned composers including Aaron Copland, Louis Horst (her mentor), Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Carlos Surinach, Norman Dello Joio, and Gian Carlo Menotti. Her company was the training ground for many future modern choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp. She created roles for classical ballet stars such as Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, welcoming them as guests into her company. In charge of movement and dance at The Neighborhood Playhouse, she taught actors including Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Anne Jackson, and Joanne Woodward how to use the body as an expressive instrument.

Martha Graham’s uniquely American vision and creative genius earned her numerous honors and awards, such as The Laurel Leaf of the American Composers Alliance in 1959 for her service to music. Her colleagues in theater, the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local One, voted her the recipient of the 1986 Local One Centennial Award for Dance, not to be awarded for another 100 years. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford bestowed upon Martha Graham the United States’ highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and declared her a “national treasure,” making her the first dancer and choreographer to receive this honor. Another Presidential honor was awarded Martha Graham in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan designated her among the first recipients of the United States National Medal of Arts.

Martha Graham and her Company have expanded contemporary dance’s vocabulary of movement and forever altered the scope of the art form by rooting works in contemporary social, political, psychological, and sexual contexts, deepening their impact and resonance.

Always a fertile ground for experimentation, Martha Graham Dance Company has been an unparalleled resource in nurturing many of the leading choreographers and dancers of the 20th and 21st centuries, including Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, Erick Hawkins, Pearl Lang, Sir Robert Cohan, Donald McKayle, Elisa Monte, Jacquelyn Buglisi, Paul Taylor and many others.

Graham’s repertoire of 181 works has also engaged noted performers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Claire Bloom, Margot Fonteyn, Liza Minnelli, Rudolf Nureyev, Maya Plisetskaya, and Kathleen Turner. Her groundbreaking techniques and unmistakable style have earned the Company acclaim from audiences in more than 50 countries throughout North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Today, the Company continues to foster Graham’s spirit of ingenuity.

It is embracing a new programming vision that showcases masterpieces by Graham alongside newly commissioned works by contemporary artists inspired by Graham’s legacy. With programs that unite the work of choreographers across time within a rich historical and thematic narrative, the Company is actively working to create new platforms for contemporary dance and multiple points of access for audiences.

Martha Graham Dance Company’s 2022-23 repertory includes new works by Hofesh Shechter and Sonya Tayeh with Alleyne Dance, Sir Robert Cohan, Jenn Freeman, Juliano Nunes, Micaela Taylor, and Yin Yue alongside iconic Graham masterpieces Appalachian Spring, Lamentation, and Chronicle. The Company continues to expand its mission to present the work of its founder and her contemporaries, and remains a leader by catalyzing new works with commissions that bring fresh perspectives to dance classics.

The Martha Graham Dance Company has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the Paris Opera House, Covent Garden, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as at the base of the Great Pyramids in Egypt and in the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre on the Acropolis in Athens. Have a look at our Performance Calendar to see where we’ll be next.

The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance has the distinction of being the longest continuously operating school of dance in the United States and the only one primarily focused on the Martha Graham Technique and repertory.

Classes are taught by faculty who are current or former members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and who trained with Martha Graham herself or with her first-generation acolytes.

Students studying at the Martha Graham School have moved on to professional dance careers with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Jose Limón Dance Company, the Buglisi Dance Theatre, Rioult, and Battery Dance Company, as well as on Broadway and with other companies throughout the world.

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Martha Graham — Historic America

This week marks the 127th birthday of Martha Graham, the creative force known as “Dancer of the Century.” The impact which Graham had on the art of dance has put her in the same category as other revolutionary artists such as Pablo Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright. If you are or have ever been a dancer at any point in your life, you have been witness to Graham’s legacy — whether or not you were aware of it at the time.

Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894 in Allegheny City -- later a part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During her teen years, her family relocated to Santa Barbara, California and it is here that Graham was formally introduced to the art of dance. In 1911, when Graham was around 17 years old, she attended ballet dancer Ruth St. Denis’ performance at Los Angeles’ Mason Opera House. This inspired her to enroll in St. Denis’ newly founded Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. After her time at Denishawn, Graham relocated to New York City. By 1926, she had founded her own dance company out of a studio in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall, a company that still bears her name and continues her legacy today. 

In terms of her legacy, the sheer weight of Graham’s impact on American cultural history cannot be understated. She is considered to be the most important dancer of the 20th century as well as the mother of modern dance. Her particular style of choreography and movement, known widely as the Graham Technique, revolutionized the world of American dance. However, before we go any further into the life and legacy of Graham herself, it would be best to explain what exactly modern dance is to those who might not be familiar. 

Modern dance, as the name suggests, is a contemporary genre of dance that rose to popularity in the early 1900s. While it is also interchangeably referred to as contemporary or lyrical dance, there are subtle differences between these categorizations of dance. However, all variants of modern dance are ultimately rooted in the key tenets of self-expression and improvisation. Modern dancers and choreographers take inspiration from many different genres of dance, most notably ballet or jazz, as well as their own personal emotions, philosophies, and interests. The genre of modern dance rose in popularity because many creatives embraced the freedom it offered as a way to rebel against the standardized motions and rigid guidelines perpetuated by more traditional genres of dance. In fact, it was Graham’s unique approach to movement and choreography that defined the modern dance genre as one of ingenuity and self-expression.

This video showcases the Graham Technique with Martha Graham herself narrating. It demonstrates key elements of the technique including a pattern of contraction and release, which is characterized by movements in which a part of the body clenches or draws inward followed by a movement in which the same body part is released or relaxed. The video also displays Graham’s use of jarring, disjointed, and choppy movements in order to heighten the impact of said movements on the viewing audience.

This is a good time to note that I am personally familiar with Graham as I was a dancer throughout much of my life. Much like Graham herself, I began my journey into the world of dance through ballet. Over the years I was introduced to other genres of dance yet it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I first encountered modern dance and was immediately taken in by the creative freedom it offered. For those of us who have dwelled in the world of modern dance, the work of Graham is inseparable from the genre itself.  

Modern dance was founded as a rebellion against dance traditions of the past. It created a liberating space that encouraged artists to base their movement on personal experience and emotion instead of an established system of technique, in direct contrast to established dance traditions such as ballet. In many ways, Graham’s vision is directly responsible for this. In her work, Graham used the human body in order to convey emotion in a way that was truly raw and original, opting to create a style of her own instead of using one that already existed.

With her work, Graham sought to convey and invoke emotion in ways that other genres of dance could not and would often use jarring, disjointed, and trembling motions to do so. During a time when dance consisted of deliberate, graceful movements meant to exude beauty, Graham rejected these perceptions completely. She used dance in a way that was truly unique, raw, and human. In fact, one of the key lessons that Graham gave to her dancers was to unlearn several pre-existing notions surrounding beauty in dance: 

“[The students] come with all sorts of conventional notions of prettiness, graceful posturing, and whatnot. My first task is to teach them to admire strength - the virile gestures that are evocative of the only true beauty. I try to show them that ugliness may be actually beautiful, if it cries out with the voice of power.”

During her seventy year long career, Graham created 181 unique works for which she drew her inspiration from a number of sources such as Native American traditions, Greek mythology, and more. In fact, one of the first pieces of choreography by Graham that I ever saw was the 1944 work “Appalachian Spring,” set to a score written by Aaron Copeland. Created as World War II was drawing to an end, Graham used movements inspired by American frontier traditions to embody hope for American men and women as they moved out of war into the future.  

One of Martha Graham’s best known works, “Appalachian Spring” shows how Graham would incorporate elements such as set, costume, lighting, and music to emphasize the emotional impact of her work. This piece also show cases how Graham would often include the perspectives of women in her storytelling as she would often use the narratives of ordinary as well as notable women throughout her work.

Furthermore, the rise of modern dance and Graham’s technique coincided with the social and political change that was taking place during the 20th century. She became the first choreographer to regularly include both Black and Asian-American dancers within her works and a great number of her pieces drew inspiration from famous female figures throughout history or mythology. One of her most famous works is “Seraphic Dialogue” which tells the story of Joan of Arc’s spiritual journey. Graham originally created the work as a solo piece in 1951 under the title “The Triumph of St. Joan” before reworking it into a group dance in 1955. 

“Seraphic Dialogue” is one of Graham’s most iconic works. In fact, a May 1971 article published in the New York Times recounts the experiences of an audience who had seen a performance of the dance, referring to it as a “spiritual experience” while also noting the wide reaching appeal of Graham’s work stating that “every generation seems represented in the audience” of her company’s performances. When discussing Graham’s dancers and the power behind the work itself, the article notes: 

“The perfection with which they revealed the intensity and emotional expressiveness of the Graham vocabulary was both a tribute to the choreographer and to themselves.”

By the time this specific performance of “Seraphic Dialogue” occurred, Graham had officially retired from performing herself -- having done so in 1969. However, she remained a creative and revolutionary force within the dance world until her death as she never stopped teaching and choreographing after she stepped down from the stage herself. In 1976, she was the first dancer and choreographer to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- an honor given to her by President Gerald Ford who declared her to be a “national treasure.” Another president, Ronald Reagan, would also honor Graham in 1985 when he named her to be one of the first recipients of the National Medal of Arts.  

President Gerald Ford presenting Martha Graham with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House.

Throughout her life, Graham constantly experimented within the realm of human movement in order to create an entirely new vocabulary of physical motions and techniques that is still widely used today. Having become familiar with Martha Graham during my own time as a dancer, I have a deeply personal appreciation for her work. I encountered modern dance during a time of life that’s confusing and challenging for anyone: high school. My experiences with modern dance gave me a license for personal exploration and a space in which to take risks without fear. It taught me to appreciate the strength that my own body was capable of and to embrace the space I take up in the world instead of cowering from it. 

Martha Graham’s impact on American cultural history is still tangible today, whether or not you are familiar with her name. When it comes to the power behind her work, former director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Christine Dakin, said it best:

“Martha said that dance is never a competition. You’re only in competition with the person you know you can become. So, it’s important to move big... and make big mistakes.”

You can learn more about Martha Graham and her work through this virtual exhibit on the Graham Technique via Google Arts & Culture as well as through the digitized Martha Graham Collection at the Library of Congress. Additionally, you can keep up to date with the Martha Graham Dance Company’s virtual events and more via their website.

Fidan BaycoraMartha Graham, Dance, American dance, American women, American history, American Art, Modern dance, Modern art, Graham technique, Appalachian spring, american frontier, Seraphic dialogue, Presidential medal of freedom, National medal of the arts, Ronald Reagan, President Ronald Reagan, gerald ford, president gerald fordComment


9 contemporary dance languages ​​• Arzamas

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The Great Martha

Martha Graham Dance Company celebrates its 90th anniversary this April. In its 90th season, the company of the great Martha Graham came to Russia for the first time in history. On the one hand, one cannot but rejoice at this event, which happened thanks to the efforts of Diana Vishneva and the Context festival, but on the other hand, we have been waiting for a very long time, which is unbelievable.
Without Martha Graham, the whole history of modern dance would have turned out completely differently. And our long read will help you understand why Graham is great and why this event is historic.

Student of the "First Lady"

What Graham did for the development of non-classical dance, how much she created, how many names she gave to modern dance - all this cannot be described in one book. And, by the way, hundreds of books have been written about her in various languages. And, if you go to some decent bookstore in America, then on the shelf devoted to choreography there will be books only about Graham, and, possibly, Nureyev.

Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894 years in America. She lived a long, rich life and passed away at the age of 96, in 1991. Many historians have compared her contribution to the art of the 20th century with what Picasso, Nijinsky or Stravinsky did for him. If Diaghilev's "Russian Seasons" marched victoriously in Europe, then in America these "Russian Seasons" were she. It happens that the choreographer is a rather bad performer, and the composer is not able to play his composition at full power, but in the case of Graham, everything was different: in addition to her staging talent, she pleased more than one generation with her performing talent, playing the main female roles in his ballets. A fiery brunette with brightly painted lips and thickly lined eyes, Martha Graham retained her sublime beauty right up to her old age, and it was impossible to take your eyes off her heroines. She had practically no passing works, which is almost impossible, given that she has about a hundred productions.

Martha Graham and Ted Shawn in Xochitl. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. (1920)

Martha Graham came to dance quite late, she was about 20 years old - this is the age when the career of a classical ballerina is already gaining momentum. But classical ballet did not attract her, she considered this world full of conventions and prohibitions. She was interested in a freer, real dance. When she was 17 years old, she saw the performance of the new dance diva in America - Ruth Saint-Denis. But only 5 years later, she entered the Denishawn Saint-Denis school, where, contrary to expectations, she did not succeed at all. Quite plump, small in stature, besides a brunette, which was far from the ideal of that era, and even without experience in choreography, Martha Graham could not break out into the favorites of Saint-Denis. She lost weight, but still remained too bulky for the sophisticated poses of Saint-Denis.
Teachers expected lyricism from her, but it was absolutely not about her, but Saint-Denis's husband Ted Shawn managed to discern a spark, charisma and powerful energy in an extraordinary brunette, which he, as a choreographer, lacked so much. And he invents for her the dance " Xochitl ", where he allows her to demonstrate her "exotic personality and the ferocity of a black panther."

It becomes quite obvious that two personalities of this magnitude in one troupe are too crowded, especially since Ruth St. Denis herself immodestly called herself and remained in history as "the first lady of American modern dance." The only dancer that she recognized (but still put in second place after herself) was Isadora Duncan. But, since Duncan was basically understood and accepted in Europe and even in distant Russia, she could not compete with Saint-Denis. But Martha Graham could and did.

Ruth St. Denis in Radha (1906). Jerome Robbins Dance division.

Ruth Saint-Denis in Peacock. Jerome Robbins Dance Division

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in "Greek pageant" (1916). Jerome Robbins Dance Division

Ruth St. Denis in Tagore Poem solo (1929)

Ruth St. Denis in Omika (1913). Jerome Robbins Dance Division

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in "Greek pageant" (1916). Jerome Robbins Dance Division

“People often ask me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose: I was chosen, and I live with this all my life.

Own troupe

In 1926, Martha created her own troupe - Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, which until 1938 consisted only of women. Graham reflects on the role of women in society, in the life of a man, in the fate of his country. In general, she was a patriot: no one staged so many productions on historical topics from the life of ordinary American people - neither before nor after her. For example, her "Border" tells about a woman guarding her shelter.

A "Heretic" tells about the struggle of a woman with intolerance and closedness of the masses.

But the most famous work of that period was Lament in 1930, which inspired many artists, from choreographers to photographers, to create their own interpretation of the image of a dancer. In it, Graham herself is like a frozen sculpture, trying to get out of her skin, from her role of a woman that society imposes on her. She practically does not dance, but simply moves, sitting on a bench, but it is impossible to take her eyes off. This image is so bright that it has become her kind of calling card. Madonna, who admired her (and we will definitely write more about Madonna and ballet), even starred in a kind of anointing of Martha Graham in this image.

Martha Graham in The Lament (1935)

Martha Graham in The Lament (1935)

Martha Graham in The Heretic (1928)

Madonna in Harper's Bazaar 904 March 9009 05.1903 her men

Gradually, “feminine” themes began to exhaust themselves, and to be repeated in art is to sign your own death warrant, especially in America, where you must always be in sight, otherwise you will be forgotten about with lightning speed. And she takes a completely natural step: at 19In 38, she takes two men into her troupe. Both will play a huge role: Eric Hawkins will become her husband, and Merce Cunningham will become the main violator and destroyer of the foundations, familiar and beautiful.

Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins at Bennington College, 1938. Photograph by Barbara Morgan.

Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins at Bennington College, 1938. Photograph by Barbara Morgan.

Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins at Bennington College, 1938. Photograph by Barbara Morgan.

Cunningham is still unique and unique, no matter how trite it may sound, and his unpleasant experience with Graham gave him the necessary impetus to his art, which is so unlike her. Be that as it may, with the arrival of two tall, beautifully built handsome men, Graham enriched her repertoire with new subjects. To be surprised, look at vimeo Graham's famous production of "Appalachian spring", and find Cunningham dancing there. We'll give you a hint: you won't find a dancer, he stands there for the whole performance like an idol, but he stands beautifully. Maybe the fact that he was in the Graham troupe on the sidelines after Hawkins prompted him to leave the troupe, but we will be grateful to Graham: if she had not angered him, we would not have known what this talented choreographer is capable of.

Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham in Letter to the World, 1940. Photograph by Barbara Morgan.

In Appalachian Spring, the character Graham is a young, fearful wife who has moved with her husband to a new house that they will have to build together. There are hopes, and fears, and the protection of one's territory, and curiosity, but the main thing is that the heroine Graham is very human and alive here. But weak heroines are atypical for Graham. She was always looking for characters that are close to her in spirit and that would be interesting to play on stage.
She found her inspiration in ancient Greek mythology: her Medea ("Cave of the heart"), Jocasta ("Night journey"), Ariadne ("Errand to the maze"), Clytemnestra ("Clytemnestra"), Phaedra ("Phaedra" ), or Hecuba ("Cortege of eagles") emphasized the uniqueness of her talent and the sharpness of her mind. Almost all of these heroines in the original texts of the ancient Greek authors were minor characters: no one thought about what the tragedy of Oedipus's mother was, how Jocasta had to live with the awareness of all the horror that she did, and what life then did to her - her Sophocles' feelings are not important. But Graham brings these heroines to the fore. She tells their story: the story of mothers who buried their children, committed terrible deeds, wives who sacrificed everything for love. At the age of 73, she tells the story of Hecuba, the same Hecuba, the mother of Paris and Hector, who fell during the capture of Troy. She seems to pay tribute to these strong women, who in literary works have always remained in the shadow of male heroes, but the trials that fell to their lot and that they had to endure sometimes required more courage.

Martha Graham in Cave of the Heart, Martha Graham Resources, Library of Congress, Music Division.

Martha Graham in Night Journey, 1946

Martha Graham and Paul Taylor in Clytemnestra, 1960. Sam Falk/The New York Times

Martha Graham in Phaedra (1962). Credit Martha Swope/Noguchi Museum

She created her own technique that bears her name and is still fundamental to modern dance. Without the "Martha Graham technique" no professional dancer grows up. She was the first to try to structure movements into a certain system, which neither Duncan nor Saint-Denis had done before her. The basis of her technique, " contraction-release - "compression and relaxation", dancers have been trying to figure out for years.

Her troupe - Martha Graham Dance Company - still exists, and not only "survives on the fading glory of the great Martha", but continues to work hard and has a huge success. Almost all of her main productions are still in the repertoire, and all the old and inactive ones are fixed and not lost. Books continue to be written about her, although 24 years have passed since she passed away, and what is most surprising is that these books are not about her turbulent personal life and bad character, but about new attempts to interpret her work and contribution to world art .

Martha Graham was the first to show America that non-classical dance can be intellectual, she expanded the horizons of dance, she was the only one who managed to successfully combine performing, staging and teaching activities in her life. Her work Graham has not become outdated either in technique or in plot, and she continues to inspire each new generation of artists. Maybe in history she is not the “first lady of modern dance”, but by right she is the “Great Martha”.

What to read about Martha Graham?

1. "Blood memory" is Graham's autobiography, which has a touch of narcissism, but not without reason. Finished shortly before his death, the book covers almost his entire life, which is what makes it interesting.
2. Agnes deMille "Martha: The life and work of Martha Graham". The book, written by an American choreographer and part-time close friend of Graham, is surprisingly very objective and devoid of pathos, but it also gives us an analysis of her work from the point of view of someone who knows damn well about her work.

3. Album of photographs by permanent court photographer Graham Barbara Morgan: "Martha Graham: sixteen dances in photographs". There are almost no texts, but to look closely at many of Graham's almost forgotten productions in excellent quality seems priceless.
4. Martha Graham in Love and War: The life in the work by Marco Franco is devoted to four important productions (American Document, Spring in the Appalachian Mountains, Night Journey and Journey) where the author reflects about how Graham lived and worked in wartime, and how her work actually reflected her attitude towards politics. In addition, much emphasis is placed on her creative alliance with Eric Hawkins.
5. A solid biography of Graham, from childhood, bypassing all the successes and failures (oh yes! there were such), written by a competent biography compiler Russell Friedman "Martha Graham: a dancer's life", will dot the i, but it is better after it immediately read the second book on our list.

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