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Martha Graham - Innovator, Revolutionary and Pioneer of Modern Dance

Updated on August 11, 2016

The Inspirational Plaque

It was almost a spiritual happening that when I was contemplating what female choreographer to write about that I see the plaque honoring Martha Graham's birth in Pittsburgh, a plaque I had passed hundreds of times.
It was almost a spiritual happening that when I was contemplating what female choreographer to write about that I see the plaque honoring Martha Graham's birth in Pittsburgh, a plaque I had passed hundreds of times. | Source

Classic Martha Pose


Inspiration Comes to Me Unexpectedly

My 5+ years taking formal ballet classes were aimed more towards classical ballet. We did learn and utilize "Graham-esque" dance moves and choreography. We learned these moves more to exercise our muscles in a different fashion. I was not overly enthused about this type of dance, at first, but over time I came to appreciate the use of pantomime and facial expression when utilizing them. But first....

Once I decided to write again about an esteemed choreographer, I mulled over many possibilities. I was actually sitting on the bus one morning, contemplating who to write about. Since I had already written about three choreographers, all male, I was thinking it was time to write about a female choreographer. I was looking out the window of the bus I was riding, thinking about this hurdle. We passed a street corner I had passed many times. For the first time, I saw an elevated plaque and made out the name Martha Graham on it. Yikes! Divine intervention? One of the contenders! I researched Martha Graham as soon as I got to work, and yes, discovered she was from Pittsburgh. My search for my next choreography innovator was over.

The plaque states "Born near here, dancer, choreographer, and teacher Martha Graham created a modern and unique movement style. In 1927, she founded her school of Contemporary Dance, revolutionizing the art of modern dance with innovative works such as 'Frontier' and 'Appalachian Spring'.

Beautifully written. Now let's see what wonderful, inspirational and unique information I can now write about to fill out this brief biography on the plaque.

Martha Graham in School


The Beginning

MS Graham was born in Allegheny City which was later to be incorporated into Pittsburgh. She was born on May 11, 1894. Her Father, George Graham, practiced as a doctor known as an "alienist". Basically, he believed that our physical goals and attributes dictated our health. Considering my beliefs, I find no fault in this. One can see where the importance of physicality was infused into MS Graham's psyche. Her life and career focus would be framed with the beauty and importance of the physical. However, though she came from parents that were educated, it was not a family that promoted dance.

The Graham family moved to Santa Barbara, California when Martha was 14 years old. In 1911, she attended her first dance performance. She saw Ruth St. Denis perform at the Mason Opera House in LA. She almost immediately wanted to study dance but her parents forbid it. Destiny would be hindered and delayed but not stopped. MS Graham did begin her studies at the newly created Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts founded by St. Denis and Denis's husband Ted Shawn. MS Graham spent more than eight years at Denishawn as a student and then a teacher. Utilizing a new filming technique, she performed one of Shawn's Egyptian dances with a Lillian Powell in a short film which attempted to synchronize a dance routine on film with a live orchestra and an onscreen conductor. Quite unique and not without obvious technical difficulties but it showed her desire to "think outside the proverbial box".

Martha Graham in a Sunami Picture


Her Career Leaps into the Beginning of a Long Career

Graham went to work at the Eastman School of Music in 1925. A Rouben Mamoulian was head of the School of Drama. They produced a short two-color film called The Flute of Krishna. Yes, reader, two- color. Let us not forget, this was 1925. It probably had the same effect when Dorothy in the The Wizard of Oz, opened the door to Technicolor in 1939! Mamoulian left a little later, followed by Graham. Whether there was a romance involved does not matter as MS Graham was about to take a path the world of dance will forever be grateful.

The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Art was created in 1926. On April 18th of that same year she had her first totally independent concert that consisted of 18 short solos and trios. A literal tornado of creativity. The concert was at the 48th Street Theatre. She was to credit Denishawn for her creations. Her education there undoubtedly fueled and inspired her passion for dance. It says a lot of Graham to give credit to that institution for the schooling of her inspirations. Of course true passion and talent comes from within - outside "things" help to cultivate those things. In November of 1926, Graham and other artists in her company gave a dance recital at the Klaw Theatre in NY. Around this time she began her artistic collaboration with photographer Soichi Sunami. A student of Graham's, was heiress Bethsabee de Rothschild. They became close friends. When Rothschild moved to Israel and began the Bathsheva Dance Company, Graham became the first director. I find it absolutely amazing how much Graham had accomplished in such a short period of time. Hold on to your seats because she was about to add booster rockets to her career.

Martha Graham and Husband Dancer Eric Hawkins

The happy couple in the very distinct Graham pose.
The happy couple in the very distinct Graham pose. | Source

Next Phase of Her Creative Career

Graham created Chronicle in 1936 which utilized serious topics in a dramatic manner, as only she could. The Crash of 1929, the Great Depression that followed and the Spanish Civil War created much of the fodder for many of her dances. These dances utilized depression, isolation and dark themes not only in the choreography but in the costumes and sets. Not exactly Walt Disney but they were and are very unique and works of great depth.

Erick Hawkins became the first man to dance with her company in 1938. He officially joined her troupe in 1939 and danced the male lead in many of her then current works. They married in July of 1948 after the New York premiere of Night Journey. He left her troupe in 1951 and they divorced in 1954. This was one of the few failures in her life, but then failure is subjective and who knows if is was not a source of great future works.

In 1958, her company premiered the ballet Clytemnestra which is based on an ancient Greek legend. It was a tremendous success for Graham. I have seen it in one of it's many recreations. I am a classicist in ballet but I enjoyed it for it's artistry and emotional depth. I mention this ballet not only for it's great success but the fact that it was Graham's only full- length ballet. This surprised me. I had assumed that she had more than one full-length ballet. This taught me a lesson that a ballet must not be the standard full length ballet but that a truly wonderful ballet can be of any length. It is not the length but the quality that all dance must be judged upon. Graham choreographed and danced the title role. This required that she be on the stage almost the entire time. No small feat indeed. This ballet is considered a masterpiece of 20th century American modernism and even had a short stint on Broadway.

MS Graham collaborated with many great artists such as Aaron Copeland with Appalachian Spring (I love this), Louis Horst, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Carlos Surinach, Norman Dello Joio, and Gian Carlo Menotti. Graham's supportive mother passed in 1958. Her dear friend and musical collaborator Louis Horst died in 1964. She said of Horst, "His sympathy and understanding, but primarily his faith, gave me a landscape to move in. Without it, I should certainly have been lost." Again, Graham gave credit to those who deserved it. The loss of her mother and close friend affected her deeply. I have often wondered why so much of Graham's works were steeped in darkness and melancholy, what inner demons, if any, were at work. These two losses certainly might have contributed to this.

Even though, Graham had experimented with film, she generally believed that live performance should be experienced in a theatre or similar venue. She did allow still photographers to record her and her works. Graham considered Philippe Halsman's photographs (a genius and one of my favorite photographers) in a book entitled, Dark Meadow, the best and most complete photographic record of many of her dances.

In her biography, Martha, Agnes de Mille records Martha's last performance as May 25, 1968 in Time of Snow. Russell Freedman, in his A Dancer's Life, lists her final performance in 1969. In her posthumous autobiography, Blood Memory, Graham herself list her final performance in 1970's appearance in Cortege of Eagles. I mean, who are you going to believe? MS graham was 76 years old when she last performed on stage. Wow.

A Mature Martha Graham

She may have felt she had aged in her looks but to me she stayed beautiful- inside and out.
She may have felt she had aged in her looks but to me she stayed beautiful- inside and out. | Source

Act 3

As what happens to many geniuses, particularly dancers, Martha Graham sank into a deep depression, particularly when she would watch the younger dancers performing one of the many dances she had choreographed and danced herself. Her health declined rapidly as she begun to abuse alcohol. Many would have found solace watching their creations continue. Martha, however, was a "hands-on" artist so I can understand her sadness. It can be painful to see others do what you could do without parallel at one time and perhaps mistakenly took for granted. I believe we all do this.

I quote from her autobiography-

I believe in never looking back, never indulging in nostalgia, or reminiscing. Yet how can you avoid it when you look on stage and see a dancer made up to look as you did thirty years ago, dancing a ballet you created with someone you were then deeply in love with, your husband? I think that is a circle of hell Dante omitted.

When I stopped dancing, I had lost my will to live. I stayed at home alone, ate very little, and drank too much and brooded. My face was ruined and people would say I looked odd, which I agreed with. Finally my system just gave in. I was in the hospital for a long time, much of in in a coma.

After a failed suicide attempt, she was hospitalized. I have often thought that some of that inner darkness that fueled some of her ballets, came to surface at this time. Thankfully, she reversed her decline. She quit drinking, returned to work at her school/studio and went on to choreograph ten new ballets and many revivals. Her last completed ballet was Maple Leaf Rag in 1990. MS Graham choreographed until she succumbed to pneumonia in 1991 at the age of 96. Thankfully for all who love dance, she finished the final draft of her autobiography, Blood Memory before she passed. I have already ordered it and look forward to reading it.

Typical Martha Graham "Moves"

One only needs to see these photos and immediately think "Martha Graham!"
One only needs to see these photos and immediately think "Martha Graham!" | Source


Martha Graham left a legacy too long to list. She literally changed and added to forever the face of dance. Some call her the Picasso of ballet, an appropriate comparison. Among many awards, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Society. President Ford awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976. Ironically, his wife Betty, had danced with Graham in her youth. Time Magazine named her Dancer of the Century. In 2015 she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Martha Graham never had a child but she will live on forever as long as the art and love of dance survives. Not a bad legacy indeed. As with all the choreographers I have studied, I look forward to learning and experiencing more of Graham's life and choreographic works.


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    • profile image

      Tom Borroughs 

      2 years ago

      I enjoyed the article and the part where you found your inspiration. She was and is a great inspiration to dance and women in general

    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      2 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Thank you for reading my article. I am also a classicist but I do enjoy her style for it's freedom of movement and style. She was a pioneer and I appreciate that. Thank you for your insight.

    • profile image

      Karen Massey 

      2 years ago

      I liked your article though I have never been a huge fan if Ms Graham. I lean more towards the classical ballet. I appreciate the fact that she broke boundaries and added to the art if dance. Your article is nicely balanced and I like your style of writing.

    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      3 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Leave it to politicians. I think that expression helps explain why Martha Graham had a difficult time aging at first- she knew her body was not lying- she had to learn to accept that truth- I am so glad she adjusted and went on to work and add to ballet for the rest of mankind to enjoy and learn from.

    • Sue Adams profile image

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      3 years ago from Andalusia

      Martha Graham was the first to come up with the saying:"The Body Doesn't Lie" but that was ,of course, long before politicians and media people became trained in deceiving body language.

    • profile image

      Patricia Wainright 

      3 years ago

      I was visiting your page because I anted to read the article on Petipa- I liked it- but I aw this on Martha graham- I take dance at Miami University and love Martha Graham. I knew she was an innovator but was interested to learn that she had a dark side that undoubtedly influenced her great art. Thanks for the article.


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