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The 117th Birthday Anniversary of Martha Graham: The Mother of Modern Dance

Updated on May 11, 2011

Martha Graham was an American Dancer and Choreographer whose major influence on dance has been compared to Strvinsky's influence in music, Picasso on Visual arts, and Frank Lioyd Wright had on Architecture.

Martha Graham in her toddler years.
Martha Graham in her toddler years. | Source

Martha Graham's Early Life

Martha Graham was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1894. Martha's father, George Graham was known as an "alienist" in the Victorian era, his father was a practitioner of an early form of psychiatry. The Graham family were Presbyterians. Her father was a third generation of Irish descent and her mother Jane Beers was a tenth generation descent of Puritan Miles Standish.

Martha Graham as a young girl with her mom and sister.
Martha Graham as a young girl with her mom and sister. | Source
Martha's parents: George and Jennie Graham
Martha's parents: George and Jennie Graham | Source

The New Era in Dance

Martha was hired at the Eastern School of Music in 1925, where Rouben Mamoulian was head of the school of Drama. Besides their other performances, As a duo they produced a short two color film named "The Flute of Krishna," that featured students from Eastmen. After that she chose to leave Eastmen even though they asked her to stay.

The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was founded in 1926. One of the students in her class was heiress Bethsabee de Rothschild in which both became close friends. When Rothchild moved to Israel she founded the Batseeva Dance Company in 1965, making Martha Graham the company's first director.

Martha created her defining work, called "Chronicle," in 1936 which welcomed the start of a new era in contemporary dance. As a result the dance bought serious problems to the stage for the audience in a dramatic way. The dance was influenced by The Wall Street Crash, The Great Depression, and The Spanish Civil War, it focused on depression and isolation, it also set the mood in dark nature in both the costumes and set.

Erick Hawknis became the first male to dance in her company in 1938. The next year, he joined her group, performing male leading parts in many of Graham's works. They both ended up marriyng in 1948. Later on he left her group in 1951 and both ended up divorcing in 1954.

The Clytemnestra and other works

Martha's major-scale work, is the evening-length "Clytemnestra," which was created in 1958, it included a musical score by Egyptian-born composer Halim El Dabh. She also worked along other composers such as Aaron Copland on "Appalachian Spring," Louis Horst, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Carlos Surinach and others. Martha's mother died in Santa Barbara in 1958 as well. Also her oldest friend and musical collaborator died tragically in 1964.

One of Her Beliefs about Performing on Stage

One of Graham's beliefs were that performances should only exist onstage live. She did not like it when people would film or photograph the dance performances. One time she even burned a collection of her diaries and notes to avoid them from being seen or discovered in public.

She was still dancing by the late 1960s and her projects from that time included roles for herself which took place more acting than dance and relied heavily on movement of the other dancers around her. Her last performance was in the 1970 appearance in the "Corte of Eagles" when she was 76 years old.

Google celebrates the 117th Birthday of Martha Graham's birthday.
Google celebrates the 117th Birthday of Martha Graham's birthday. | Source

Her Dark and Sad Years

In the following years of her absence from the stage Martha went into a deep depression filled with images of wings of young dancers doing all of the dances she herself had choreographed for herself and her former husband. Graham's health decreased as she was abusing alcohol to calm her pain. In her book "Blood Memory" she cites this:

"It wasn't until years after I had relinquished a ballet that I could bear to watch someone else dance it. 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 death Dante ommited."

in this quote Martha clearly states how haunting it is to see a performance she created and without knowing the old memories of her dancing it with her special someine can be really heartbreaking and sad.

Another quote from Martha Graham about her depression:

"When I stopped dancing I had lost my will to live. I stayed home alone, ate very little, and drank too much and brooded my face was ruined, and people say I look odd, which I agreed with. Finnaly my system just gave in. I was in the hospital for a long time, much of it in comma."

Her Years of Recovery and Success

The good news was that Martha Graham survived her days at the hospital. She quit drinking and returned to the studio in 1972. She reorganized her company and choreographed ten new ballet performances and revivals. Her final ballet choreography was the 1990s "Maple Leaf Rag."

Graham was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by the then President Gerald Ford.

Graham continued choregraphing until her death in New York City in 1991 she died of pneumonia at the age of 96. She was cremated, and her ashes were spread over the Sangre de cristo Mountains located in Northern New Mexico.

Time listed her as "Dancer of the Century" in 1998, and one of the most important figures in the 20th century. She was also inducted into the National Museun of Dance C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.

Her Dance Performances Throught The Years

The following is a list of her choreogrphy performances throught her dancing career.

  • "Chorale" (1926), music by Cesar Franck
  • "Novelette" (1926), music by Robert Schuman
  • "Lugubre" (1927), music by Alexander Scriabin
  • "Revorlt" (1927), music by Arthur Honeggen
  • "Fragilite" (1927), music by Scriabin
  • "Scherza" (1927), music by Robert Schuman
  • "Figure of a Saint" (1929), music by George Frideric Handel
  • "Resurrection" (1929), music by Tibor Harsanyi
  • "Adolescence" (1929), music by Paul Hindemith
  • "Danza" (1929), music by Darius Milhaud
  • "Vision of The Apocalypse" (1929), music by Hermann Reutter
  • "Moment Rustica" (1929), music by Francis Poulenc
  • "Heretic" (1929), music by from Folklore
  • "Lamentation (1930), music by Zoltan Kodaly
  • "Harlequinaden" (1930), music by Ernst Torch
  • "Primitive Mysteries" (1931), music by Louis Horst
  • Bachannale" (1931), music by Willingfer Riegger
  • "Dolorosa" (1931), music by Heitor-Villa Lobos
  • "Romeo and Juliet, (1933)
  • "Pradeludium" (1935), music by Paul Nordoff
  • "Frontier" (1935), music by Louis Horst
  • "Course" (1935), music by George Antheil
  • "Steps in the Street" (1936)
  • "Chronicle" (1936), music by Willingford Riegger
  • "Horizons" (1936), music by Louis Horst
  • "Salutation" (1936), music by Lehman Engel

for the complete list of her performances go to


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    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      6 years ago from South Africa

      Excellent article. I am sharing this with my friends as well.

    • epigramman profile image


      6 years ago we're talking lol - one of the best hub tributes I've seen in some time probably because I simply adore the classical ballet and modern dance but also because you have put together yet another world class hub with your passion, research, love and knowledge - so here goes with another posting to my FACEBOOK page with a direct link back here - more people have to see/read your hubs 'cos they rock - big time!!!

      lake erie time ontario canada 6:50pm will come back to have a look at this video links but I had the pleasure of seeing the Martha Graham dance company perform live back in the 70's - great pioneer of modern dance to be sure .....


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