Martha Graham

By Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham is the ABC News Person of the Week (1990-05)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

"Dance is an Absolute"Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Dance is an absolute...
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Martha Graham (age 2)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham was born on May 11,1894 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to parents George and Jennie Graham. She was the eldest of four children: sisters Mary, Geordie, and a brother William. At the turn of the century, Pittsburgh was a heavy producing steel factory city with an atmosphere that was layered in smoke and soot. Martha remembered it as, "spun entirely of evening and dark thread."

Martha Graham's Father, George G. GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

"Movement never lies"

Martha's father, Dr. George Graham, was an "alienist" (an early term for psychiatrist) who specialized in nervous disorders –he analyzed the way people spoke and moved. He taught Martha: "Movement never lies. You will always reveal what you feel in your heart by what you do in your movement." Martha claimed, "This was my first lesson as a dancer."

Martha Graham, Santa Barbara High SchoolMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Santa Barbara

In 1908, the Graham family moved to Santa Barbara, California. Martha later recalled: "California was a world of flowers, Oriental people, people with Spanish blood, a life completely different from our life in Pittsburgh. It became a time of light and freedom and curiosity. I was thrilled with it."

Martha Graham, High School GraduationMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Ruth St. DenisMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

On June 13, 1911, Martha Graham attended a concert of dancer Ruth St. Denis at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles, California. Martha was transfixed and exhilarated by St. Denis's exotic movements. She recalled, "From that moment on, my fate was sealed. I couldn't wait to learn to dance as the goddess did."

DenishawnMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Denishawn

In the summer of 1916, at the age of twenty-two, Martha began her dance studies at the Denishawn School of Dance and Related Arts in Los Angeles. The school, under the direction of Ruth St. Denis and husband Ted Shawn, was the first professional dance institution in America that would produce a professional company. Martha wrote of her early years at Denishawn, "Everyone there has just one great passion, the passion to create beauty."

Denishawn Debut of Martha Graham (1916)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

At the end of her first year at Denishawn, Martha was recruited to demonstrate basic movements in Ruth's classes. She taught the dance classes for small children and appeared as a member of the Denishawn Company chorus, but wasn’t considered ready to perform the company's repertory. “They thought I was good enough to be a teacher, but not a dancer,” she recalled.

Martha Graham in Serenata Morisca (1916) (1916)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Eventually, Ted Shawn recognized Martha's talents and took her on tour as one of his leading dancers and partners.

Martha Graham in Xochitl (1920)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Xochitl (1920)

Ted Shawn choreographed this piece, about an Indian Princess, on Graham in which she danced the title role of Xochitl. Ted Shawn played the role of Emperor Tepancaltzin. Martha recalled that during a performance, Shawn dropped her on her head and she passed out for a few seconds. When she came to, Graham bit Shawn on the arm and drew blood. Martha claimed, "I suppose that is when my reputation for having a violent temper began. I was savage at that time."

Martha Graham in Xochitl (1920)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Malagueña (1921)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham and Ted Shawn in Malagueña (1921)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

On Tour with the Denishawn Company (1922)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Denishawn Poster (1922-04-06)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Ruth St. DenisMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Ruth St. Denis Christmas Party (1960-12)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

"I am a Dancer."

"I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God."  – Martha Graham

Martha Graham in the Greenwich Village FolliesMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Greenwich Village Follies

In 1923, John Murray Anderson saw Martha Graham dance in the Denishawn Company in New York City and engaged her to dance in the Greenwich Village Follies. Martha appeared in the Follies for two seasons and was paid $350 a week, a fortune at the time, to perform her Denishawn solos. 

Martha Graham in the Greenwich Village FolliesMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in the Greenwich Village Follies (circa. 1920's)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Scène Javanaise (1926) (1926-05-27)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

In 1925, Martha left the Greenwich Village Follies, moved to New York City, rented a studio at Carnegie Hall and began to choreograph what would be the beginnings of her life's work. 

Martha Graham (1926-04-18)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham's first solo concert was on April 18, 1926 at the 48th Street Theatre in New York City. The concert featured solos choreographed and performed by Martha Graham along with two pieces danced by her trio of women. The works were danced to the music of Schumann, Debussy, and Ravel amongst others. Former Denishawn musical director Louis Horst was the accompanist. Horst would remain at Martha's side for more than twenty years as a mentor and director.

Martha Graham in A Study in Lacquer (1926) (1926-04-18)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Désir (1926) (1926-11-28)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Baal Shem (1926) (1926-11-28)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Three Poem's of the East (1926) (1926)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham's Trio (1925)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

The Flute of Krishna (1926). Choreography by Martha Graham.

Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

The Dance (1927) The Dance (1927)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Revolt (1927) (1927-10-16)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Revolt (1929)

"Movement in the modern dance is the product not of invention but of discovery – discovery of what the body will do, and what it can do in the expression of emotion." – Martha Graham

"Seeking an American Art of the Dance" by Martha Graham "Seeking an American Art of the Dance" by Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Seeking an American art of the dance

In this powerful essay from Oliver Sayer's book "Revolt in the Arts", Martha Graham examines America's artistic position in dance. "Revolt in the Arts: A Survey of the Creation, Distribution, and Appreciation of Art in America" (1930), features additional essays contributed by "Thirty-Six Authorities in the Several Arts" including George Gershwin, Louis Bromfield, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Martha Graham in Le Sacre du Printemps (1930) (1930-04)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Le Sacre du Printemps (1930)

Graham was propelled into international fame when she starred as the Chosen One in the first American production of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). "When you have to do the same movement, do not get bored with yourself, just think of yourself as dancing toward your death. In the The Rite of Spring, when I danced the Chosen One, as I did so many continuous times, and came to the moment of finality, I thought of my rebirth." – Martha Graham

Martha Graham in Le Sacre du Printemps (1930) (1930-04)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham (1931)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

 “Virile gestures are evocative of the only true beauty. Ugliness may be actually beautiful if it cries out with the voice of power." – Martha Graham

Martha Graham (1931)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham (1931)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham (1931)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham (1931)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham Climbs the Pyramid of the Sun (1932)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Ekstasis (1933)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Ekstasis (1933)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Impossible Interview Impossible InterviewMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Praeludium (1935)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham in Praeludium (1935)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Portrait of Martha Graham in Frontier (1935) by Carlos DyerMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

"Martha Graham" by Edward BibermanMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

"Martha Graham Can Say 'NO!' – And Mean It" "Martha Graham Can Say 'NO!' – And Mean It"Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham to Portray Antigone Martha Graham to Portray AntigoneMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham is Miss Hush Martha Graham is Miss HushMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham and Helen KellerMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Helen Keller Visits Martha Graham's Dance StudioMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

New Images in Dance: Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille New Images in Dance: Martha Graham and Agnes DeMilleMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

"New Images in Dance"

“Now, there is a Graham technique, a Graham idiom, a Graham style. There are DeMille movements, gestures, hallmarks. But dance-wrights do not get to the top, at least they do not stay there, on technical tricks or personal mannerisms. One needs to look deeper – behind the innovations and beneath the surface texture – in order to explain the hold on her audience each has achieved and to understand whence it springs.” – George Beiswanger, “New Images in Dance : Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille”

Martha Graham (1930's)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

“No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time – it is just that others are behind the time.” – Martha Graham

Martha Graham and Andy Warhol (1986)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Letter to the World by Andy WarholMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Satyric Festival Song by Andy Warhol (1987)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham and Pope John Paul ll (1984-08)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham and First Lady Lady Bird JohnsonMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham with President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty FordMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy ReaganMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy OnassisMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham has had a deep and lasting impact on American art and culture. She single-handedly defined contemporary dance as a uniquely American art form, which the nation has in turn shared with the world. Crossing artistic boundaries, she collaborated with and commissioned work from the leading visual artists, musicians, and designers of her day, including sculptor Isamu Noguchi and composers Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Gian Carlo Menotti.

Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Graham influenced generations of choreographers that included Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp, altering the scope of dance. Classical ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov sought her out to broaden their artistry. Artists of all genres were eager to study and work with Graham—she taught actors including Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minelli, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, and Joanne Woodward to utilize their bodies as expressive instruments.

Martha GrahamMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

During her long and illustrious career, Graham created 181 dance compositions. During the Bicentennial she was granted the United States’ highest civilian honor, The Medal of Freedom. In 1998, TIME Magazine named her the “Dancer of the Century.” The first dancer to perform at the White House and to act as a cultural ambassador abroad, she captured the spirit of a nation. 

Sincerely Yours, Martha Graham (1975)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Credits: Story

Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc. All Rights Reserved

For more information, please visit us at http://marthagraham.org/

Curation by Oliver Tobin

Works Cited:

Armitage, Merle, and John Martin. Martha Graham. New York: Dance Horizons, 1966. Print.

Cunningham, Imogen, and Richard Lorenz. Imogen Cunningham, 1883-1976. Köln: Taschen, 2001. Print.

Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. New York: Doubleday, 1991. Print.

Mille, Agnes. Martha, The Life and Work of Martha Graham. New York: Random House, 1988. Print.

Morgan, Barbara Brooks. Martha Graham, Sixteen Dances in Photographs. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Morgan & Morgan, 1980. Print.

Sayler, Oliver M. Revolt in the Arts. New York: Brentano's, 1930. Print.

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