Martha Graham (1894-1991

by Deborah Jowitt

Two years after Martha Graham’s death, a book propriety derived in part from the eastern
was published with the subtitle An Anatomy of climate and in part from the dictates of the
Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Scottish Presbyterian Church her family
Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and attended. The family’s move to Santa Barbara,
Gandhi. Not only was Graham the only woman California, changed her life. The sunshine,
in author Howard Gardner’s lineup, her ocean waves, and mild temperatures had a
inclusion was even more remarkable because liberating effect on a girl of fourteen. The social
choreographers are rarely listed among an era’s climate too—with its Chinese and Spanish
great thinkers and artists. Yet as early as the populations and its artistically inclined sun-
1930s, writers identified her as a “genius” and seekers—differed from that of straitlaced
linked her with Stravinsky and Picasso. Alleghany. It is not surprising that her
choreography frequently expressed a tension
Between 1926 and the year of her death, between puritanism and desire, between
Graham choreographed close to one hundred society’s decrees and freedom of spirit.
works, many of them—such as Appalachian
Spring, Night Journey, Deaths and Entrances, Professional Apprenticeship
and Primitive Mysteries—masterpieces. She Graham’s early years in dance— first as a
changed how dancers were perceived onstage, serious student and then as a performer of
devised new ways of moving and of structuring burgeoning talents—were spent in disguise. In
movement, and created a training system that 1911, she had seen Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968)
continues to teach dancers to re-fashion their in a solo program of dances that evoked the
bodies and souls into instruments for fierce mysticism of India and Ancient Egypt, and had
engagement. In addition to founding a company been enthralled by the mixture of glamour and
that endures today, she was instrumental in the spirituality that the artist conveyed. When St.
creation of others: Israel’s Batsheva Dance Denis and her husband, Ted Shawn (1891-
Company (1964), and the London 1972), opened their Hollywood school,
Contemporary Dance Company (1967). Denishawn, in 1915, Graham was among its first
pupils. In the early 1920s, on a concert tour
Like Doris Humphrey (1895-1958), Charles with Shawn and a Denishawn tour on the
Weidman (1901-1975), and others of her vaudeville circuit, she played, among other
generation who were considered pioneers of roles, a Javanese maiden, an Indian devadassi, a
modern dance in America, Graham aligned Siamese dancer, and starred as a tigerish
herself with the ideas, developments, and Mexican virgin in Shawn’s Zochitl (1921). Along
events of the twentieth century. As a result, the way, she received an education in
during her first six decades as a dancer and a theatricality, including the effects of stage
choreographer, she re-made herself and her lighting, the play of fabric, and the ability to
oeuvre several times—transforming the factual grasp and hold an audience’s attention.
and the narrative into passionate theatrical
abstractions. Becoming Martha Graham
Graham made her professional debut as a
Roots choreographer on April 18, 1926, in New York’s
One of three daughters born to a doctor who 48th Street Theatre, with a company of three
specialized in mental disorders and a mother students from her classes at the Eastman School
who claimed descent from Miles Standish, of Dance and Dramatic Action. Her solos, trios,
Graham spent her childhood years in two very and duets (many of them showing the
different environments. Her upbringing in Denishawn influence in their use of deftly
Alleghany, Pennsylvania was imbued with a managed draperies and orientalist imagery)

Copyright © 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition 1

The dance opening solo in Chronicle was titled “Spectre premiered seven months before the stock 1914. with expansion and an intake of breath. The filigree lines of art Horst. set against historical Like many writers and painters of the 1930s. In developing her dances. her of her first notable pieces. By 1928. as did her performing. radiated a together strands she had been working on for richer vision of simplicity. Lamentation (1930). dark.won considerable praise.” market crashed. clad in long.” Graham was interested what it meant to be an American artist. Graham suggested both a pioneer nouveau had given way to angularity and woman claiming the wilderness and an artist uncompromising modernism. of its recovery. her landmark piece of Adventures in Narrative 1931. the support of a the past five years. In this change of artistic vision. tightly recoiling and advancing. set within a V of much to Louis Horst (1884-1964). and marked Graham’s minstrel show in a highly abstract manner. her repertory included solo Deep Song have been considered as Immigrant and Poems of 1917. expressive work of the German dancer- choreographer Mary Wigman (1886-1973). as if in response to a implacable series of walls to block and menace blow or a sudden gasp. Primitive Mysteries. as well as the tempo of city life and jumping. Graham owed consisted of a homely fence. he had possibilities. she first important exploration of ritual. almost seconds. who wore a white gown and. She built a system referred to as completely encased in a confining jersey tube. by Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). with its allusion to Christian rituals among Graham’s 1938 American Document brought Native Americans of the Southwest. every fall contained the seeds obdurate responses. and in 1929. the pianist white ropes to convey a limitless perspective. but in its austerity and economy of means. she made dances music director and became hers. into her company and into her private roots. their thrusting gestures. Erick examine the country’s past and democratic Hawkins. personally with the ability to see them. Graham’s 1936 Chronicle and her 1937 choreography. While that conveyed wide horizons. Frontier’s set. with music by the ensuing Depression. undiscovered spending time in Vienna in 1925. formed an caving-in of the ribcage. texts recited by an “Interlocutor. His advent brought the possibility of new Copyright © 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition 2 . in which a sudden fitting dresses and severe turbans. claiming her independent artistic territory. she reactions to the Spanish Civil War and all that introduced an all-female group of twelve in one Adolf Hitler’s maneuvers might presage. “contraction and release”— an image of The women in Heretic. was followed by an Graham. their ability to social pressures of the 1930s. it could be said to presage In her epochal 1935 Frontier. as well as its challenging present. and composer who had been Denishawn’s And throughout the 1930s. Using the format of a group for an individual. Stamina attuned to the current interest in industrial and strength were required for their repeated design. Heretic. It was an spare gestures. part as a response to the rise of fascism in But gradually a sterner element invaded her Europe. queried and argued with their optimistic image. Graham also Graham herself—an avid reader with an intense developed a training system to make her interest in the visual arts and architecture—was women dancers stand for humanity. A compulsion among artists to American Document also brought a man. and the onward march of those become aware of the strong. She performed drop to the floor and return to standing in her innovative solo. arose in life. presented “episodes” that alluded to the displacement of Native Americans and the An American Vision enslavement of Africans.

such as Diversion of jealousy. (usually played by different dancers): for example. Mary Hinkson to depict past and present simultaneously and took on the title role in Circe (1963). Top. In Every Soul is a fears. with its ability would have assumed herself. Hawkins. and of beautiful. made the same year as contending with an addiction to alcohol that Appalachian Spring. into the past to examine her feelings and decisions. in addition to making solos for herself. Between 1938 and presented her own female version of the 1944. a trio for anguish. she first presented the culminated in a serious illness requiring several image of a heroine at some liminal stage of her hospitalizations. and emerges into the light. The same that she made thereafter—with the exception could also be said of the dances she made after Copyright © 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition 3 . Theseus battling the enigmatic. its montages and Graham often dealt with multiple personae dissolves.” (1960) and Phaedra (1962). the three “remembered children” dancers and in which she did not appear. in Deaths and Entrances. Often the protagonist begins by looking possible future. Also intertwined with and embedded in Graham’s works were her own histories and During the 1960s. in relation to Cubism. with glimpses into a couple’s tales. She had turned and her younger self in Clytemnestra (1958). Deaths and Entrances (1943) wove Night Journey (1947). domestic drama entered the Big movement vocabulary became less forthright. In Herodiade. in which she did not appear—she Cunningham and other men. This strategy helped to give of the House of Sleep. Jocasta in Crucifixion. having already created her works a kind of cinematic fluidity. Winter was Cleopatra in One More Gaudy Night (1961). Graham’s creative genius was dilemmas. flashbacks and flash-forwards. lyrical pieces. Following Hawkins came Merce Angels (1948). seventy-four when she made her last and the three aspects of Joan of Arc in Seraphic appearance on stage in May of 1968 in The Lady Dialogue (1963). in which the with towering figures from Greek mythology: Temptation in the Garden merges with the Medea in Cave of the Heart (1946). the two aspects of Emily Dickinson— Although Graham regularly choreographed one who spoke and one who danced—in Letter works that displayed the prowess of her superb to the World. It was perhaps her with its Noguchi décor and notable score by abiding interest in Japanese Noh drama that led Aaron Copland (1900-1990)—centered on a her to make use of memory in telling these pioneer wedding. the eponymous heroines of Alcestis the last and greatest of her “American dances. Graham’s Circus (1939). Only a few of the nineteen life—a threshold that she has to cross in order dances she made between 1960 and 1969 could to arrive at her destiny. Ethel intertwined.themes that dealt with desire. In almost all the dances be ranked with her masterpieces. dreamlike passages related to the Minotaur in the duet Errand into the Maze Brontë sisters. archetypal hero she discovered in the writings Graham explored devices for devising dramas— of Carl Jung: the artist-heroine who descends some lighthearted. the mature heroine performing was vital to her. herself. competition. and Cunningham. with Graham herself as an indecisive although no less powerful. she drew on her visits to the American Southwest to create a In many of these works. and Appalachian Spring (1944)— (1947). In El Penitente (1940). battles her progress in a linear fashion. it can be for other company dancers roles she once seen. The dancers’ bodies Empress of the Arena and Hawkins as the twisted and torqued to convey indecision or Ringmaster. a device that promotes a narrative Mythic Voyages texture as flexible as that of film with its In these dramatic dances and later ones. Graham aligned herself little village play within a dance. too. some dark— that didn’t into the depths of her unconscious.

has endured. His Theater. she revived great works from her past and saw to it that these were filmed. Deborah Jowitt began her career as a performer and choreographer and covered dance for The Village Voice from 1967 to 2011.she recovered in 1973 and resumed control of her company. She has published two collections: Dance Beat (1977) and The Dance in Mind (1985). although at least two pieces. she received an important award every year from organizations around the world eager to salute a creative genius who had reinvented dance in the twentieth century. She edited and contributed to Meredith Monk (1997). as well as teaching in the Dance Department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. and she continued to receive honors. and her last work. She lectures and conducts workshops worldwide. the light-hearted Maple Leaf Rag (1990). In the last decade of her life. Copyright © 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition 4 . She continued to make dances. right up to the end. Her company had been acclaimed in Europe and Asia. and to groom young dancers. And during her final years. His Dance (2004). Her essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. in addition to Time and the Dancing Image (1988) and Jerome Robbins: His Life. however. Acts of Light (1981) and Rite of Spring (1984) received considerable praise.