Martha Graham

(11 May 1894 – 1 April 1991)

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Martha Graham’s revolutionary vision and artistic mastery has had a deep and lasting impact on American art and culture. Her bold use of socially infused subjects and emotionally charged performances single-handedly defined contemporary dance as a uniquely American art form, which the nation has in turn shared with the world. Graham’s creativity crossed artistic boundaries and embraced every artistic genre. She collaborated with and commissioned work from the leading visual artists, musicians, and designers of her day. Graham’s groundbreaking style grew from her experimentation with the elemental movements of contraction and release. By focusing on the basic activities of the human form, she enlivened the body with raw, electric emotion. The sharp, angular, and direct movements of her technique were a dramatic departure from the predominant style of the time.With an artistic practice deeply ingrained in the rhythm of American life and the struggles of the individual, Graham brought a distinctly American sensibility to every theme she explored. The innovative choreography and visual imagery of ‘American Document’ (1938) exemplified Graham’s genius. The dramatic narrative, which included the Company’s first male dancer, explored the concept of what it means to be American. Through the representation of important American cultural groups such as Native Americans, African-Americans, and Puritans and the integration of text from historical American documents, Graham was able to capture the soul of the American people.

During her long and illustrious career, Graham created 181 masterpiece dance compositions, which continue to challenge and inspire generations of performers and audiences. In 1986, she was given the Local One Centennial Award for dance by her theater colleagues, awarded only once every 100 years, and 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 and expanded the boundaries of contemporary dance. “I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer,” she said. “It’s permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable.”