Martha Graham

(11th May 1894 – 1st April 1991)

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Martha Graham was born in 1894 in a small city outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1908, the Graham family moved to Santa Barbara, California. Graham finished her secondary schooling, attended a school of dramatics for three years, and then in 1916 began studying at Denishawn. During the next seven years, Graham evolved from a student, to a teacher, to one of the company’s best-known performers. She often worked as Ted Shawn’s partner, and became the co-star of “Xochtil,” his famous duet about an Indian girl and an Aztec emperor.Graham left Denishawn in 1923 to take a job with the Greenwich Village Follies, where she gained a reputation for her ballet ballads. In the next three years, she became a part of the Greenwich Village art scene. In 1925 she left the Follies to begin an independent career. In order to support herself during this period, she took teaching positions at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY and the John Murray Anderson School in NYC.
On April 18, 1926, her company, featuring students from Eastman, debuted in New York City. The program was heavily derived from the Denishawn repertory, featuring Graham in exotic solos and her students in a ballet ballad called “The Flute Of Krishna.By 1927, Graham had resigned from the faculties of the Eastman and Anderson schools and was working full-time as a dancer and choreographer in New York City. She soon began working with Louis Horst, whom she knew from Denishawn, where he had been the musical director and resident accompaniest. Horst was a major figure in the modern dance scene of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. For a period of time in the 1930s, he was the accompaniest for almost all of the leading dancers in New York City. But his closest association was with Martha Graham, whose artistic vision he remained devoted to throughout his lifetime. Horst introduced Graham to the work of the great German modern dancer, Mary Wigman, and to the innovations of the school of modern painting. But perhaps most importantly, Horst taught Graham about musical form and encouraged her to work with contemporary composers rather than making dances to eighteenth and nineteenth-century music, as her solo dance predecessors had done.Though the dances Graham created in the late 1920s were derivative of Denishawn pieces, by 1930 she was beginning to identify a new system of movement and new principles of choreography. Based on her own interpretation of the Delsartean principle of tension and relaxation, Graham identified a method of breathing and impulse control she called “contraction and release.” For her, movement originated in the tension of a contracted muscle, and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed. This method of muscle control gave Graham’s dances and dancers a hard, angular look, one that was very unfamiliar to dance audiences used to the smooth, lyrical bodily motions of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. In her first reviews, as a result, Graham was often accused of dancing in an “ugly” way
But critics and audiences soon became accustomed to Graham’s innovative style of movement and she developed a following among serious dance patrons, scholars and critics. During the early 1930s, her work was focused on emotional themes. Her famous solo, “Lamentation,” for example, was a portrait of a grieving women, sitting alone on a bench and moving to an anguished Kodaly piano score. The scholar Elizabeth Kendall has written that “Lamentation (image)” is both a piece about the emotion of grief and a visual homage to contemporary architecture, most notably the new skyscrapers that were beginning to fill the New York skyline. She describes Graham’s figure in the dance as “a skyscraper reeling,” making a connection between the two impulses of Graham’s aesthetic vision.After a trip to the American Southwest in 1931, Graham became interested in making dances on the theme of American history. In “Primitive Mysteries,” the choreographer combined her interest in the religious rites of American Indians with an exporation of other religious rites, including pagan and Catholic ceremonies. In this 1931 work, Graham danced the priestess figure called the Virgin, and her ensemble become the society of independent women who surround her and worship her. “Primitive Mysteries” represents a number of important advances for Graham. The narrative of the dance was not presented in a literal way, but used only a pure, abstract movement vocabulary to bring its story to life. This was Graham’s first critical masterpiece, garnering attention from critics, artists and audiences around the world.In 1938 Erick Hawkins was the first man to dance with her company. The following year, he officially joined her troupe, dancing male lead in a number of Graham’s works. They were married in 1948. He left her troupe in 1951 and they divorced in 1954.

In her biography Martha Agnes de Mille cites Graham’s last performance as the evening of May 25, 1968, in a “Time of Snow”. But in A Dancer’s Life biographer Russell Freedman lists the year of Graham’s final performance as 1969. In her 1991 autobiography, Blood Memory, Graham herself lists her final performance as her 1970 appearance in “Cortege of Eagles” when she was 76 years old.
In the years that followed her departure from the stage Graham sank into a deep depression fueled by views from the wings of young dancers performing many of the dances she had choreographed for herself and her former husband. Graham’s health declined precipitously as she abused alcohol to numb her pain. After a failed suicide attempt she was hospitalized. Graham not only survived her hospital stay but she rallied. In 1972 she quit drinking, returned to her studio, reorganized her company and went on to choreograph ten new ballets and many revivals.

Martha Graham died in 1991, after a career that lasted 75 years and produced some of the greatest masterpieces of the American modern dance. The Martha Graham Dance Company is still a vital force and can be seen in residence in New York City and on tour.

 

Martha Graham – Lamentation