Martha Graham (1894–1991)

She has been called the Picasso of dance, her impact on modern dance considered on a par with that of Pablo Picasso in the visual arts. Martha Graham, as dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was the foremost figure in dance in the 20th century, transforming classical ballet into an expressive, innovative art form that influenced everything from dance itself to lighting, stage design, and music. Her pupils included such dance greats as Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor, and her dance troupe, the Martha Graham Dance Company, is the oldest in the United States and still performing. In recognition of her achievements, Martha Graham was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford in 1976 and the Legion d’Honneur by the French government in 1984.

Graham’s vision of dance as giving “visible substance to things felt,” its movements an expression of inner feelings, was a radical departure from the codified traditions of classical ballet and revolutionized the way bodily movement was understood in the theater as well as the dance. “Out of emotion comes form,” she said, her innovative choreography an expression of her independent spirit. Graham choreographed more than 180 works in her career, performing in most of them and basing many of them on the narratives and rituals of Greek myth, Native Americans, and the Bible. She also created dances in collaboration with other artists such as sculptor Isamu Noguchi, with whom she worked for more than three decades. Her emphasis on intense emotion and unusual movements of the body sometimes startled American audiences, but she was acclaimed by actors, writers, and painters and attracted composers like Gian Carlo Menotti and Aaron Copland who wrote scores for her dances. Graham performed for eight American presidents as well as for European and Asian audiences abroad.

Perhaps her most admired work was Appalachian Spring, a love story with a message of social criticism that expressed her interest in American culture. It premiered in 1944, with sculptor Noguchi designing the innovative sets and Aaron Copland writing the Pulitzer Prize–winning score. Her lengthiest work, Clytemnestra (1958), an evening-long performance, told the story of the wife of Agamemnon from Homer’s Odyssey. Other biographical dance pieces included Death and Entrances about the Bronte sisters and Seraphic Dialogue about Joan of Arc, both of which expressed Graham’s interest in the struggles of talented women. For example, her dance piece based on the Oedipus story focused on the conflicts of his mother Jocasta, showing her as the tragic victim rather than Oedipus. Graham’s interest in Greek mythology, which she saw as the psychology of the ancients, was reflected in a series of dance compositions, including Errand into the Maze (1947) about the mysteries of the Minotaur in the maze of Greek legend, and Cave of the Heart about Medea. The stories of Alcestis (1960), Phaedra (1962), and Circe (1963) were the basis for other dance compositions.

An acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham emphasized emotion and movement, giving new expressiveness to the art of dance.

An acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham emphasized emotion and movement, giving new expressiveness to the art of dance. (Library of Congress/Carl Van Vechten Collection)

What distinguished Graham’s choreography were the unique movements, angular and distorted, that she taught her dancers as a way of expressing overt emotional and sometimes sexual feeling. She thought that the ballet, in its prescribed forms, left out passion. She proceeded to imbue dance movements with vivid postures, tremblings, and even falls to express emotion and reach the audience in a visceral rather than intellectual way. She said she wanted to “chart the graph of the heart.” It was a new vocabulary for the dance, full of tension, and Graham was constantly experimenting and adding to it.

She herself was an acclaimed dancer as well as a demanding teacher, pushing her own boundaries as well as those of her students to achieve her vision. It required great discipline and dedication. Dressed in her characteristic tube of stretch jersey, Graham took the leading role in all her dance pieces. She made a lean and angular figure on stage, seeking to be the emotion she was expressing by embodying grief or excitement in her movements. The technique she developed was based on the simple act of breathing, intensified on stage in dramatic inhaling and exhaling—spasms of contraction and release—to make the body a vehicle of emotional expression. The contraction phase gave the bodily sense of distortion and control, the release of the breath a freeing of emotion. Graham said she wanted dance to be less literal, more abstract, to cull the essence of an emotion. “Dance is not representational,” she declared at one point, recalling an abstract painting by Kandinsky that inspired her to “dance like that.”

One of her earliest dance pieces, Frontier, produced in 1935, exemplified the way she removed excess and presented a stark performance of dance forms. The stripped-down stage set was designed by sculptor Noguchi in his first of a series of collaborations with Graham, using just a rope and a fence fragment to stand for the American frontier. Later Noguchi would design sets for Graham’s works using sculpture instead of the customary flats and drops. Graham’s next work in 1936, Chronicle, introduced her trademark choreography and ushered in what would be a new era in the dance. The critical reception was hostile at first; her interpretations and dance movements seemed too experimental and radical to some critics. Though her dancers in the Martha Graham Dance Company were initially all female, in 1938 her first male dancer, Erick Hawkins, joined her troupe and danced with it for the next 10 years. Other male dancers joined the troupe at the time, including Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. Hawkins and Martha Graham were married in 1948, but separated and were divorced in 1954.

As a dancer, Graham had gotten a late start, relatively speaking, beginning her dance career only at 22 after graduation from Cumnock School, a junior college. She enrolled in the Los Angeles Denishawn School of Dancing and the Related Arts, run by dancer Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn. Graham then joined their Denishawn Dance Company, the only major dance group working outside the older classical ballet model. Its music director, Louis Horst, wrote the score for several of Graham’s works and eventually became her music director. Graham stayed with the company until 1923 and would always acknowledge its influence on her later works.

She then moved to the East Coast and spent two years dancing for the Greenwich Village Follies. In 1925, Graham took a job as a dance teacher with the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, then moved back to Manhattan, where she founded her own Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in 1926 and staged her first original dance concert. Her dance studio at the time was in Greenwich Village on lower Fifth Avenue near 13th Street. The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance is located now on East 63rd Street where it continues classes and performances of Graham’s work and recently launched a year-long program to explore the psychological aspects of the dance, “Inner Landscape.” The school building was acquired with the help of Lila Acheson Wallace, and Graham’s troupe and dance center received support from several other private individuals, including Frances Steloff, the founder of the Gotham Book Mart, Katherine Cornell, and the designer Halston. One of Graham’s prominent students in modern dance was heiress Bethsabee de Rothschild who later founded a dance company in Israel with Martha Graham as its first director. Graham helped establish the Bennington School of the Arts at Bennington College in Vermont where her experimental dance technique was taught. She took the lead role in Igor Stravin-sky’s production of Rite of Spring with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930, and from 1931 to 1935 toured the United States with a production of Electra, another of her heroines from Greek mythology.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her in 1938 to dance at the White House, and Graham would dance there for seven more presidents. President Gerald Ford, whose wife Betty had danced with Graham, awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976, and in 1984, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev invited her dance company to the Paris Opera where Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture, presented her with the Legion of Honor. Graham was inducted into the National Museum of Dance C. V. Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987. She won many other awards, one as the first dancer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, and received honorary degrees from Yale and Harvard and other universities.

Her career and her influence on the dance world spanned more than 50 years, but Graham gave her last dance performance in 1969 and reluctantly retired. She was 75. She continued to teach but her health declined and she turned to alcohol for solace. In her autobiography, Blood Memory, Graham wrote,

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 looked odd, which I agreed with. Finally my system just gave in. I was in the hospital for a long time, much of it in a coma.

Severely depressed, she attempted suicide. But in 1972, Graham rallied and began choreographing dance pieces again, including Maple Leaf Rag, her last, in 1990. She became ill in 1990 on her return from a 55-day tour with her troupe in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and died of pneumonia at the age of 96 on April 1, 1991, in New York City.

Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894, to George and Jane Beers Graham in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. She was the first of their three daughters. Her father was a doctor who treated nervous disorders. When Martha was 10 years old, the family moved to California and settled in Santa Barbara. After high school and junior college, she enrolled at the Ruth St. Denis School, Denishawn, and began the dance training that would lead to a lifelong career.

In her biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, choreographer Agnes DeMille quotes Graha’s comments on the obligations of being a dancer:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in ourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Martha Graham’s contributions to the dance have been compared to those of Stravinsky to music and James Joyce to literature. Her adage: “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that others are behind the time.”

—Mary Cross


DeMille, Agnes. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. New York: Random House, 1991.

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

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Martha Graham Dies at 96: A Revolutionary in Dance.” The New York Times, April 2, 1991. .