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Home > Dance Biography

Biography of Martha Graham

Martha Graham changed the lifescape of dance forever. Her endless chains to dance brought the world into an era of modern movement and realism. We saw displays of soulfulness with full range of emotions crackling like fire. Martha had to dance, she had no choice; it was her passion.

Martha is regarded as one of the principal pioneers of modern dance. Graham paved a road for the dance world like none other. She danced and choreographed for her entire life and received several honors such as getting the key to the city of Paris and receiving the Imperial Order of the Precious Crown in Japan. She blazed a path into the world by being the first dancer to become a cultural ambassador, to perform at The White House and to be awarded the Medal of Freedom; the highest civilian award.

Martha Graham

Martha Graham's life spanned from May 11th, 1894 to April 1st, 1991. She was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania into to a well to do Presbyterian family. Martha was the oldest of her siblings, her father worked in the field of psychiatry and her mother took care of the family. By the time Martha was 14, her family decided to move to California to the city of Santa Barbara in search of a cure for her sisters respiratory condition. Sunny Santa Barbara was quite the contrast to Pennsylvania and it made an impression on Martha.

Two years later, at the age of sixteen, Martha found herself interested in dance. She spotted a poster for a dance performance in Los Angeles by Ruth St. Denis and she had to go. The performance was a revelation to her; she decided at that moment that she would devote her life to dance. Her family was not happy of this news, they expected their daughter to persue a higher occupation such as a doctor, lawyer or scientist. She had no choice though, she had to dance.
At this time, the high profile dance world consisted mainly of ballet and burlesque/vaudeville and folk dancing.

Martha wasn’t interested in those disciplines, she had her eye on Ruth St. Denis, a dance pioneer who was starting to redefine the concept of American dance. Denis's dancing had a natural flow, and she danced with bare feet. Simutaneously, dancers such as Isadora Duncan were building the foundation of what Graham would later adopt. However important their influences were to Martha’s development; their progress in dance was small compared to what Martha would later create.

Martha Graham

At the age of twenty, Martha enrolled herself into the Denishawn Dance School, and began studying under Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. At first site, the school told her she didn’t have the right body type to make it in dance and that she was much too old to start. Martha didn’t let that stop her from perservering in her art, her consistantency and passion led her to work incredibly hard, and she was able to train her body to great precision.

Graham became one of the best dancers and was accepted into the company. They toured for years and she then decided at a certain point that she was to move to New York for more opportunity. She became a Broadway dancer with Greenwich Village Follies. At the age of thirty she took an instructor position at the Eastman School of Music where she became a director of their brand new dance department. She took pleasure in teaching but had issues with bureaucracy of the school.

She then decided to choreograph some of her first dances and created a dance company. In 1926 her first show debuted. As she continued to choreograph, her dances started becoming more and more revalutionary. Her breakthrough was in 1929 with "Heretic” and in 1930 in "Lamentation".

Graham's early work wasn’t well-received by audiences. Dance audiences were used to seeing dance as a form of soothment. They’d go to Broadway or the ballet to cheer them up or to be entertained, not to think and to feel. Martha was not providing the type of dance that merely entertained. She was using dance as more of a therapy or a guinea pig in her world of emotional chaos and passion. Martha’s style was infused with strong, precise movement and energy charged abdominal contractions as well as controlled falling and rising. She actually despised the term "modern dance", she much rather preferred the term "contemporary dance." Her idea was that the concept of "modern" was constantly evolving and was thus not correct as a definition.

Martha Graham

Martha then directed the dance department at New York University and later became one of the founders of Julliard, a now prominent University of the arts.

Graham married in 1948, to her junior Erick Hawkins who was a principal dancer with her company. Then her mother passed away in Santa Barbara in 1958.

For a majority of her life Graham would not allow the filming or photography of her dances. She only wished them to be live in fear that they wouldn’t hold their meaning or impact otherwise. At one point she did make a few exceptions and that is why we are able to view her works today.

Martha continued dancing well into her 60’s, she could not bare to leave the stage and the world of dance. She became depressed when she found her body wasn’t working the same and turned to alchol in despair.

The new generation pf dancers who had learned of her did not pick up on why the world revered her so much. They witnessed dancing which at times seemed more acted out than danced. It too much relied on the movement of the company dancing around the soloist roles…which were created by Martha for Martha.

Graham's love of dancing was so passionate that she wouldn’t leave the stage though critics said she was past her prime. When the voice of the critics grew, Graham retired from the stage. Her final performance was when she was 76 years old.

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