Martha Graham


Martha Graham (Pittsburgh, May 11, 1894 – New York, April 1, 1991) was an American dancer and choreographer.

She is considered by many the greatest American dancer of the twentieth century, as well as the “mother” of American modern dance. Supporter of “movement” as the highest form of expression, with the angular forms that she was able to take with her tiny but vibrant body, she was able to communicate the deepest emotions of the human soul.

His father was a psychiatrist. His family, rather well-to-do, in 1908 moved from Allegheny – a small town near Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) – to Santa Barbara, California.

In 1911, after seeing Ruth St. Denis” Radha solo, Martha decided to choose dance as a profession. From 1913 to 1916 she studied dance and theater at the Cumnock School of Expression in Los Angeles; in 1916 she entered the Denishawn School, the school founded in 1915 in Los Angeles by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, and between 1918 and 1923 she danced in some choreographies of the Denishawn Company, some created for her by Shawn himself.

In 1923 he left the Denishawn School and returned east to Rochester, New York, where he taught at the Eastman School of Rochester. She debuted in New York on April 18, 1926 with several choreographies of her own creation, on compositions by Alexander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, and Louis Horst, former musical director of Denishawn, who had left that company in 1925 to collaborate with her.

In 1926 she founded her first company, the Dance Group, formed by women only. At first, many of her choreographies were linked to social issues (Immigrant, Revolt) but it was in 1929, with the composition Heretic, that her original conception of dance manifested itself, the result of an extraordinary artistic maturity. The Thirties were marked by a great creative drive during which she created the solos Lamentation (1930) and Frontier (1935), for which she availed herself for the first time of the collaboration of the architect Isamu Noguchi for the scenic elements. For his company he created Primitive Mysteries (1931), Chronicle (1936), Deep Song and Immediate Tragedy (1937). In 1938 she created a new company, the Martha Graham Dance Company, also accepting the first male dancers, beginning with Erick Hawkins, who would later become her husband. In 1939 Merce Cunningham also joined the new company, and in 1955 Paul Taylor.

In the 1940s the company toured the United States and Cuba. Graham created El Penitente and Letter to the World (1940) and in 1944 created one of her most famous pieces, Appalachian Spring, again with scenic elements by Noguchi. The creations of 1946 and 1947 abounded in mythological themes: Cave of the Heart (Medea), Errand into the Maze (Minotaur), Night Journey (Oedipus and Jocasta). In 1948 she married Erik Hawkins and in 1969, at the age of seventy-five, she danced for the last time. The decision to abandon the stage in the next four years caused her a period of considerable depression that did not allow her to create new choreography until 1973.

In 1976 she was the first American dancer to receive the prestigious U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom (Medal of Fredom, with Distinction), from the hands of President Gerald Ford. The President”s wife, Betty Ford, had been a member of Graham”s dance company before her marriage.

In 1984 he received the medal of the Légion d”Honneur from the French government. on that occasion it was celebrated with a grand gala at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Martha Graham is considered the “mother” of American modern dance primarily because she created the first true technique of the “new” dance. Graham”s technique is based on the main physiological act of the human being: breathing, and is focused on the pelvis area, because it is there that life originates. Its main principle is the alternation of contraction and release.

– Contraction stands for “contraction”: during the exhalation phase the spine bends helped by a push of the dorsal muscles towards the ground and of the abdominal muscles back towards the spine and up towards the diaphragm.

– Release stands for “release” (not for “relaxation”!): in the next inhalation phase a thrust that always starts from the pelvis is transmitted along the entire spine, so the back is extended and the body reaches the point of maximum tension upwards.

The dynamics produced in the spine by the contraction-release movement can be assimilated to that of the bow and arrow (there is “contraction” when the arrow is positioned and the bow is curved, there is “release” at the shooting of the arrow, when the bow extends producing the dynamics of the launch of the arrow into space). So every moment of extension of the body is generated by the previous moment of energy collection at the center of the pelvis, as well as every phase of inhalation is generated by the previous phase of exhalation. So the cyclical repetition of the emptying of the lungs in order to be filled with new air corresponds to the cycle of energy that is concentrated in the central point of the body (origin of life), and then expand to the peripheral areas.

Many prominent dancers have worked in Martha Graham”s company, including: Bessie Schonberg, Evelyn Sabin, Martha Hill, Gertrude Shurr, Anna Sokolow, Nelle Fisher, Dorothy Bird, Bonnie Bird, Sophie Maslow, May O”Donnell, Jane Dudley, Anita Alvarez, Pearl Lang, Yuriko, Ethel Butler, Ethel Winter, Jean Erdman, Patricia Birch, Nina Fonaroff, Matt Turney, Mary Hinkson, Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, David Campbell, John Butler, Robert Cohan, Stuart Hodes, Glen Tetley, Bertram Ross, Paul Taylor, Mark Ryder, William Carte.

Graham also taught a number of actors and singers, including Woody Allen, Miguel Bosé and Madonna, the latter well before she achieved fame in the 1980s.

In 1935 she met the American photographer Barbara Morgan who for several years documented the work of Martha Graham”s dance company and others such as Merce Cunningham, Doris Humphrey and José Limón.From 1935 to 1945 Barbara Morgan captured the metamorphoses of Martha Graham”s body: a ritual, illustrative dance that gives feelings a physical expression. She produced a marvelous photographic work entitled Sixteen Dances in Photographs (1941), in which Graham”s most famous choreographies are documented, including the celebrated work Letter to the World, recently shown in a major exhibition in Venice at the Ikona Gallery (2006).

Yousuf Karsh, an Armenian photographer naturalized Canadian, in his photography of portraits also included the great dancer, in whom – as he saw it – he recognized “the essence of the extraordinary person”. In 1948 he portrayed Martha Graham, in a shot that has become iconic for the image of the great American choreographer, as it was for other personalities photographed for Life magazine: Winston Churchill, Georgia O”Keeffe, W. Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, Charles de Gaulle, Albert Einstein, Robert Borden, Yuri Gagarin, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Marshall McLuhan.

Foreign honors


  1. Martha Graham
  2. Martha Graham
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