Who was Martha Graham?

Nothing more than the greatest American dancer and choreographer of the XX century, she’s been defined a fundamental creative mind with a leading role, not only in contemporary dance, but in the whole artistic scene, such as Picasso and Kandinsky. During her life she created 181 choreographs and she was the first dancer to perform at the White house.

She was born in Pittsburg in 1894, and in 1926 she founded the Martha Graham Dance Company, to talk about real emotions, through dance and body movements, and this was, precisely, the core of her Graham Technique. She broke the rules in dance field: she studied the people, to see how they move themselves, how they react to feelings, and especially, how their bodies -our bodies- react to emotions. She built a language based on energy, and on the need of dancers, to expand their body, to fill the space; she discovered that different human emotions deal with breathing, and with body contraction and release, hence her famous contract-release.

martha graham by barbara morgan


“I wanted to begin not with characters or ideas, but with movements… I wanted significant movement. I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.”

According to her technique, and her choreographs, the movements are often dramatic, powerful and vibrant. The dancers should bring their own emotions and experience into the movements, to experiment and explore individual ways of creating art, and not just reproduce what someone else did.

[Christine Dakin, former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company]

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Since its foundation in 1926, the Martha Graham Dance Company unfolded the leading role to develop contemporary dance, and taught to many famous dancers and choreographers including Merce Cunningham. She worked as choreographer until her death in 1991. After that, the company lived a though moment, and it almost disappeared. Graham’s heirs banned the company from dancing her choreographs, so a legal battle started between the two parts, ended in 2005, when the company took up its work again tirelessly till now. Last year the company celebrated its 90th anniversary.

“I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. 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.”

Martha Graham collaborated with great artists for her ballets, especially with one sculptor, the Japanese Isamu Noguchi. Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, remembers the brilliant collaboration:

“They were the revolutionaries. They broke the mold… rejecting the decorative arts of Europe and finding an American art form that was plain-spoken and stripped down, with stark, modern ways of speaking as a dancer and as a sculptor.”

Isamu Noguchi made the set design of about 20 sets among the most famous Graham’s ballets, including those for her series based on Greek myths and religious themes: Herodiade (1944), Cave of the Heart (1946), Errand into the Maze (1947), Night Journey (1947),Judith (1950), Seraphic Dialogue (1955), Clytemnestra (1958), Embattled Garden (1958), Alcestis (1960), Phaedra (1962), Circe (1963), and Cartege of Eagles (1966).

Noguchi and Graham started a friendship in 1929 for some art commissions she gave to him, and then began to work together with Graham’s 1935 solo dance, Frontier. Noguchi says:

“In our work together, it is Martha who comes to me with the idea, the theme, the myth upon which the piece is to based. […] She will tell me if she has any special requirements […] The form is then my projection of these ideas. I always work with a scale model of the stage space in my studio. With Martha, there is the wonder of her magic with props. She uses them as extensions of her own anatomy.”

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Among her vibrant choreographs:

  • Cave of the heart

Based on the Greek myth of Medea, this piece from 1946 was originally called Serpent Heart: the choreography is a psychological study of the destructive power of love, the dark passion inside human heart. The Japanese sculptor-designer Isamu Noguchi created a Spider Dress for the character of Medea, a cage actually more than a dress, a symbolic garment that she wears at the end, when she has destroyed everything around her.

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  • Maple Leaf Rag

This was the last dance choreographed by Martha Graham, and was first performed in New York in 1990. She put on stage the phobias of a contemporary choreographer (like herself) and the though moments of the artist during the creative process, through a whirlwind of undisciplined dancers. It’s a humorous and loving tribute to the choreographic muse, and to Scott Joplin’s music, costumes by Calvin Klein.martha graham maple leaf rag

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