Hailed as one of the most innovative and accomplished dancers and choreographers of the last century, the way in which Martha Graham moved in dance and expressed her creativity through body motion reshaped the dance in a way that has been compared to the way Picasso changed visual art and Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned architecture.
Martha Graham’s influence on the dance and ballet has reached as far as instruction to some of the top names in Hollywood including Bette Davis, Liza Minelli and Madonna. Here are five of the reasons why she is one of the greatest references in the history of dance.
(Cennarium’s exclusive official production of the Martha Graham Dance Company is available for you to watch today! See and appreciate why Graham is an icon in the dance realm.)
1. She had extensive training, education and experience.
Born in a Pennsylvania in 1894 Graham has an early influence in dance by her father who was a doctor that dedicated his career to helping those with nervous disorders. He taught her at a young age that he believed the human body was expressive and could articulate the inner senses perfectly. It is evident with her dance abilities and cross genre achievements would stem from this very point where she started with her father.
It was when her family moved to California in the early 1900’s that Graham watched Ruth St. Denis perform. They attended a performance at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles and from that moment on Graham knew she wanted to study dance. Yet, no matter how passionate she was her parents, devout Presbyterians, would not admit her to do so.
Yet, her love for the dance never left her so as soon as she could Graham took up courses at a junior college that focused on the arts. Unfortunately, it took her father’s death to enable Graham to move forward with her training and education. Graham enrolled at the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, which was a school opened by St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn. Graham would spend eight years of her life studying at the Denishawn school as a student and an educator.
After her time learning from Ted Shawn, Graham decided to break out on her own and take on the professional arena of dance and ballet. The production of “Xochitl” was choreographed for Graham and her style by Shawn. Graham’s role was that of a maiden in the Aztec empire and critic raved about her highly demonstrative performance.
In 1923 Graham left the Demishawn school and traveled to New York and began to perform with the Greenwich Village Follies. From there she moved on to instruct at the Eastman School of Music and Theater and the John Murray Anderson School, both in New York.
2. Graham’s style spanned creative genres
Even though her style was considered unconventional at the time, Graham’s dancing blazed in popularity and she continually had artists of many genres asking to work with her. People who worked with painting, sculpting, music and design of any kind wanted to incorporate the Graham style of dancing into their work. Some of the names who are connected with Graham include Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, composer Aaron Copland, ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The latter two reached out to Graham to expand their talents and bring a new look to the classic dance.
Other famous artists that have worked with Graham include Kirk Douglas, Liza Minelli, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall and Joanne Woodward. It was her unique style that drew her such esteemed attention from the celebrity and artistic world.
3. The ideologies she was able to reach via dance are endless.
Not only was her dancing specific to herself, Graham didn’t shy away from using her movements to express the themes that were important to her, and the world, in that day. Her work covered political subjects, social commentary, psychological experiments and premises that were groundbreaking.
When she was making and debuting Chronicle in 1936 Martha Graham received a request from Adolf Hitler to dance at the International Arts Festival, which was being produced alongside the Olympics. The dancer turned it down on her political beliefs.
Also, a great deal of Graham’s work focused on the individual opposed to a group. Her work was known to be filled with spastic movements that were jarring opposed to the graceful ballerina the populace was familiar with. Still, in the face of being ridiculed, Graham stayed the course and delivered her vision. It was her conviction that her style of dance expressed emotional and spiritual nuances that she believed our society did not acknowledge.
4. Her body of work is extensive
As a dancer Martha Graham has performed in many productions but her most astounding accomplishment is the length of ballets in which she choreographed. From 1926 until 1991 crafted nearly 200 dances that range from single performances to grand productions. She also performed in most of them as a dancer.
Some of her works include Chorale, Revolt, Scherza, Heretic, Lamentation, Romeo and Juliet, Chronicle, El Penitente, Punch and Judy and Maple Leaf Rag.
It was evident when she was dancing in Three Gopi Maidens in 1926 that her education was deeply rooted into the Denishawn style. Yet the very next year she shed this style and focused on developing her own specific style. It would take Graham a decade of creating a matchless style of dance before it took hold with critics and audiences.
Revolt was a particular work that Graham utilized to express her political ideologies and it was the first of its kind in the United States. The music for Revolt was composed in an avant-garde style by Arthur Honegger. The reception was not positive when they saw her dressed in the simple dress that became her trademark and not in the elaborate costumes they were used to from her days in the Denishawn style.
It was in her work Frontier that Graham focused on the accomplishment of women at a time when new lands were being discovered. In Night Journey, Graham used her dance techniques to express the emotions of Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus. Instead of the plot surrounding Oedipus and his mistake of marrying a woman who turns out to be his, this work portrays his mother’s point of view from the moment she discovers she has had children with her own son.
Another important work was Letter to the World where the main focus was Emily Dickenson. It is evident female achievements were important to Martha Graham and her vast body of work exemplifies how much of a feminist she was, whether or not she ever subscribed to the moniker.
5. Graham’s style is unmistakably American
Because Martha Graham spent so much time working on her own technique in the world of dance her style and a references to it are considered an American treasure. Getting this type of recognition was not easy and Graham found obstacles from the very beginning.
At the start, when she broke away from her educational variety of movement and began using body actions to portray more jagged and bursting jumps and steps, the critics called her work “ugly” and denoted her cavorting as obscure and blunt. Still, as any true visionary will, Graham did her best to ignore the criticism and continued on her pursuit of discovery in the dance.
Once her style was recognized for the original talent it was her work would become more and more treasured. It is considered a turning point in American dance. Luckily, Martha Graham opened a school that focuses on teaching the individual and how to incorporate the Martha Graham style into their dance. Today, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance is the longest running dance school in the United States. It is also linked with the National Association of Schools of Dance.
Graham’s school of dance draws attention from students born in every corner of our globe. This is because this is the only school where her specific technique is the primary style taught as well as her repertoire of work.
Not only is the distinguishable Graham style of dancing taught in her school but it is also a major theme in the Martha Graham Dance Company which continues to broaden the terminology associated with contemporary dance. Many of our most astounding dancers and choreographers have worked and developed their own individual style while they were a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Some of them include Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Pascal Rioult and Pearl Lang.
Even though she passed on in April of 1991 at the age of ninety-six, Martha Graham’s cultural influence on the dance and other artistic realms is still evident today. The Company has a great deal to do with that because it enfolds the Graham ideologies in regards to politics and social issues. The current company also remains loyal to the many works created by their founder as well as making room for new choreographed works to be showcased. If anyone was into bringing in a new perspective, it was the innovator Martha Graham.
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