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Graham, Martha .                 more selected entries

Graham, Martha (b Allegheny, Pa, 11 May 1893; d New York City, 1 Apr 1991).

Modern dance pioneer. Martha Graham's strict but devoted father was a psychiatrist of Scots-Irish descent; her mother claimed Plymouth, Mass, pioneer Miles Standish as an ancestor. In 1908 the family, which included Graham's two younger sisters, moved to Santa Barbara, Calif. In 1911 Graham attended a Los Angeles concert of Ruth St. Denis, whose exotic dancing inspired Graham to imagine a future for herself as a dancer. After her father's death Graham enrolled at Denishawn, the California school founded by St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn, and in 1921 joined a New York City tour organized by Shawn. Graham spent several years with the Greenwich Village Follies before being hired in 1925 as co-director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where she began to develop a dance training mode based on a system of contractions and releases.

From 1926 Graham offered classes and prepared concerts in New York City. She taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse and at the studio she opened in Carnegie Hall, establishing the roots of what became the Graham School and Comp. Graham began producing dances of artistic substance at a time of mostly superficial work in the medium. Her work explored universal themes and psychological issues through powerful, theatrical storytelling, with choreography often featuring bold, expressive movements of the body different from the dances of St. Denis. She collaborated with her music director and lover, Louis Horst, who influenced Graham to work with the era's leading composers to create new scores for her dances. Her approach also eliminated unnecessary or distracting ornamentation in stage settings and costumes. Some dances focused on a female figure at the center of a heroic saga, such as Letter to the World (1940). Graham expanded the all-female company in 1938 to incorporate male performers and in 1944 developed her celebrated Appalachian Spring as a gift to dancer Erick Hawkins, an emerging force in the company. Graham and Hawkins, who starred together with Merce Cunningham in this production, married in 1948, separating a year later. While mainstream critics of the 1920s and 1930s had attacked Graham's productions, critics of the 1940s showered praise on Appalachian Spring, and in 1958, when 64-year-old Graham premiered her first full evening-length dance drama Clytemnestra, the work received worldwide recognition as one of the great choreographic contributions to modern theater.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when she was no longer choreographing for herself, Graham's style changed. Works such as Acts of Light (1980) revealed a new emphasis on technical virtuosity. Her descent into alcoholism and an increasingly cloistered existence in later life possibly reveal the personal price she paid for her dedication to dance. She died before the completion of Maple Leaf Rag (1991). Graham entered her field, above all, to perform—not to create dance technique or to become a great choreographer. But her legacy included the hundreds of works she choreographed, the many students she trained, and her tremendous influence on the century's art, theater, and dance.

DeMille, Agnes. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1956; repr New York: Vintage Books, 1992)

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

Susan A. Lee


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