Martha Graham

Eyridiki Sellou | Sep 28, 2022

Table of Content


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

She is considered by many to be the greatest American dancer of the 20th century and the "mother" of modern American dance. An advocate of "movement" as the highest form of expression, she knew how to communicate the deepest emotions of the human soul with the angular forms she could assume with her petite but vibrant body.

His father was a psychiatric physician. His rather well-off family moved in 1908 from Allegheny-small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-to Santa Barbara, California.

In 1911, after witnessing Ruth St. Denis' Radha solo, Martha decided to choose dance as her profession. She felt that moment would shape her future, as she later recounted. 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 a number of Denishawn Company choreographies, some created for her by Shawn himself.

In 1923 he left the Denishawn School and returned to the East, to Rochester, New York, where he taught at the "Eastman School of Rochester." She debuted in New York City on April 18, 1926, with several choreographies of her own creation, to 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 work with her.

In 1926 she founded her first company, the Dance Group, consisting only of women. At first many of her choreographies were related to social themes (Immigrant, Revolt), but it was in 1929, with the composition Heretic, that her original conception of dance, the result of an extraordinary artistic maturation, manifested itself. The 1930s were marked by a great creative drive during which he created the solos Lamentation (1930) and Frontier (1935), for which he first enlisted the collaboration of 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 its 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 she created one of her most famous pieces, Appalachian Spring, again with scenic elements by Noguchi. Creations in 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. In 1969, at the age of seventy-five, she danced for the last time. Her decision to leave the stage over the next four years caused 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) honor 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 he was celebrated with a grand gala at Lincoln Center in New York.

Martha Graham is considered the "mother" of modern American dance mainly because she created the first real technique of the "new" dance. The Graham technique is based on the main physiological act of the human being: breathing, and it focuses on the pelvis area, because that is where life originates. Its guiding principle is that of alternating contraction and release.

- Contraction stands for "contraction": during the exhalation phase the spine bends aided by a push of the back muscles toward the ground and the abdominal muscles back toward the spine and up toward the diaphragm.

- Release stands for "release" (not "relaxation"!): in the next phase of inhalation 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 upward tension.

The dynamics produced in the spine by the contraction-release movement can be likened to that of the bow and arrow (there is "contraction" when the arrow is placed and the bow is recurved, there is "release" at the shooting of the arrow, when the bow extends producing the dynamics of the shooting of the arrow into space). So each moment of body extension is generated by the previous moment of energy gathering in the center of the pelvis, just as each phase of inhalation is generated by the previous phase of exhalation. Thus the cyclic repetition of the emptying of the lungs in order to be filled with new air corresponds to the cycle of energy that is concentrated at the central point of the body (the zone of origin of life), in order to expand to the peripheral zones.

Many prominent dancers worked in Martha Graham's company, among them: 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 was also the teacher of a number of actors and singers, including Woody Allen, Miguel Bosé and Madonna: the latter attended dance classes before achieving fame in the 1980s, and she dedicated her fourteenth album Madame X to the teacher.

In 1935 she met 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 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 revived in a major exhibition in Venice at the Ikona Gallery (2006).

Yousuf Karsh, an Armenian photographer naturalized Canadian, also included in his portrait photography the great dancer, in whom - on closer inspection - 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 the 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.


  1. Martha Graham
  2. Martha Graham
  3. ^ a b "TIME 100: Martha Graham". Time. August 6, 1998. Archived from the original on July 6, 2011.
  4. ^ The Dancer Revealed, American Masters: Season 8, Episode 2, PBS, May 13, 1994.
  5. ^ "Mission and History". Martha Graham School. Retrieved March 26, 2021.
  6. ^ Agnes de Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. New York, Random House, (1991). ISBN 0-394-55643-7
  7. ^ (EN) Evan Real, Madonna Talks ‘Madame X,’ Classic Hits and Running for President at iHeartRadio Event, su The Hollywood Reporter, 21 giugno 2019. URL consultato l'11 maggio 2022.
  8. ^ "Con la sua arte Barbara Morgan rivela il paesaggio interiore che costituisce l'universo del ballerino" [Martha Graham].
  9. ^ In Search of Greatness: Reflections of Yousuf Karsh, autobiografia, 1962.
  10. ^ National Medal of Arts
  11. «Martha Graham, 90 años de danza moderna». ELMUNDO. 24 de mayo de 2017. Consultado el 9 de marzo de 2021.
  12. de Mille, Agnes (1991). Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. NYC: Random House. p. 264. ISBN 0-394-55643-7

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