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Martha Graham is widely recognized as a primal artistic force of the 20th Century. In 1998, Time Magazine named Martha Graham as the “Dancer of the Century”, and People Magazine named her among the female “Icons of the Century”. As a choreographer she was as prolific as she was complex.
She created 181 dances and a dance technique that has been compared to ballet. Many of the great modern and ballet choreographers have studied the Martha Graham Technique or have been members of the company.
Martha Graham’s journey as a dancer and creator began in 1916 when she joined the Denishawn School headed by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. For five years she studied and danced the Denishawn style which was described as “airy and ethereal”. After leaving Denishawn in 1923, Martha Graham began creating her own dances — at first influenced by her Denishawn training, but rapidly evolving into a revolutionary style uniquely her own. In developing her technique, she experimented endlessly with basic human movement, beginning with the most elemental movements of contraction and release. Using the principals of contraction and release as the foundation of her technique, Martha Graham built a vocabulary of movement that would “increase the emotional activity of the dancer’s body”. Graham’s dancing and choreography exposed the depths of human emotion through movements that were sharp, angular, jagged, and direct.
Martha Graham’s ballets were inspired by a wide variety of sources, including modern painting, the American frontier, religious ceremonies of Native Americans, and Greek mythology. Many of her most important roles portray great women of history and mythology: Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Medea, Phaedra, Joan of Arc, and Emily Dickinson.
As an artist, Martha Graham conceived each new work in its entirety — dance, costumes, and music. During her 70 years of creating dances, Martha Graham collaborated with such artists as sculptor Isamu Noguchi; actor and director John Houseman; fashion designers Halston, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein; and renowned composers including Aaron Copland, Louis Horst (her mentor), Samuel Barber, William Schuman, and Gian Carlo Menotti. Her company was the training ground for future modern choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp. She created roles for classical ballet stars including Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, welcoming them as guests into her company. In charge of movement and dance at The Neighborhood Playhouse, she taught actors including Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Anne Jackson, and Joanne Woodward, teaching the use of the body as an expressive instrument.
Her uniquely American vision and creative genius earned her numerous honors and awards such as the Laurel Leaf of the American Composers Alliance in 1959 for her service to music. Her colleagues in theater, the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local One, voted her the recipient of the l986 Local One Centennial Award for dance not to be awarded for another 100 years. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford bestowed on Martha Graham the United States’ highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, and declared her a “National Treasure,” making her the first dancer and choreographer to receive this honor. Another Presidential honor was awarded Martha Graham in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan designated her among the first recipients of the United States’ National Medal of Arts.
Martha Graham’s extraordinary artistic legacy has often been compared to the Stanislavsky Art Theatre in Moscow and the Grand Kabuki Theatre of Japan for its diversity and breadth. Her legacy continues to be perpetrated in performance by the members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Dance Ensemble, and by the students of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.
Martha Graham was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on May 11, 1894, and died in New York City on April 1, 1991. Her autobiography, Blood Memory, was published by Doubleday in September 1991, edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.