Martha Graham is considered the principal founder of modern dance in America. Her choreography didn’t begin with a pre-existing movement vocabulary (as does ballet), but exploited the individual dancer’s unique way of moving. Graham created dances distinguished by their expressive qualities and by the way they acknowledged gravity; before Graham, dancers usually pretended they were lighter than air, not subject to the same laws of gravity that affect mere mortals.
Born in Allegheny, PA, on May 11, 1894, Graham moved with her family to Santa Barbara, CA, when she was 14. After her father took her to Los Angeles to attend a performance by dancer Ruth St. Denis in 1911, she enrolled in her first dance lesson. She eventually became a student of the Denishawn school established by St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn. After several years with Denishawn, Graham went to New York and joined the cast of the Greenwich Village Follies, a Broadway musical and comedy revue, but she longed to develop a style of her own.
A decade after her first dance lesson, Graham established her own company, starring in productions that were distinguished by their sharp, angular movements and blunt gestures imbued with tension and pathos. Graham sought to bypass the wall of the intellect, intending that her audiences should feel what they had witnessed rather than understand it. In Lamentation (1930), Graham danced a powerful solo performance in which she did not merely describe but embodied the emotion of sadness. Graham’s revolutionary style, often utilizing unadorned costumes and minimalist sets, met with ridicule as well as acclaim.
The American experience influenced some of her finest works, as in Letter to the World (1940), which portrays the life of poet Emily Dickinson. Appalachian Spring (1944), danced to music by Aaron Copland, expressed the optimism of a young nation and became one of Graham’s best-known works.
In 1969, at the age of 75, Graham gave her last performance in The Lady of the House of Sleep. She continued to choreograph, teach, and travel with her company until her death at the age of 96. An acknowledged genius in the world of dance, Graham choreographed more than 180 works in her lifetime. She died on April 1, 1991, at her home in New York City.