A Brief History of the Mother of Modern Dance: Martha Graham

In 1911 Graham spotted a poster of dance legend Ruth St. Dennis in a store, advertising her performance, and begged her father to take her to the performance in Los Angeles, which he did. She came to worship Ruth St. Dennis and five years later went back to Los Angeles for a summer course at Dennis’ company, Dennishawn. There she took lessons in dramatic gesture, plastique movements, and piano.
Dennis’ partner and husband, Ted Shawn, was someone Martha liked significantly less
than she liked Ruth herself and whom she thought was not very talented in dance. “Ruth was a goddess when she danced, Ted was a dancer dressed as a god,” She wrote (Blood Memory 70). When the company later split up for a time due to problems within Ruth and Ted’s relationship, Martha was stuck with Ted to her dismay. At first, Martha was given tedious jobs in the company such as helping care for Ruth Dennis’ grandmother, something she beieved was a result of her own unattractive looks. She wrote in her autobiography Blood Memory that blonde curly hair was an ideal in Dennishawn at the time. Ruth and Ted wanted her to be a teacher, but Martha was set on being a performer, and secretly practiced during the night. She finally got her big chance when a lead
dancer for a performance fell ill and she convinced Ted Shawn to allow her to perform his piece, Serenata Morisca for that San Diego Performance.

In 1923, Martha joined the Greenwhich Village Follies in order to help her family with
financial troubles, despite viewing the group as an embarrassment to dance (Encyclopedia of Dance). She quickly became their most popular act, and while the other dancers were widely viewed as somewhat whorish or trashy, her dancing and her persona were widely viewed as art, she became the only artist that gave the Greenwhich Follies a claim to being an artistic company. In many ways, her arrogance served her well in this way. In one instance, she arrived with another dancer of the Follies to perform at a private home and was told to take the back entrance like the servants. She refused, while the other dancer who was with her followed the rule without questioning it. As a result, the party was fascinated with her and she was invited to stay the night at the home and for dinner the next afternoon.

In 1925, Martha left the Greenwich Follies and started her journey to discovering her
own movement.

“It used to be that… a flurry of the hand meant nothing more than the
representation of falling rain. The arm, moved in a certain way, suggesting a wildflower or the growth of corn. Why, though, should an arm try to be corn, or a hand, rain? The hand is too wonderful a thing to be an imitation of something else” (Blood Memory 108).

She began developing a movement language based on intense human emotion and the bodily movements that coincide with those emotions. Martha Graham believed in the two movements of the breath as the sources of movement in dance: contraction and release; “ when it breathes in, it is a release, when it breathes out, it is a
contraction… you are born with these two movements and you keep both until you die” (Blood Memory 46). She believed that the usage of these movements provided a fantastic source of emotion and drama for dance, and she utilized them in her dances always, making it a staple of her technique. She had already earned a reputation as an amazing soloist and her works were inspirational to many, including other famous artists. She took the idea she had had since she was a child of wanting to be a “wild creature” and incorporated that into her style of dance. It was fierce, intense, gripping, and animal.

In 1929 she created an all-female company, which lasted 9 years. In 1938 Eric Hawkins
and Merce Cunningham joined Martha’s company. These were the first men in her company, and their different bodies opened up new possibilities for her choreography. Following this was the period of time in which most of her masterpieces were created, the 1940’s. In 1948 Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins married and it ended up breaking their working dance relationship. Their marriage didn’t last either.
In 1969 Martha got very sick and didn’t make a comeback until 1972, after which she no
longer performed new pieces. She began teaching younger dancers her old parts. She did, however, continue to create new dance works for others to perform. She created a total of 180 original works. (Encyclopedia of Dance)

Martha was famously harsh and even abusive towards her students. She had a temper,
which she refers to in her autobiography as her “black Irish rages.” She had no patience for teaching, and yet she did it for most of her life. Martha Lived well into her 90’s, from 1894 to 1991, continuing to teach dance till the very end. (Encyclopedia of Dance) The writer William Carlos Willams wrote this about Martha Graham and her new way of moving, “Each muscle is a thought—quite apart. Quite Different from the conventional ballet. Martha Doesn’t grow old” (Movement and Modernism 170).


Works Cited

Mester, Terri A. Movement and Modernism: Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence,
Williams, and Early Twentieth Century Dance. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas,

1997. Print.

Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. Place of Publication Not Identified: Diane

Pub, 1999. Print.

Cohen, Selma Jeanne. International Encyclopedia of Dance. New York:

Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

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