Martha Graham Dies; Major Dance Innovator

Posted: April 02, 1991

Martha Graham, 96, a dancer and choreographer for whom modern dance was ''the landscape of the soul," died yesterday.

Miss Graham, whose name was synonymous with modern dance throughout the world, had been recuperating in her Manhattan home after a hospitalization for pneumonia. Her heart stopped yesterday.

Tributes were immediate. "She kept going," said ballet choreographer Agnes de Mille. "She had an enormous output. . . . She was not well the last few years and she got very tired, and she did more than anyone else."

"I loved Martha with all my heart for all those moments of pleasure and

joy," said Mikhail Baryshnikov, who last danced in one of Miss Graham's works in 1989.

"She opened a whole new world, which will always be with me for the rest of my life."

Miss Graham's dances - more than 175, created for a company she maintained

from 1926 until her death - covered a wide territory: myth, literature and the American sensibility as embodied by the pioneer. But they had one subject - the naked heart.

Before Miss Graham, dance had not concerned itself with interior states of being. Choreographers had expressed love, but not what it feels like to love - or to hate, or to fear. Miss Graham invented a new way of moving because she had a new subject to dance about. Her technical innovations were born of necessity.

"I never set out to create a technique," she said in 1985. "I started out on the floor to find myself, to find what the body could do and what would give me satisfaction - emotionally, dramatically and bodily."

Although actual floor work was never as paramount on Miss Graham's stage as it was in her classroom, her choreography has a sense of being rooted in the ground.


Whereas the ballet dancer pulls up and away from the ground, the Graham dancer acknowledges gravity as a physical and psychological fact of life. The floor is almost a metaphorical platform for expressing tension, struggle and eventual acceptance of one's mortality. The fact that Miss Graham first explored this percussive, angular and not very pretty technique on women's bodies made her innovations all the more bold.

As central as weight is to Miss Graham's technique and style, so is the simple act of breathing. The process of exhaling she magnified into a caving- in of the body. This became the famous Graham contraction. Inhaling meant an opening up of the body, or release.

By creating choreography in which the torso moves in various and refined states of contraction and release, Miss Graham was able to make gesture and emotion inseparable. It was a technique, de Mille said yesterday, "on a par with ballet dancing, which took 400 years to develop. She did it in her lifetime. You have to go back to people like Michelangelo to get this kind of achievement."

Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894, in Allegheny, Pa., now a part of Pittsburgh. In her home, the rigors of Presbyterianism were softened by her father's insight into human behavior. He was a doctor specializing in mental disorders. Miss Graham often said it was her father who taught her first and best lesson about dance. "The body never lies," her father said.

Miss Graham moved with her mother and two sisters to Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1908, and her father would visit on vacations. In later life, Graham said that she and her dances had two sides: the Puritan or Pennsylvania strain, and the pagan or California strain.


In 1911, Miss Graham saw Ruth St. Denis dance and was enraptured. In 1916 she enrolled at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, run by St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Graham was a late starter in dance - beginning at age 22 - but she quickly gained prominence as a dancer with the Denishawn troupe on its many tours of the vaudeville circuit. While at Denishawn she met the pianist- composer Louis Horst, who probably shaped Miss Graham's tastes and career more than any other person.

At Horst's urging, Miss Graham left Denishawn in 1923 and performed with John Murray Anderson's Greenwich Village Follies for two years. She then began to teach in New York and at the Eastman Music School in Rochester, N.Y., to support herself. In 1928 she began a long association with the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where she taught dance to actors as well as dancers.

It was while teaching that Miss Graham, under the guidance of Horst, began to shake off the picturesque, somewhat balletic style of Denishawn and discover her own stark, contemporary way of moving. (Miss Graham said she always preferred the word contemporary to modern.) She worked alone and with a few of her most dedicated students, who became, in effect, her first company. Her first independent concert took place April 18, 1926, at the 48th Street Theater in New York City.

Unlike other struggling artists of her generation - such as Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman - Miss Graham had her eye on the big time and would settle for nothing less. Similarly, while others tolerated poverty, Miss Graham, through sheer force of will, always found support from patrons. She did not demur when admirers called her a genius or, in later years, the "high priestess" of dance.

Until 1938, Miss Graham worked with a female company. Her percussive, stripped-to-the-bone, anti-lyrical dances were mostly on American themes. Heretic (1929) is about intolerance. Primitive Mysteries (1931), inspired by a trip Miss Graham made to the Southwest to observe Indian culture, is a religious ceremony embodying the essence of ritual. In Lamentation (1930), a solo, Miss Graham encased herself in a long tube of wool and from a sitting position manipulated the cloth and her body to convey the feelings of lament and anxiety.

In Frontier (1935), another solo, Miss Graham began a long collaboration with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who designed a set consisting of a fragment of wood fence from which two ropes trailed upward into the wings, signifying the frontier's uncharted distances. The idea that decor actively contributes to the meaning of a dance - and is to be used by the dancers as an integral part of the choreography - became a credo of Miss Graham's later, more elaborate pieces.

Most critics mark 1938 as the year Miss Graham entered her theatrical phase, and connect this development with the presence of men in her company. In 1938 Erick Hawkins became the first man to dance in Graham's troupe (and in 1948 he became her husband for a few, reportedly stormy, years). In 1939 Merce Cunningham joined the troupe.

Some of the most enduring dances from this period include Letter to the World (1940), about the conflict between the inner and outer life of poet Emily Dickinson, played by "One Who Dances" and "One Who Speaks"; Deaths and Entrances (1943), a psychological study of the Bronte family, and Appalachian Spring (1944), about the ambivalence of a woman on her wedding day.

Miss Graham then turned to myth, beginning with Herodiade in 1944 and culminating, many critics feel, with a full-length Clytemnestra in 1958, although she continued to explore mythic themes until her death.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Miss Graham's "dance-plays," as they have often been described, is not their dance language but their structure. In them Miss Graham fragmented characters and time. The same figure was sometimes divided between dancers. The story often proceeded in flashbacks with the focal character (always a woman) coming to accept every aspect of herself (her sexuality, fears and jealousies) and, in a moment of epiphany, embracing her destiny.

Miss Graham - a petite woman given to dramatic arched eyebrows, a vividly painted mouth and a tightly wound chignon - thought of herself as a dancer first, a choreographer second. After her final performance on April 20, 1969, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she fell into a physical and emotional decline.

"I don't remember anything about that time except that it was very painful," she later said. By 1973, however, she had begun to take an interest in her company again and began to teach young dancers the roles she had created for herself. Reviving works had been anathema, but gradually she came to see that the survival of her troupe depended on the past as well as the present. In 1986, in a season celebrating Miss Graham's 60th anniversary as a choreographer, she premiered two works, but she also permitted the revivals of dances going as far back as the Denishawn era.

Throughout her career Miss Graham astonished, enchanted and outraged her international public. Those who were outraged were the ones who loved her and her work the most passionately. Her creation of a dance for Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn in 1975 was considered the last straw, because it was more a star vehicle than a pure choreographic work for her company.

In fact, there had been many last straws. Some critics feel that Miss Graham was finished, that she fell into decadence, during the Greek period. Others feel her final break with Horst in 1948, for reasons more rumor than fact, was the end. And, indeed, there are still dancers who cannot forgive Miss Graham for working with men. To them, 1938, when Hawkins joined, was the beginning of the end.

Gian-Carlo Menotti, who composed the music for her ballet Errand Into the Maze, said yesterday that Miss Graham sent him a telegram several weeks ago asking him to work on a new ballet. There are those who think Miss Graham never lost her powers of creation. However, this writer believes that her last great dance was her treatment of St. Joan in Seraphic Dialogue, made in 1955.

Miss Graham's career was second only to George Balanchine's in fecundity. The dancers who trained with her are legion. Her technique, as a training tool, has become as generic as ballet. Yet unlike her American peers Balanchine and Cunningham, Miss Graham had little choreographic influence. Younger generations either made feeble carbon copies of her dances or, like Cunningham, Hawkins and Paul Taylor, reacted against her.

Perhaps one reason that Miss Graham's style could not serve as the basis for evolutionary development is that the movement she devised has little validity without her own dramatic point of view to support it. Without the right content, there is no viable Graham style. Many choreographers know how to replicate the Graham vocabulary, but only Martha Graham understood what it means.

comments powered by Disqus