Graham, Martha

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Graham, Martha

Martha Graham, 1894–1991, American dancer, choreographer, and teacher, b. Pittsburgh. Her family moved from Allegheny, Pa., to Santa Barbara, Calif., when she was 14. After 1916, Graham attended the Denishawn School, Los Angeles; in 1920 she made her debut in Ted Shawn's Xochitl, which was created for her. She left the Denishawn company in 1923 to dance in musical revues and to make her independent debut (1926). Graham first appeared with her own group of dancers in 1929, began her tours after 1939, and became, according to many critics, the seminal figure in modern dance. Her choreography, which requires great discipline and flexibility to perform, is highly individual, stark, and angular. Her dances became more explosive and less abstract in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as she achieved her mature style.

Graham's dances often draw upon historical and mythological subjects. After World War II, she created works based increasingly on Freudian and Jungian themes and centered on the female figure. Her works include Primitive Mysteries (1931), Letter to the World (1940), Deaths and Entrances (1943), Appalachian Spring (1944), Cave of the Heart (1946), Seraphic Dialogue (1955), Phaedra (1962), and Archaic Hours (1969), created the year she retired from dancing. Because so many of her students themselves became choreographers and leaders of companies, her influence on modern dance is especially widespread. Her own troupe, the oldest dance company in the United States, faced problems a decade after her death. Internecine struggles caused the closure (2000–2002) of the Martha Graham Dance Center, but a legal decision in late 2002 allowed the company to regroup, and they began to perform her dances again in early 2003.

See her Notebooks (1973) and her autobiography, Blood Memory (1991); R. Tracy, ed., Goddess: Martha Graham's Dancers Remember (1996); biographies by D. McDonagh (1973) and A. de Mille (1991); E. Stodelle, Deep Song (1984); M. Franko, Martha Graham in Love and War (2012).

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