Martha Graham was born in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. Her family moved to Santa Barbara, CA, when she was eight years old. When Graham was 17, she saw a performance by Ruth St. Denis, a dance pioneer who used movements and costumes from Asia. Graham knew she wanted to be a dancer, too, and went to the school run by St. Denis and her partner, Ted Shawn. Her performing career began with the Denishawn touring company, where she danced for seven years before creating her own company. Graham lived from 1894 to 1991 and choreographed 181 dances.
Anyone studying the history of dance will come across the name of Martha Graham. Her incredible career spanned 60 years, and during her lifetime she saw contemporary dance evolve from a new art form to a well-established one, in large part due to her contributions. She was not only a pioneer, but also a visionary who created her own movement language. Graham demonstrated that dance could be a serious art form that explored the depths of human emotion. All over the world today, elements of her movement technique have become commonplace in dance classes.
Graham’s technique evolved from her study of the effect of breathing. She took the natural rhythm of exhale/inhale and turned it into a whole-body contraction (the tightening of muscles) and release (or letting go). This basis for Graham’s technique helped her to express the underlying tension present in much of her choreography—that of opposing forces. The dancers in her works are often caught between conflicting desires; between giving into their passion or rage, or controlling themselves and exercising restraint.
Graham was interested in human emotions and motivations. To explore these themes, she focused on historical individuals of interest and their personal struggles and difficult choices. She created several works using stories from Greek myths, but chose to tell these tales from a woman’s perspective rather than the usual male hero’s point of view. She had a powerful stage presence and danced the main character’s role in many of her works, performing well into her 70s.
What To Look For: Graham’s Style
Focusing on one’s personal struggles and conflicting desires, Graham’s choreography supported her belief that “movement never lies.” You will see how twisted and angular shapes express the inner drives and struggles of her dancers and the characters they portray. When you watch Graham’s choreography, look for technique and staging that demonstrate Graham’s style by:
- contraction, or tightening of muscles in the center of the body, like being punched in the stomach; followed by a relaxation or release of the same muscles
- choppy movements without flow from one to the next, increasing their visual and emotional impact
- sets, music, costumes, and lighting created specifically for each dance, furthering the emotional impact of each work
- action centered around one person at a time
- groups of dancers typically acting as a single entity, like a chorus
- stories told from a woman’s perspective
Appalachian Spring (1944)
Music by Aaron Copland
“To be great, art…. must belong to the country in which it flourishes, not be a pale copy of some art form perfected by another culture and another people.”—Martha Graham
An American Story in Movement
Martha Graham wanted to create art that came out of the American experience. One of Graham’s most celebrated works, Appalachian Spring, explores the lives of a young pioneer husband and his bride beginning a life together on the American frontier. Opposing forces dominate the dance—youthfulness versus maturity, and physical love opposed to spiritual devotion. The couple is in love and full of joy and hope. They express their optimism with sweeping arms and leaps and turns, as well as tender embraces.
In contrast, The Preacher and Pioneer Woman are very reserved. The Preacher’s sharp movements chastise the lovers, and he points harshly at them as if accusing them of wrongdoing, or reminding them to exercise restraint. He is followed by The Worshippers, a group of four women, who swarm busily around him with blind devotion. The dance ends with The Bride and The Husband together, quiet and strong, in their own home.
Martha Graham described the final moments of Appalachian Spring this way:
“The entire piece ends quite simply. It has the feeling of the town settling down for the night, the kind of thing that happens when one hears a call in the twilight, the voices of children in the distance, a dog barking, and then night.”
Graham often designed the costumes for her dances, and worked closely with both the composer and set designer so that all aspects of the performance came together to support her vision. Every detail on stage had to have meaning, with nothing present that did not advance her purpose.
The costumes in Appalachian Spring are made to look like clothes pioneers and religious devotees would have worn back in the 1800s. The set was designed by Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese American who designed the sets for many of Graham’s works. Graham asked the composer Aaron Copland to create the music for this dance, which is regarded as a musical masterpiece in its own right.
Because of how influential Martha Graham was, there is A LOT out there to view and read about her. Here’s a start:
- Watch the video of Graham’s Appalachian Spring. After viewing it, take note of the following elements of Graham’s total theater approach:
- Noguchi’s minimalist set gives just the outline of the couple’s house, and merely suggests The Preacher’s pulpit. This concept fits Martha Graham’s choreography, which gives us a hint of the characters’ struggles and desires without telling us their whole story. We must use our imaginations to fill in the gaps.
- The composer Aaron Copland includes American Shaker folk melodies in his score for Appalachian Spring. The Shakers, a religious group, created many songs that have become popular. For example, you may recognize the tune “Simple Gifts.” It is about living simply, having faith, and being satisfied with one’s life.
- Did you notice how the dancers never leave the stage once they enter until the end of the dance? In most dances, performers enter and exit many times. Graham deliberately chose not to do this. Having all the dancers on stage all the time makes it feel like there is no escape from the situation at hand, or in this case, no escape from the judging eyes of The Preacher. The dancers in all of Graham’s works must deal with the reality facing them, and cannot escape the difficult choices they must make.
- Visit the Martha Graham website. There you can find personal information about Graham, as well as a list of written resources about her. You can also learn about the Martha Graham Dance Company and school.
- Follow a fictional Martha Graham dancer as she prepares to perform four different Graham works called “A Dancer’s Journal.” There are news clippings, notes, and video clips, including some about Appalachian Spring.
- Graham won the Kennedy Center Honor award in 1979. You can visit this site to read about the award: Kennedy Center Honors.