In her lifetime, Martha Graham freed the art of dance by providing a new dance language and new concepts. She revolutionized dance, lighting, stage designing, costuming, and music with her creative perfectionism.
Graham was born on May 11, 1894, in Pittsburgh, where she lived until she was 14. At this time, her family moved to Santa Barbara, California. Two years later, she visited the Mason Opera House, for a Ruth Saint-Denis performance. It was here that she decided she wanted to become a dancer.
From 1913-1916, Graham studied theater and dance at the University of Cumnoch. After graduating in 1916, she joined the Denishawn School, run by Ruth Saint-Denis and Ted Shawn in Los Angeles, where she danced several important roles, including Shawn's Xochtil. She also met the composer, Louis Horst, here. She left Denishawn in 1923, with Horst.
In 1926, she started teaching at the Eastman School of Rochester, and she gave her first recital on April 18, at the 48th Street Theatre, in New York. It included 18 short pieces by Scriabine, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Schumann, and Horst, and it starred Betty McDonald, Evelyn Subier, and Thelma Braerce.
Graham opened the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in 1927. During this time, her pieces, including Immigrant, Vision of Apocalypse, Lamentation, and Revolt, often dealt with social problems. In 1929, she choreographed her first non-solo ballet, Heretic. During the 1930s, because of the Depression, her ballets had no sets, and she made most of the costumes herself.
In 1936, Graham took a strong political stance when she refused to go to the Olympic Games in Berlin. She said, "I would find it hard to dance in Germany at the present time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of the right to work for ridiculous and unsatisfactory reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible." Instead, she directed her energies into creating Chronicle, a statement against imperialism, Deep Song, a piece about the Civil War in Spain, Primitive Mysteries, and Frenetic Rhythms, dances concerning Indian and Mexican traditions.
Two years later, in 1938, Graham was invited by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt to the White House. For the occasion, she created American Document. Graham would later go on to dance there for seven other presidents.
The late 1930s and early 1940s proved to be important years in Graham's life. In 1939, Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins (who was to become her husband) joined her company. Throughout the 1940s, they toured in the United States and Cuba. For the Bennington Festival, she created El Penitente and Letter to the World. In 1944, she created Appalachian Spring, her first collaboration with set designer, Isamu Noguchi. Many of her pieces during this period dealt with mythology, including Cave of the Heart, which told the story of Medea, Errand Into the Maze, which dealt with the Minotaur, and Night Journey, which explored the story of Oedipus and Jocasta.
In 1948, Graham and Hawkins were married. Of this decision, she once said, "After eight years of living together, Erik decided we should marry. I didn't want to, but I did. During that ninth year it all fell apart. It shows. Never try to hold on to anything."
Graham's company embarked on their first tour to Paris in 1954, where her ballets were booed by the audience. The next few years held more successes, though. Paul Taylor joined her company in 1955, and in 1956, she won the Dance Magazine Award. Three years later, she created Episodes with George Balanchine. The ballet was danced by her company and the New York City Ballet.
Graham faced a few years of depression and health problems that forced her to stop dancing. Her last dance was in Cortege of Eagles when she was 76 years old. It was very painful for her to stop dancing, for she said, "Without dancing, I wanted to die." She did, however, continue to create new work, such as Lucifer and The Scarlet Letter, works for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.
In 1984, Rudolf Nureyev invited her company to the Paris Opera, where she was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French government. She completed her 191st new dance, Maple Leaf Rag in 1990 and completed a book called Blood Memory. She was choreographing a new ballet called The Eye of the Goddess for the Olympics in Barcelona when she died in 1991 at the age of 96.