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Martha Graham's Biography

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From her start in Three Gnossiennes, to her last dance, Maple leaf Rag, Martha Graham’s technique was present throughout. Although she had to stop because of health relate issues, her soul was still boogieing. Her method of dancing was inspired by not only her frustrations to unleash to emotion inside but to create her own persona in this vast world of dance.

Martha Graham was born in 1894 in a small city outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was born to a physician who specialized in human psychology. The town “alienist” had instilled his motto of “Movement never lies” into his eldest daughter. While it seemed these words ran right through her, they stayed, engraved.

At the age of fourteen, her family relocated to California. Approximately three years later, she attended a Los Angeles dance recital by Ruth St. Denis. This presentation was the first dance she had ever seen. As with all outstanding performances, she was overwhelmed by the type of dance. She knew then that this was her future.

In 1916, she enrolled into Denishawn. At twenty two, this petite, timid, but insightful and diligent girl impressed Ted Shawn, one of the leaders in the studio. She was chosen to dance in his rendition of Xochilt. Then, abruptly, she left Denishawn to dance solo at The Greenwich Follies.

In 1925, Graham became the dance instructor at the Eastman School of Music and Theater in Rochester, N.Y. “I wanted to begin,” she said, “not with characters or ideas but with movement…. I wanted significant movement.” It was here that she began experimenting with modern dance forms. “I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” She abandoned the straight steps and techniques of classical ballet. Graham wanted the dancing body to be linked to natural motion and to the music. She started to experiment with what the body was capable to do therefore developing “percussive movements.”

By 1930, she started to recognize a new system of movement and new principles of choreography. “Based on her interpretation of the Delsartean principle of tension and relaxation, Graham identified a method of breathing and impulse control she called “contraction and release.” For her, movement originated in the tension of a contracted muscle, and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed. This method of muscle control gave Graham’s dances and dancers a hard, angular look, one that was very unfamiliar to dance audiences used to the smooth, lyrical bodily motions of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. In her first reviews, as a result, Graham was often accused of dancing in an “ugly” way.”

Her first dances were nonfigurative and sharp, almost “cubist”. “Like the modern painters,” she said, “we have stripped our medium of decorative inessentials.” The dances were presented on bare stages with only costumes and lights. The dancers’ faces almost reflected them because they were tight almost rigid, and their costumes were immensely inadequate. Later on, she supplemented backdrops and costumes for the surreal effect. The music was contemporary and usually composed special for the dance.

Martha Graham introduced a number of other improvements to dance. She established the use of mobile scenery, symbolic props such as those in Phaedra, and communication with dancing. She was the first to mix her group racially, using minorities in her regular company. She replaced the usual ballet tunic or folk dress with either a straight, dark, long shirt or the common leotard. Using the stage, the floor, and props as part of the dance itself, in all she produced a whole new world of dance.

Following the harsh evaluations, she continued her dancing with her same technique until her health started to suffer. Afterwards, she rose again but not dancing solos but teaching and changing the lives of many. She inspired her dancers to move abstractly, and not to follow only the beat but to promote feeling. Her technique became the first significant alternative to classical ballet, and her influence extended worldwide through her choreography and her students.

“The unique must be fulfilled. Martha Graham

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