Martha Graham reached the pinnacle of success in the 1940s, when her innovations in modern dance were critically and publicly acclaimed, first in New York City, and then nationwide. Her name has since become synonymous with modern dance in America.
Martha Graham was to modern dance what Pablo Picasso was to modern art: the single greatest innovator of this century. Like Picasso, hers was a sweeping talent defined by a variety of styles and interests. In Graham's work Grand Kabuki, Greek theater, German expressionism, psychoanalysis, Native American ritual, Puritanism, and American history and poetry combined in explosive fashion. The 1940s were her heyday. She produced dances of transcendent splendor and worked with some of the world's most famous composers. During the decade, her experimentation, earlier acclaimed in New York dance circles, became widely known; as modern dance was popularized, her name became synonymous with the form.
Graham was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into a wealthy family who traced their lineage back to Miles Standish. In 1909 the family relocated to Santa Barbara, California. Graham maintained she was drawn to dance from an early age. At age sixteen she attended a dance performance by Ruth St. Denis of the Denishawn dance troupe and quickly joined the group. One of the first American dance companies and schools, Denishawn specialized in that which was novel and exotic to American sensibilities: Greek pageants, Japanese sword dances, sexy Spanish flamencos. While touring with Denishawn, Graham studied the expressionistic dances of Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman. Following their innovations, Ted Shawn, choreographer of Denishawn, wrote Xochitl, based on a Mexican legend, for Graham. It brought Graham to the attention of New York producers, and she left Denishawn for a short stint in the Greenwich Village Follies. Dissatisfied with commercial dance, Graham taught for a time at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where she began the choreographic experiments that made her famous.
As a choreographer Graham initially returned to simple and primitive movements walking, running, and skipping and built short "mood" dances from these fundamentals. Such dances, composed in collaboration with pianist Louis Horst, established her reputation in New York dance circles. More-ambitious pieces featuring the dynamic music of modern composers, such as Lamentation (1930), Dithyrambic (1931), and Primitive Mysteries (1931), formalized the Graham style: highly theatrical expressions, angular stances, explosive, stylized gestures in the limbs, spare and abstract stage settings. Graham sought to integrate motifs and innovations in modern art and psychology into dance. Compelled by Sigmund Freud's and Carl Jung's analysis of the unconscious, she attempted to fuse abstracted gestures to psychological states, and her work was noted for its tension and unsettling qualities. Graham received twenty-three curtain calls after the debut of Primitive Mysteries. As dance companies toured behind her work, Graham's fame rapidly spread from New York.
Beginning in 1938, with American Document, Graham crystallized the innovations begun earlier and reached the height of her powers with a series of dynamic, highly ambitious dances. American Document was nothing less than a condensed history of the United States, expressed via the conflict between the individual and society. Probing her own Puritan ancestry, American Document featured the juxtaposition of hellfire sermons by Jonathan Edwards and highly erotic dance. Graham returned to these themes with Letter to the World (1940), based upon the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. Letter to the World reflected the tension between poet and community enshrined in Dickinson's verse: "This is my letter to the world / that never wrote to me." In 1944 Graham returned to her exploration of the American character with a triumph: Appalachian Spring. Featuring music by Aaron Copland (who won a Pulitzer Prize for the score in 1945) and sets by Isamu Noguchi, Appalachian Spring was an evocative celebration of pioneer life, a commemoration of the American spirit. Grahamturned to less nationalistic, more intensely private themes with her next dances: Herodiade (1944), Cave of the Heart (1946), Night Journey (1947), and Death and Entrances (1943; revived, 1947). Herodiade, originally a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé set to music by composer Paul Hindemith, became in Graham's hands a ceremony of eternal feminine patience. Cave of the Heart, featuring music by Samuel Barber, and the stage again set by Noguchi, was a venture into Greek mythology and was as ambitious as classical tragedy. Under the influence of Jung, Graham wrote the dance to express her belief in a collective "motor memory" in the body, a primordial genius of the senses she sought to evoke. A noted psychoanalytically influenced dance was Night Journey, Graham's retelling of the Oedipus legend. Death and Entrances was perhaps the most ambitious of the psychological cycle, an attempt to probe, simultaneously, the inner life of the famous Bronté sisters and that of the dancers on stage. Graham used small portable objects to signify the icons of memory, both collective and individual; the dance itself was filled with tense body gestures, indicative of tortured repressions. At its most ambitious, Death and Entrances aimed less at expression than at therapy. Graham had become not only dance's Picasso, but also its Freud.
Graham completed her probing of the psyche through mythology with Clytemnestra in 1958. A retelling of Aeschylus's meditation on remembrance, revenge, and regret, the evening-long dance was a highly acclaimed pageant of color, motion, and violence. Graham, still starring in her own dances, was sixty-four, and she began to put her more famous dances on film, including Appalachian Spring (1959) and Night Journey (1960). Her fame was such that in the next twenty years she received numerous honors, including the Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor. Nonetheless, her overwhelming dominance in modern dance inevitably called forth challengers to her position, especially former students intent on overthrowing her highly structured, overly psychological style. Former associates such as Merce Cunningham took modern dance into a spontaneous, decidedly non-Graham direction in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1969 Graham danced her last role, but she continued to choreograph new works, including two in 1975 starring Rudolph Nureyev, Lucifer and The Scarlet Letter. Despite the eclipse of her style, Graham continued through the Martha Graham Dance Company to choreograph new works, including the Maple Leaf Rag, with music by Scott Joplin and costumes by Calvin Klein, in 1990. She died on 1 April 1991.