Martha Graham’s Movement

Martha Graham’s Movement

A recent biography dives into the choreographer’s role as both an artist and figure of early American modernism.


Martha Graham debuted her masterpiece, Appalachian Spring, at the Library of Congress in 1944, at the height of the Second World War. By then, Graham was nearly two decades into her career as a choreographer and was emerging as the first global celebrity of modern dance. Just a few years earlier, she was invited by Joseph Goebbels to perform at the Berlin Olympics. It was 1936, and she declined the invitation, saying, “I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible.” Appalachian Spring was seemingly the product of that conviction, identifying Graham as a dancer whose ken was distinctly American. The narrative is a quintessential pioneering tale depicting a newly married couple, a Preacher and his devoted Worshippers, and a wise older woman as they prepare for life beyond the frontier. The score, composed by Aaron Copland, is based on the melody of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Isamu Noguchi designed the sparse set, an abstract rendering of a homestead, a rocking chair, and a fence.

It is the day of the work’s debut. Graham dances the starring role of the restless and pensive Bride, with her husband, Erick Hawkins, portraying the sturdy and sure character of the Husbandman. Hawkins’s movements are decisively expansive, arms outstretched and chest pushed forth to proudly meet the challenge of the unknown that lies beyond the frontier. Graham’s solo choreography, by contrast, spirals in place with anguished gestures close to her core and chest; she is inviting the audience to consider her character’s interior life. The piece ends with an extended solo from the Bride, a physical soliloquy meditating on the uncertainty that lies before her. She skips downstage toward the audience before stopping herself with a fall to the floor, clasping her hands in prayer. Although she is unsure that the homestead will provide the stability that she needs, she ultimately chooses to join her husband on the porch of their home, facing the future together. Graham’s Bride sits in the rocking chair, the music concludes, and Hawkins places his hand tenderly on her shoulder.

Graham embraced her role as a pioneer of American culture. In a 1930 essay titled “Seeking an American Art of the Dance,” she declared that American dance must have a style made “in this country and of this country.” To do so, she suggested, dancemakers must look back at American history, rather than imitating the traditions of Europe and Asia as her forebears and even her own teachers had done. Graham felt herself equipped for this task, as she saw touchstones of American history in her own lived experience: She could trace her genealogy to the Mayflower; she had her own formative westward journey as a child, traversing the Appalachians as her family moved from Pennsylvania to California. She also made her career in the “new New York City,” the capital of American cultural production, and had absorbed the city’s angularity, bustling pace, and diversity in her movement lexicon and collaborative work with the likes of Copland, Noguchi, and others. Just like her characters in Appalachian Spring, she resolved, herself, to venture into the unknown in her quest to make modern dance American.

Neil Baldwin’s biography, Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern, is an attempt to tell the story of how the choreographer made modern dance a distinctly American art form. His previous subjects have included Man Ray, Thomas Edison, and William Carlos Williams, but Graham’s life and work might have presented him with a particularly formidable biographical task. She actively resisted the archiving of her career, believing that her work should speak for itself. She burned her personal correspondence and discarded many of her choreographic notes, an obstacle to insight that has vexed her previous biographers. As Baldwin describes, “It was one thing for Martha Graham to be seen, another to be seen into.” Where primary sources lack, Baldwin draws from the recollections of Graham’s collaborators to reconstruct the development of her artistic philosophy.

Baldwin focuses on Graham’s career in the first half of the 20th century, through her first international tour in 1950. His Martha Graham is steeped in Americana. She uses the history, geography, and popular culture of the United States to craft her technique, transcending the strictures of European ballet. With this framing, Baldwin’s book is in contrast to most recent scholarship on Martha Graham, which uses a transnational lens to examine her later career and cultural diplomacy tours with the US State Department. Baldwin recognizes Graham’s global resonance, but his concern in this biography is more foundational: How did Graham’s work come to encapsulate an American identity in the first place? He examines how Martha Graham channeled her ambition and intellect into movement technique—especially that involving movements of contraction and release, her principal method. In so doing, he returns us to the origins of Graham’s specific form of American modernism, even as the biography’s scope forgoes a deeper, more complicated exploration of her patriotism and practice through the end of the Cold War.

Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894, in Allegheny, Pa., the eldest child of a middle-class Presbyterian family. Her father, George Greenfield Graham, worked as an “alienist,” a doctor in the field now known as psychiatry. George taught young Martha to synthesize the actions of the body and the activity of the mind. He conveyed his idea that “movement never lies,” that the external body language of his patients could communicate the unspoken interiors of their psyches. As Baldwin puts it, “this clinical observation was melded into [her] technique, the body as [a] vessel containing unadulterated truth, the movement of the dancer manifesting that truth.” Graham understood from an early age that movement and thought could be correlated, arranged, and expressed in tandem, and this belief would drive her artistic philosophy for decades to come.

A few years after the Graham family moved to California in 1908, George took Martha to Los Angeles to see Ruth St. Denis perform a recital of Egyptian and East Indian dances. Coming from a theatrical vaudevillian tradition, St. Denis’s work, with its Orientalist tone, spoke to the cultural appetite of a post-frontier, imperialist United States. But it also suggested that a female soloist could not find success while dancing as an American woman at the turn of the century; modern dance forerunner Isadora Duncan had already moved to Europe in 1899 after finding her expressive, naturalistic style to be unwelcome in the States. Even as these women attempted to forge a new vernacular style and tradition, they found themselves turning abroad for inspiration and validation.

Still, Graham saw in Ruth St. Denis “a goddess figure” who “opened the door upon what dance could become in her life”—an outlet for individual expression that could also engage spectators on an emotional, kinesthetic level. In 1916, Graham joined St. Denis and her husband, Ted Shawn, at their school, Denishawn, where she trained in ballet, character dancing, ethnic dance, and Dalcroze eurhythmics. Shawn soon began to feature her in his choreography, and she received critical acclaim for her solo as the Toltec queen Xochitl throughout the early 1920s. Graham was somewhat satisfied but impatient with this theatrical work. “I love this dance-drama, and have every faith in it—it has brought the joy of life to me,” she told the Santa Barbara News in 1920. Still, she clarified: “So far the only value of my work—if it has art value—is absolute sincerity…. Later what I do may be called art, but not yet.”

Graham departed Denishawn in 1923. While performing with The Greenwich Village Follies in 1925, she caught the eye of Moscow Art Theatre veteran Rouben Mamoulian, who had been tasked by Kodak founder George Eastman with recruiting a dance instructor for the Eastman School of Dance and Dramatic Action in Rochester, N.Y. Eastman sought an artist who could introduce students to “a much wider scope than just ballet,” and Mamoulian told him he thought Graham would be an “intelligent and exciting” choice. That fall, Graham arrived at Eastman with a teaching contract that included time to develop her own choreographic compositions. She worked closely with the Eastman students, teaching them to “move the body differently” with spirals, twists, and falls to the floor while dropping the word “ballet” from the curriculum. After presenting choreographic recitals in Rochester throughout the fall of 1925, Graham debuted her choreography in New York City on April 18, 1926. The coproducers of The Greenwich Village Follies reserved one night for her at William A. Brady’s 48th Street Theatre, with the misplaced hope that she might return to their own production after that.

Graham’s signature style of contraction and release centered on an “elaboration upon the natural act of breathing.” As the dancer exhaled, the torso contracted and hollowed into a concave shell. Once the dancer inhaled, the body would release into motion and propel through space. Combining the contraction and release with abstracted gestures and dramatic elements, Graham invented a new language for movement that could speak to her audiences on a kinesthetic level. As Baldwin puts it, “Graham was bringing into form, from the core of her body, a spectrum of moods, impressions, and sensations.” Just as her father had taught her, the body and mind were inextricably intertwined in her creative mode. This was a demanding sort of communication: Her choreography was incredibly difficult to execute, with endless jumping sequences, swift falls to the floor, and immediate energetic rebounds that propelled a dancer’s body through space.

Graham did not want to abandon classical ballet altogether but to “rediscover what the human body can do” and transcend the constraints of balletic convention. She contrasted the verticality, poise, and seeming effortlessness of ballet with her sheer physicality—contracting her torso, flexing her feet, and showing the labor of her dancing. Baldwin identifies Graham’s constant preoccupation with her role as an artistic innovator, encapsulated in two narrative motifs of her early work: “the group set against, and with, the shunned outcast and chosen leader” and “the unimpeded, glorified authority of female physical power.” Throughout this period, Graham cast herself in starring roles that fully embodied both themes. For instance, she performed the title role in Heretic (1929), rippling to the floor beneath the stony glare of a chorus. In Primitive Mysteries (1931), Graham appeared as the Virgin, a figure distant from her community even as its members turn to her for guidance and “encircle her in obeisance.” Baldwin follows this thread through to Chronicle (1936), in which her role as prophetess in “Prelude to Action” incites an ensemble of women “with exultant motion, pointing arms and dazzling, purpose-driven darts.” The story of Graham as a rebellious woman set apart from the masses recurred and evolved across these first works.

Baldwin’s framing of Martha Graham encourages us to think of early American modernism as an inward-facing, backward-looking quest to shore up an American form that could compete with the longstanding precedent of European classicism. Even as Graham’s angular and abstracted aesthetics were avant-garde, her inspiration came from the American past: frontier narratives, Protestant traditions, changing landscapes observed during a transcontinental train journey. Graham was energized by the opportunity to craft something from this history and become an ambassador of this style. Her technique embodied her infatuation with the sheer potential of her art: Between every contraction and release in her choreography, there was “a still point of immobility [that] hid the promise of further movement.” It represented her ambition to discover uncharted territory in the realms of movement.

Baldwin distinguishes Graham from her American modernist contemporaries in other fields, such as E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway. Graham “did not dash off in 1917 to join the ambulance corps in search of adventure,” he writes, “nor did she escape to Europe with the 1920s exiles.” Instead, Graham looked within the borders of the United States for inspiration, turning to the indigenous cultures of the American Southwest. Baldwin details Graham’s numerous artistic pilgrimages to the pueblos of New Mexico and Native communities of Central America. There, she observed rituals and communal dances that imposed “no distinction between dancers and rapt observers.” One such trip, in 1932, was supported by a Latin American Exchange Fellowship from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation—their very first grant awarded to a dancer.

Graham insisted, in her own words, that she had “never taken literally from Indian cultures,” but instead embodied their lessons about “the absolute sacredness of the land [and] the use of the body as reiteration of the sound of the earth.” And while Graham gave herself the role of a Native woman in Primitive Mysteries and American Document (1938), the movement lexicon in these works is unmistakably Graham’s: contracted torsos, cupped palms, angular poses. Whereas Ruth St. Denis stepped away from her American identity to embody Eastern cultures in performance, Graham stepped back in time to synthesize the American past with her own idea of modernism. As she developed the contraction and release that defined her technique, she “excavated ancient mysteries in a gritty quest for groundedness” in an American lineage.

Baldwin’s focus on Graham as an American figure means that he devotes less attention to postwar works of psychodrama and Greek mythology; Cave of the Heart (1946) and Night Journey (1947) appear briefly but are not assessed with the same depth as Graham’s earlier pieces. Baldwin’s framing also renders Graham as an exceptional figure in the project of making modern dance American. He does acknowledge that Graham was not the only choreographer who strove to link modernist movement with American heritage, noting how contemporaries like Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman also worked in this vein. But he does not make an explicit argument as to why Graham vaulted to prominence over the others, or which specific qualities of her art set her above the rest. By implication, Baldwin attributes her ultimate status as a global icon to her ambition, cohesive artistic vision, and popularity.

Baldwin first came to know this iconic image of Martha Graham during his childhood in New York City, as he recounts glimpsing a “goddess-like, athletic personage” with “half-closed eyes fixed downward and facing inward, seeking an undefined, urgent answer.” Given her eventual stature, it is easy to forget that Graham’s modernism was not simply a predestined stroke of genius. As Baldwin’s admiring and attentive biography reminds us, her art was conditioned upon her foundational desire to make dance modern, and to make modern dance American.

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