In the Presence of Greatness: Martha Graham, Modern Dance Master

Legendary American modern dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham (1894 – 1991)

There was ballet, and there was Martha Graham. More than anyone else, Graham has been the principal figure in modern dance. Indeed, the basic form of modern dance has not changed much after her.

As a young dancer, she encountered an abstract work by Wassily Kandinsky – a streak of red imposed on a blue background – and thought, “I will dance like that.” What her contemporary Pablo Picasso did for painting, Graham did for dance. She brought the medium into a modernist context. Her treatment of the body was powerful and abstract, raw and expressive. Every dance she choreographed was about “breath”, “tension”, and “release”, the spiral movement of the body and the axis of the spine.

Katherine Crockett, center, and other members of the Martha Graham Dance Company performing “Diversion of Angels” (1948).

By the time she retired in 1969 at the age of 73, she had inspired a league of disciplines who followed the physicality of her approach. Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp were deeply influenced by her, as were classical dancers like Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov who looked to expand their horizons with the modern approach.

The Martha Graham Dance Company, the oldest and most celebrated in America, exemplifies its founder’s timeless and uniquely American style of dance, one that has influenced generations of artists and continues to captivate audiences worldwide.

Night Journey (1948)
“Night Journey” is a work about the Greek legendary figure Jocasta. The whole dance-drama takes place in the instant when Jocasta learns that she has mated with Oedipus, her own son, and has borne him children. The work treats Jocasta rather than Oedipus as the tragic victim and shows her reliving the events of her life, seeking justification for her actions.

Night Journey, a 1948 Martha Graham production. Duration: 6:33

Further Study
Martha Graham on the rigors of dance:

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