Martha Graham was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on May 11, 1894. Her father, George Graham, was a doctor of nervous disorders, known today as psychiatry. Her mother, Jane Beers, was a descendant of Myles Standish. Being a doctor's family, the Grahams had a high standard of living, with the children under the supervision of a live-in maid. The social status of the Graham family increased Martha's exposure to the arts, but being the oldest daughter of a strict Presbyterian doctor would be detrimental. As Martha matured, she was strongly discouraged from pursuing a career in the performing arts.
When Martha was sixteen years old, she begged her father to take her to a dance performance in Los Angeles, which he did. Her father presented a bouquet of flowers to her outside of the theater, as told by Martha in her autobiography. The dance performance made such an impression on her that she decided to devote her life to dance, much to the dismay of her parents. She was told that a career in the arts was simply not suited for the daughter of a prominent Presbyterian physician. However, something Martha had seen on that stage had been a revelation to her; she was determined.
Martha enrolled at Denishawn School, a dance school and performing troupe. At age 22, extremely late for an aspiring dancer, Martha had found her destiny. She was told, however, that she was far too old to begin dancing and that her body was not properly build for it. But Martha persevered, proving to be a quick learner. She worked very hard, paying much attention to detail, to train her body.
Martha danced with Denishawn for seven years, then moved to New York City. She launched her own company in 1929. Nothing stood in the way of her mission: to "chart the graph of the heart" through movement.
A New Language:
Through her choreography, Martha began to push the art of dance to new limits. Her early dances were not well-received by audiences, as they were confused by what they were seeing on stage. Her performances were powerful and modern, and were often based on strong, precise movements and pelvic contractions. Martha believed that by incorporating spastic movements and falls, she could express emotional and spiritual themes. Her choreography overflowed with beauty and emotion. Martha was establishing a new language of dance, one that would change everything that came after it.
A True Pioneer:
Still dancing in the late 1960s, Martha often turned to alcohol to cope with her despair at her declining body. Her performances began to include more acting than dancing, relying on the movement of the dancers around her. Martha's love of dance was so strong that she refused to leave the stage, even though critics insisted she was past her prime. However, when the critics became too loud, she left the stage. Despite her age, she kept dancing throughout the 60s. In 1969, Martha finally announced her retirement from the stage. Although she couldn't perform, she continued to teach until her death in 1991, at age 96.
The Martha Graham Dance Company:
Founded by Martha in 1926, the Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest, most celebrated modern dance company in the world. It presents the classic Graham repertory and new choreography in New York and on tour, featuring many of today's most talented dance artists.