Graham, Martha, 1894-1991

Alternative names
Birth 1894-05-11
Death 1991-04-01

Biographical notes:

American modern dancer and choreographer.

From the description of Letters from Martha Graham to David Zellmer, 1942-1945. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122535299

From the guide to the Letters from Martha Graham to David Zellmer, 1942-1945, (The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.)

American modern dance pioneer in performance, choreography, and technique.

From the description of Letters, 1942-1983, to Agnes de Mille, Anna de Mille, Walter Prude, and "Craig." (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122517368

American dancer and choreographer.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : [New York, N.Y.], to Mr. and Mrs. Francis Mason, 1977 June 19. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 269575212

Biographical Note

Martha Graham, a pioneer in the establishment of American modern dance, was one of the principal choreographers of the twentieth century. Her work, which spanned more than seven decades, resulted in the development of a movement technique and a body of 180 choreographic works. Known also for her innovative collaborations, Graham worked with sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who created over thirty-five designs for Graham works; lighting designer Jean Rosenthal; costume designer Halston; and many composers, including Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Robert Starer, William Schuman, and Louis Horst, who acted as accompanist, composer, and music director for Graham from 1926 to 1948. Graham founded a dance company in the 1920s that continues to perform her repertory (

The following timeline makes reference to only a few of Graham’s choreographic works. For a complete repertory list, please consult Don McDonagh’s book, Martha Graham (1973).

  • 1894 May 11: Martha Graham is born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania
  • 1916: Graham begins studies with Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis at their Denishawn School
  • 1918: Graham begins teaching at the Denishawn School
  • 1919: Graham dances with Denishawn until 1923, appearing in title roles such as Xochitl
  • 1923 - 1925 : Graham appears in John Murray Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies, dancing Ted Shawn’s Serenata Morisca and Michio Ito’s The Garden of Kama
  • 1925: Graham establishes her first dance company and begins to develop her specialized dance technique
  • 1926: Graham presents her first independent concert at the 48th Street Theater in New York City, assisted by the Martha Graham Concert Group. The New York Herald Tribune noted, “Miss Graham gave a successful performance, showing ability to present a mood or a picture, with the assets of grace, agility, effective poses and well chosen costumes”
  • 1927: In a review of a program at New York City’s Little Theatre, the New York American said “Slender, sinuous and supple, and ever with a definite command of grace, Miss Graham may have many competitors in Terpsichore’s guild, but few rivals”
  • 1928: Graham begins an association with the Neighborhood Playhouse and, in conjunction with the Cleveland Orchestra, Graham performs in Nuages and Fetes (music by Debussy) with dancer/choreographer Michio Ito
  • 1929: Graham presents a concert which includes her first group masterpiece, Heretic
  • 1930: Graham begins a seven-year relationship with Washington Irving High School in New York City and presents yearly concerts. She performs in Léonide Massine’s Rite of Spring with the Philadelphia Orchestra
  • 1932: Graham is the first dancer to receive a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship
  • 1936: Graham tours the United States in a solo program. She is invited, but rejects, an offer to represent the U.S. at the International Dance Festival, held in conjunction with the Berlin Olympics. She states: “so many artists have been persecuted that I refuse to identify myself with the regime that made it possible”
  • 1937: At the invitation of President and Mrs. Roosevelt, Graham is the first dancer to appear at the White House. Graham and her company make their first transcontinental tour
  • 1938: Graham begins a relationship with Bennington Collect in Vermont where she teaches each summer until 1941. Erick Hawkins becomes the first man to join her dance company. Merce Cunningham joins in 1939
  • 1944: Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissions three works: Imagined Wing (music by Darius Milhaud), Hérodiade (music by Paul Hindemith), and Appalachian Spring (music by Aaron Copland). The works are premiered in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium. Writing about Appalachian Spring for the New York Times, critic John Martin states, “nothing Miss Graham has done before has had such deep joyousness about it”
  • 1948: Graham marries dancer/choreographer Erick Hawkins
  • 1950: The Louisville Symphony Orchestra commissions Graham to choreograph a new work (Judith to music by William Schuman). The Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch declares the work to be “a dance of smashing impact”
  • 1951: Graham’s second commission by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra results in The Triumph of St. Joan (music by Norman Dello Joio)
  • 1954: The Graham company tours Europe, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
  • 1955: The Graham company tours Asia, sponsored by the U.S. State Department
  • 1957: Graham receives a Dance Magazine Award
  • 1960: Graham is recipient of a Capezio Award
  • 1965: Graham receives an Aspen Award in Humanities
  • 1966: Graham receives honorary doctorate from Harvard
  • 1968: Graham choreographs the last new dance in which she appears (The Lady of the House of Sleep with music by Robert Starer). The Washington Post reports that it is “one of the most tangled and troubled of Graham dances”
  • 1969: At age 64, Graham dances for the last time on 20 April and retires from the stage
  • 1971: Graham receives honorary doctorates from Yale and Wesleyan
  • 1976: President Gerald Ford presents the Medal of Freedom to Graham
  • 1978: Graham choreographs Frescoes (music by Samuel Barber) for the dedication ceremonies of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing
  • 1979: Graham receives a Kennedy Center Honors Award, Washington, DC and the Royal Medal of Jordan
  • 1981: Graham receives the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award
  • 1982: Graham accepts the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, from Southern Methodist University
  • 1984: The Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur is presented to Graham by President François Mitterand
  • 1985: Graham receives a National Medal of Arts awarded by President Ronald Reagan and the Carina Ari Medal, which is presented by Princess Christina of Sweden
  • 1991 April 1: Martha Graham dies in New York City

From the guide to the Martha Graham Collection, 1896-2003, (bulk 1926-1991), (Music Division Library of Congress)

The Martha Graham dance legacy, which embodied principles of contraction and release, was brought into prominence in 1928. The Group, as she called her dancers, were selected from the private students that Graham (11 May 1894-1 April 1991) took on while teaching dance at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Graham and her cultivated students debuted as The Group on 14 April 1929. The arrangement was such that the dance fueled classwork just as classwork influenced the dance. The Group remained an all female group until 1938. That year Erick Hawkins joined, an event eclipsed only in 1939 when Merce Cunningham became a member. This period marked a new development for dance. The fusion of sculptural elements, through Isamu Noguchi’s stage designs, coalesced with dance in Frontier (1935). Sculpture was to the 1930s what literary content was to the 1940s. Landmark performances for the incorporation of spoken word in dance include Letter to the World (1940).

The company continued to evolve in other ways. Since 1934, the company rehearsed at Bennington School of the Dance. In 1941 Bennington fell apart and the company moved to teaching dance at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College. That same year Diversion of Angels (1948) was also the first time that Graham choreographed a dance without performing in it herself. In 1950 Erick Hawkins left the company following Cunningham’s earlier departure in 1945. Despite these company changes, tours and commissions continued. On two separate occasions in 1950 and 1951, the Louisville Arts Council commissioned the company to perform with the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. Later, the U.S. State Department sponsored an Asian tour in 1954. In the 1960s the company increased its male members which somewhat altered Graham’s choreography toward the masculine. Her last performance occurred on 20 April 1969 for The Lady of the House of Sleep . Although she stopped performing, Graham spent the 1970s and 1980s preparing for her dancers to replace her. In 1975 Halston began designing her company’s costumes, a task that Graham always participated in believing that the costumes contributed to the dance’s expression of the mental state. Despite deteriorating health, Graham continued to choreograph but in 1977 she began using pre-existing compositions. This marked a departure from the earlier days when musical director Louis Horst composed original music for the company. In the end of her life Graham was bestowed many awards including the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from the Paris Opera in 1984 and the Carina Ari Medal awarded in 1985 by the Princess of Sweden. Even after Graham’s death in 1991, her dance tradition continues today in the Martha Graham Dance Company.

From the guide to the Martha Graham Dance Company records, 1944-1955, (The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.)

Martha Graham (b. May 11, 1894 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania; d. April 1, 1991 in New York City), dancer, choreographer, teacher, and company director, was a pioneer in the establishment of American modern dance and one of the principal choreographers of the twentieth century. In a career spanning over seven decades, she developed her own movement technique and produced over 180 choreographic works. She was also well-known for her innovative collaborations with such artists as, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, lighting designer Jean Rosenthal, and composers Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Norman Dello Joio, Robert Starer, William Schuman, and Louis Horst.

From the description of Martha Graham collection, 1896-2003 (bulk 1926-1991). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 610027870

Martha Graham, American dancer and choreographer, was born on May 11, 1894, in Pittsburgh. In 1908 her family moved to Santa Barbara, California. From 1913-1916, Graham studied theater and dance at the University of Cumnoch. After graduating in 1916, she joined the Denishawn School, run by Ruth Saint-Denis and Ted Shawn in Los Angeles, where she danced several important roles, including Shawn's Xochtil. In 1926, she started teaching at the Eastman School of Rochester, and she gave her first recital on April 18, at the 48th Street Theatre, in New York. It included 18 short pieces by Scriabine, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Schumann, and Horst, and it starred Betty McDonald, Evelyn Subier, and Thelma Braerce. Graham opened the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in 1927. During this time, her pieces, including Immigrant, Vision of Apocalypse, Lamentation, and Revolt, often dealt with social problems. In 1929, she choreographed her first non-solo ballet, Heretic. During the 1930s, because of the Depression, her ballets had no sets, and she made most of the costumes herself. In 1930s and 1940s Graham's dance company toured the United States and Cuba, and in 1954 had its first tour in Paris. In 1944, she created Appalachian Spring, her first collaboration with set designer, Isamu Noguchi. Many of her pieces during this period dealt with mythology, including Cave of the Heart, which told the story of Medea, Errand Into the Maze, which dealt with the Minotaur, and Night Journey, which explored the story of Oedipus and Jocasta. In 1948 she married Erick Hawkins, the leading dancer in her company. In 1956 she won the Dance Magazine Award. In 1959 she created Episodes with George Balanchine. Graham had a few years of depression and health problems that forced her to stop dancing. Her last dance was in Cortege of Eagles when she was 76 years old. She died in 1991 at the age of 96

From the description of Martha Graham Legacy Archive 1930-2001 (bulk 1985-2001). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 253626945


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