Martha Graham, Giant of Modern Dance, Dies at 96 : Arts: The influential choreographer’s bold style incorporated stark images and an emphasis on form.


Martha Graham, the diminutive giant of dance, died Monday at her home in Manhattan.

She died of cardiopulmonary arrest caused by congestive heart failure, said Ross Alley, director of marketing with the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.

Graham, who transcended the word choreographer and attained a dominance that extended far beyond the footlights of her art, was 96.

Although she last performed two decades ago, her influence on ethereal movement surpassed both her own vision and talent. She brought to her students and audiences portrayals of the anguished ethos of modern man that will last far beyond her own lifetime.

Last January, in reviewing an Orange County performance by her company, Times music and dance critic Martin Bernheimer called Graham “a force of nature, marvelously cantankerous and wondrously productive from the start.”


“She has been a seminal influence on dance and dancers for more than seven decades,” he continued. “As countless canny observers, as well as her own savvy publicists, have constantly pointed out, she is to her art what Stravinsky is to music and Picasso to painting. . . .

“She has become an icon. She is a genius in the realm of abstraction and compression, a high priestess of kinetic Angst . . . .

“Call her a living legend, if you must, but make it a feisty, probing, illuminating and occasionally fallible legend. . . . “

Born in the waning years of the 19th Century, when dance, music and art were firmly in the hands of the romantics, Graham brought to fruition the experiments in bodily expression begun by Isadora Duncan and pushed forward by Ruth St. Denis, her first teacher.

Ballet was a touchstone of the romantics, contrived so that dancers seemed to surpass the limits of physique and gravity. It was Graham, with her arched eyebrows, vividly painted mouth and omnipresent chignon, who brought dance back to earth.

Duncan gave birth to interpretation. St. Denis introduced an oriental mystique to movement. Graham took that interpretation and mystique and offered it to the 20th Century as stark reality.

Her more than 150 choreographed works feature dancers with clenched fists, whose feet often do not even move and who are bent in positions that can best be described as ugly, for she found in those grotesque modes the struggles and unpleasantness of life itself.


Ballet taught its devotees extension--that the arm and leg should be placed slowly and gracefully to exact the most exotic moment from the single movement of a limb.

But Graham taught her students to extend from the center of their bodies, to use their movements to portray the inner realities of the human spirit in all its turmoil.

And on this framework continues to be hung the fiber and fabric of modern dance--dance based on the eternal verities of love, lust, greed, anger and frustration and drawn from such divergent history as Greek mythology and the American frontier.

She once described these adventurous assaults on the limits of the body as an effort “to make apparent once again the inner hidden realities behind the accepted symbols.”

If the legacy of Duncan and St. Denis is a body of work created around their individual skills, Graham leaves the world a lexicon of expression that stands beyond her personality and talent--dance as life and not just as art.

It was a viewpoint begun in innocent attraction, molded in controversy and perfected in an era that--because of her, Stravinsky, Freud and many others--found the theater itself rethinking its primary purpose.


Those views first began taking shape about 1904, when Dr. George Graham, a psychiatrist, his wife and three daughters moved to Santa Barbara from Pittsburgh. There Martha, Mary and Georgia Graham were educated privately--in the arts and in history, languages and the sciences.

From her father, she learned her oft-quoted admonition: “Movement doesn’t lie.” But if Dr. Graham found truth in movement, he found little else that pleased him when his 10-year-old daughter--after seeing St. Denis perform--enrolled at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, a joint venture directed by “Miss Ruth” and her husband, Ted Shawn.

Dance was too frivolous a preoccupation for a young lady, Graham decreed. His daughter would not resume her fascination with movement until after his death in 1916, when she was 22--considered old for a beginning dancer.

Although St. Denis once said of her student, “If one saw Martha do a certain dance, it was rendered innocuous and pale when any other girl attempted it,” she also felt Martha had entered dance too late in life to achieve much success.

Her husband, however, was more impressed.

Ted Shawn made Graham his protege, and she appeared regularly in the new Denishawn theater in Eagle Rock.

The Los Angeles Times, in a 1917 review of the “new dance,” did not address the immediate issue of the program itself but did proclaim the endeavor a cultural plus:


“A dance theater from whose classic shades will never resound the loud badinage and vulgar slapstick of the ‘vodvil’ team nor yet the nasal slang of George M. Cohan nor yet again the unaesthetic click of the motion picture projection machine.”

The critic would have been disappointed, when a few years later, Graham and Shawn went into “vodvil.”

After World War I, Shawn left St. Denis, taking his protege and several other young dancers to New York, where they performed in the Pantages and Orpheum houses, introducing the “aesthetic dance” on programs that also featured comedians, jugglers and acrobats.

Graham would say that the extravagance of costume and movement she then had to endure led to the Spartan, more simple themes she was to pursue later.

In 1919-20, Shawn temporarily left vaudeville to stage “Xochitl,” hailed as the first original American ballet. Graham was the Aztec maiden battling an emperor for her virtue.

The girl St. Denis thought too old for dance was now not only a soloist but an acclaimed one.


In her book “Where She Danced,” Elizabeth Kendall quotes Graham as saying of “Xochitl”: “This dance-drama . . . has brought the joy of life to me.” It also sparked in Graham a lifelong interest in the North American continent as an inspiration for the many pursuits of movement that lay ahead.

Her triumph as an Aztec produced an immediate result but not one that Graham would later recall with much fondness.

She was invited to join the cast of “The Greenwich Village Follies,” one of many Broadway revues that featured an interpretive dancer along with comics, singers and scantily clad girls.

Between performances she studied Oriental, Greek and Spanish dances. While her feet and arms were becoming involved in ancient and distant cultures, her ears were becoming attuned to the dissonance of the new music.

World War I had been a four-year reign of stark terror, and composers, artists and writers were dealing with these new realities. It was a time when romanticism’s sun was setting and the dark moon of psychoanalysis was on the rise.

Graham was invited to teach at a dance adjunct of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Thus began the most significant part of her life. She would no longer be Martha Graham the dancer but Martha Graham, mentor to thousands and visionary for millions.


She began to create dances for herself and her students, to design her own costumes and set her own lights. She started a series of concerts at the school in 1926, or as “The Dance” magazine said in one review, “a series of pictures.”

She looked on 1926 as her real beginning.

Her lights and sets were starkly primitive so audiences could concentrate on the dancers and the movements she was staging at a furious pace.

Critics seemed impressed by her innovativeness but dismayed by the dances themselves--dances in which feet often were stationary and the human form was projected as an angular curiosity piece.

She was fulfilling two dreams--to stage dance for movement itself rather than pure aesthetics and to create a voluminous aggregation of work that would end only with her death.

She was the first to put dancers in leotards to emphasize their form. She hired well-known sculptors to design her sets and made her scenery as mobile as her dancers.

“I want to make people feel intensely alive,” she would say years later. “I’d rather have them against me than indifferent.”


Many were against her. None were indifferent.

Isadora Duncan was dead and Ruth St. Denis was occupied primarily in the West. That left the rest of the country to Graham, and she soon began conquering it.

In 1930 she was chosen to dance the female lead in the New York premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring). That same year she began a long professional and romantic association with Louis Horst, former music director for the Denishawn school. He began discovering and engaging the modern composers that lent themselves to her visions. She went to teach in Seattle for a brief period, then came home to California to visit her mother.

The elder Mrs. Graham was sympathetic, if not always comfortable with her daughter’s progress.

“Why do people say such dreadful things about Martha?” she once asked Horst. “She was always such a sweet, old-fashioned girl.”

On her way back East, the old-fashioned girl stopped in New Mexico, where she became intrigued with the American Indian. Martha Graham was descended on her mother’s side from Miles Standish, and for the rest of her life Americana became her personal laboratory.

In 1931 she staged “Primitive Mysteries,” in which the dancers moved as excitedly as the Indians she had seen in New Mexico.


Thereafter she would alternate impressions of such tragic Greek women as Jocasta, Medea and Clytemnestra with those of America’s melancholy poet Emily Dickinson (“Letter to the World,” or in the singularly American ballet “Appalachian Spring,” which she said “is the one I cherish the most”).

Again she stretched her dancers into misshapen lengths of muscle and flesh in what even some of her kindlier critics could only call “innovation.”

But she was not an innovator, she said.

“I’m a thief. My movements go back to the pharoahs. Don’t ever expect to show me a movement that I might not use.

“I want to let the soul out . . . to show the act of anguish, or of joy itself, not just a pretty picture of it.”

Despite all that, she was becoming a safer risk on Broadway.

In 1932 she was on the program that opened Radio City Music Hall. In 1934 she staged dances for “Romeo and Juliet,” probably Katharine Cornell’s most memorable role. (Years later Cornell came to the financial rescue of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.)

She started a course called “Movement for Actors,” not, she said, so that they should dance but that they could become “vibrant human beings.”


Over the years those “vibrant human beings” were to include Bette Davis, Joanne Woodward, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck and Woody Allen.

Graham performed at night, but continued to teach during the day. (One of her students, Betty Ford, would become the First Lady of the United States and was on hand in 1976 when President Gerald R. Ford gave Graham the first Medal of Freedom ever awarded a dancer.)

She taught at the Julliard School in New York and helped to establish a school of modern dance at Bennington College in Vermont in 1935.

Standing 5 feet 3 inches tall, she looked more like a businesswoman than an artist offstage. And business was getting better.

If Martha Graham was the enfant terrible of the 1920s and ‘30s, she became the grande dame of the 1940s.

“Letter to the World” in 1940 was a success, as was “Appalachian Spring” in 1944 and “Cave of the Heart,” “Medea,” “Night Journey,” and “Jocasta,” which followed in the next three years. In the 1950s she staged “Seraphic Dialogue,” “Joan of Arc” and what many consider the apex of her career, “Clytemnestra,” a celebration in motion of the Greek legend of Agamemnon’s wife as joined by the descendant of an American Pilgrim.

Her triumph over critical adversity is perhaps best typified by remarks from Lincoln Kirstein, founder of the New York City Ballet, who wrote of Graham in 1937:


“I felt her as an arrogant and blind assertion of gesture and movement . . . based on some substructure as capricious as it was sterile.”

Yet by the 1970s, when her dancers were performing at Kennedy Center and Graham herself was being honored at the White House, Kirstein gloried in her glory:

“She has created a kind of candid, sweeping and wind-worn liberty for her individual expression . . . like a piece of exquisitely realized Shaker furniture or homespun clothing.”

In 1975, at age 81 and six years after she had ceased performing, she produced the longest season of modern dance ever staged in New York.

To celebrate her company’s 50th anniversary, she choreographed three new works for a four-week, 31-performance marathon at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. One of those new works was for the Russian sensation Rudolf Nureyev. It was “The Scarlet Letter,” adapted from--of course--an American novel.

The mark of her stature by then was that she had received a single $60,000 grant for the season from Phelps Dodge Corp., then the largest corporate donation ever for one American dance company.


And she was not through.

In 1978 she adapted “The Owl and the Pussycat,” based on Edward Lear’s poem, and coached Liza Minnelli, who narrated the movements of the Graham dancers. She became the subject of a book--”Martha Graham, Sixteen Dances in Photographs”--in 1980.

In 1981, “Acts of Light,” three short dances presented in succession, were called a significant break with Graham’s past, although all three blended the sparse movements of her early years with neoclassical techniques.

“Clytemnestra” was seen on public television--further tribute to the Graham influence with its crew of scantily clad men trouping into the nation’s living rooms. And in 1984, nearing 90, she devised a sensuous choreography for “Rite of Spring,” her acclaimed performance of so many years before.

In October, 1987, she premiered what proved to be her final dance--”Persephone,” the Greek legend choreographed to Stravinsky’s Symphony in C.

She had married in 1948 a fellow dancer, Erick Hawkins. The union lasted 10 years.

And she had grown reflective.

Her dancers had become the first modern company ever to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House.

She traveled to Washington to speak to Congress on behalf of the American Arts Alliance.

She called the now-dead St. Denis “a goddess” (although Miss Ruth in her later years would dismiss her former student as “that crotch dancer”).


Age, even though it brought her a body no longer capable of practice 12 to 16 hours a day, did not bring acquiescence.

“Some of the people I know who are the youngest are people who are not young . . . ,” she said.

And this summing up, perhaps, her most fitting epitaph:

“No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time.”


Among the highlights of Martha Graham’s career: 1916: Began studying dance at age 22.

1919-20: Performed in “Xochitl,” hailed as first original American ballet.

1920s: Invited to teach at dance adjunct of Eastman School of Music in Rochester.

1926: Founded Martha Graham Dance Troupe.

1930: Chosen to dance female lead in New York premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

1931: Staged “Primitive Mysteries.”

1940: Choreographed “Letter to the World.”

1944: Presented “Appalachian Spring,” among her best-known works.

1950s: Staged what many consider apex of her career, “Clytemnestra.”

1975: To celebrate her company’s 50th anniversary, choreographed three new works for a four-week, 31-performance marathon.

1987: Premiered “Persephone,” her final dance.