AN APPRECIATION : Martha Graham: Modern Dance’s Feminist Rebel


Martha Graham was a troublemaker. She depicted sex so unsparingly that her “Phaedra” was denounced in Congress as obscene. She refused to represent America at the Olympic Arts Festival in Berlin in 1936 because it meant dignifying the regime of Adolf Hitler. She gave artists of color prominence in her company during a period when they were seen as “exotics”--or not at all.

The fact that time has vindicated her choices shouldn’t obscure the courage she needed to make them--especially since her achievements are still widely misunderstood.

Today, when ballet companies regularly turn to modern dance for transfusions of creative energy, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate how threatening Graham, who died Monday at 96, seemed to a classical Establishment obsessed with the cult of the beautiful. Graham never hated ballet per se--indeed, she championed the works of Antony Tudor when he came to America--but she knew that conventional ballet aesthetics reinforced an unreal, man-made view of women that suited neither her nor any of her contemporaries.


Ballet defined femininity as a condition of miraculous lightness, with the torso immobile, the shoulders and arms pulled up into airy, linear shapes and the feet--in toe shoes--skimming the ground weightlessly. Starting with Bronislava Nijinska, every major woman choreographer in ballet had challenged this vision but only the moderns managed to supplant it.

Carved from her own body, Graham’s technique offered a concept of female identity rooted in the earth, centered in the solar plexus and energized during the primal act of contraction: all experience and feeling pulled deep inside. The technique soon embraced expressions of maleness and virtuosity but its essential accomplishment remains the definition of woman as someone connected to processes of nature both outside and within her.

This sense of integration (paralleled in the work of the other early moderns) established new standards of beauty and consciousness for Euro-American dance, and female freedom blazed at the core of both. For example, in her solo “Frontier,” 56 years ago, Graham dramatized her self-sufficiency and role as pioneer by claiming space, taming space and confidently facing a limitless horizon. She had danced female archetypes before, but this time she represented everyone--as if being a symbol of human achievement had always been woman’s work.

Starting from this core of meaning, Graham created a repertory that overturned male views of myth and history. In “Night Journey,” her reworking of “Oedipus Rex,” Graham emphasized the predicament of Queen Jocasta, with Oedipus seen merely as the fatally seductive instrument of her doom. In “Clytemnestra,” her reworking of “The Oresteia,” the title character prowled the underworld demanding justice, needing to know why she, alone, is dishonored among the dead when male brutality and betrayal drove her to her crimes.

In such works as “Seraphic Dialogue” (about Joan of Arc) and “Letter to the World” (about Emily Dickinson), she celebrated innovative, self-reliant women without ignoring their conflicts. She also saw female victimization as partly self-imposed--most notably in “Errand Into the Maze” in which a terrorized Ariadne ultimately confronts and conquers her fear (symbolized as the bestial, unmistakably male Minotaur).

Ironically, at about the time when feminism flowered in American society, Graham began reconciling male and female drives in a series of lush, sculptural odes to the beauty of the human form. But don’t accuse her of mellowing with age: As late as 1983, she was still capable of launching “Phaedra’s Dream,” a study of sexual exploitation that proved just as uncompromisingly nasty as her controversial “Phaedra” of 1962.


Graham’s published notebooks reveal a probing intelligence, a wide range of cultural influences and an untiring capacity for revision. Her filmed performances (many of them shot very late in her dancing career) show us a woman impelled to dance, driven to communicate her thoughts through movement.

Now on Kultur home video, her 1958 performance in “Appalachian Spring” is cautiously executed but still a revelation in its expressive rigor. It also makes more recent interpretations by others look saccharine.

After dancing a solo in which a young bride surveys her future as wife, mother and member of a community, Graham shows the character’s tormenting self-doubt in another solo. However, we don’t feel that this bride is afraid of the challenge, we feel that it may not be enough.

Longingly she gazes at the horizon, kisses her fingers and stretches them to the sky. Her new husband comes up behind her and lovingly pulls her hands down to her breast. She turns to face him: a specific future in a universe of possibilities. A few moments later she will say a troubled farewell to those possibilities and very deliberately place herself below him in a classic domestic tableau. Even here, as the light fades, in our last glimpse of her we see an arm drifting toward that sky. . . .

Martha Graham, American dancer, choreographer and troublemaker--in danger of being badly danced, sentimentalized and misunderstood, perhaps, but never dishonored among the dead.