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Martha Graham

ballet choreographer

Martha Graham

Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894, in a small town just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When she was 14 her family moved to Santa Barbara, California. Her father was a doctor who specialized in nervous disorders, and who believed in diagnosis through attention to physical movement. Although she was athletic as a young girl, Martha would not gain an interest in dance until her late teens.

In 1911, noted ballet dancer Ruth St. Denis performed at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. It was this performance that inspired Graham to enroll in at an arts-oriented junior college. She then studied at the University of Cumnoch from1913 to 1916, before joining the Denishawn School, founded by Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn. She would spend eight years at Denishawn, first as a student, then as an instructor. Her first major recital was in the role of an Aztec maiden in Xochital, a dance made specifically for her by Shawn.

Graham left Denishaw in 1923 to join the vaudeville revue of Greenwich Village Follies, where she was able to design and choreograph her own dances. By 1926 she was ready to set out on her own. To insure that she could pay her bills she took teaching positions at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and the John Murray Anderson School in New York City, while simultaneously working to establish her own dance company.

The Martha Graham Dance Company made its official debut on April 18, 1926, in New York City, with The Flute of Krishna. By 1927 Graham was able to resign both of her teaching positions.

By the time of her death in 1991, Martha Graham had created an amazing 181 ballets. She conceived each new work in its entirety -- the dance, costumes and music. She was the first choreographer to work with contemporary composers rather than making dances to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music, as well the first to regularly employ both Asian- and African-American dancers. Her ballets were inspired by a wide variety of sources, including modern painting, the American frontier, religious ceremonies of Native Americans, and Greek mythology. Many of her most important roles portray great women of history and mythology -- Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Medea, Phaedra, Joan of Arc, Emily Dickinson, etc.

Along the way, the Martha Graham Dance Company helped groom a number of other well-known dancers and choreographers, including Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham, all of whom were members at one time or another. In addition, Graham created roles for such notable guest dancers as Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. She also taught several actors -- Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Anne Jackson, and Joanne Woodward to name but a few -- how to use their body as an expressive instrument.

Despite advancing age, Martha Graham continued dancing on stage until 1969, and never gave up teaching or choreographing. She was working on her last ballet, The Eye of the Goddess, when she died, on April 1, 1991.

Major Works

The Flute of Krishna (1926)
Revolt (1927)
Immigrant (1928)
Heretic (1929)
Lamentation (1930)
Primitive Mysteries (1931)
Frenetic Rhythms
Frontier (1935)
Chronicle (1936)
Deep Song
American Document
El Penitente (1940)
Letter to the World
Appalachian Spring (1944)
Cave of the Heart (1946)
Errand Into the Maze
Night Journey
The Triumph of Saint Joan (1951)
Seraphic Dialogue (1955)
Episodes: Part I (1959)
Cortege of Eagle (1970)
Lucifer (1975)
The Scarlet Letter
Rite of Spring (1984)
Maple Leaf Rag (1990)
The Eye of the Goddess (1991)


Blood Memory (1990)

Awards and Honors

Dance Magazine Award (1956)
Laurel Leaf of the American Composers Alliance (1959)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (1976)
French Legion of Honor (1984)
United States National Medal of Arts (1985)
1986 Local One Centennial Award for Dance from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local One (1986)
TIME Magazine Dancer of the Century (1998)
named a Female Icon of the Century by People Magazine (1998)

The website of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dancing is


American Masters

See Also

Rudolf Nureyev
Bette Davis

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This page was last updated on 10/08/2018.