Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of the achievement is no easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries, even in sleep. There are times of complete frustration; there are daily small deaths. (Graham).
Are there ever any outstanding artists who create a new style or have a completely different vision of expression who are not compulsive, driven and somewhat disturbed? Or, is it actually these personal characteristics that make them become geniuses? Some of the stories related about the great dance innovator Martha Graham's impatience, anger, and obsessive personality are disquieting. Yet she was one of the most important individuals in Western art. As noted in an article by Porterfield about Graham's contribution: "(she) was to dance what Picasso was to painting and Joyce was to literature. One of the most influential dancers, choreographers and teachers of the 20th century, she revolutionized her art, ending the 350-year tyranny of classical ballet with its vaulting leaps, pointed toes and intellectual precision."
Graham transformed two areas of American dance: First was classical ballet that dated back several hundred years and included prescribed body positions, defined geometrical relationships among the dancers and, most of all, precision. Second were the folk dances of Asia, Africa and native America, which had long been considered popular art or craft forms instead of high art (Gardner 266). Isadora Duncan had begun to use the entire body as a vehicle for expressing emotional content and Ruth St. Denis strove to capture the world of pure spirit. However, it was Graham who went the next step and made these forms into a serious work of repeatable art. She did not stop dancing until she passed away at 96 in 1991. Just before her death she wrote in her autobiography:
I have a new ballet to do for the Spanish government and I am sure it will be a terror and a joy and I will regret starting it a thousand times and think it will be me my swan song and my career will end like this and I will feel that I have failed a hundred times and try to dodge those inevitable footsteps behind me. But what is there for me but to go on? That is life.
Graham's eccentricities started at a very young age, as often is common with artists. When she was two years old and sitting in the Presbyterian Church with her parents, she began pirouetting up the aisle to the organ music. She made her theater debut in the high school comedy "Prunella (Kendall 158). Here she introduced barefoot classic dancing into the school's repertoire for the first time.
When she was a freshman in high school, Graham went with her parents to see the early modern dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Los Angeles and was immediately hooked. She spent her next three summers at their Denishawn dance school and enrolled in the company after completing junior college. In 1920, Shawn created for himself and Graham his most original vaudeville spectacular "Xochitl" about the legends of the New World (Kendall 167). Shawn had already recognized Graham's outstanding dance and theatrical qualities and wanted to feature them. In the play Xochitl dances Salome-like for the emperor, then fights him off as he advances on her in a drunken state. The success of the melodrama was crucial to Graham's future. During her three years at Denishawn, she had begun to develop her new dance movements. "This production gave her the chance to experiment night after night with dynamics -- that link between the visible dance shapes and the dancer's inner passion."
By the mid-1920s Graham was a fixture in Greenwich Village, forming her first dance company and teaching body movement to budding actors at the Neighborhood Playhouse. In 1926, Graham gave her first performance with her own small dance company (Gardner 274). The dances were reminiscent of Denishawn: "Three Gopi Maidens," "Maid with the Flaxen Hair" and "Claire de lune" were decorative rather than deep. In fact, Graham later called the dances "childish things, dreadful" (ibid).
Each new work from the late 1920s on further created the choreographical movements for which Graham is well-known, such as contraction, release, spiral. She invented a dance vocabulary of angular lines, a system of leverages, balances, and dynamics, of amazing abrupt falls to the ground. Her dancers always appeared explosive: torsos clenched and released, bodies coiled on the floor, dancers spiraled upward from kneeling to exultation and defying gravity. The emotions of hatred, lust, greed, betrayal, remorse, madness, and revenge filled the stage.
From her earliest years, Graham created a radical approach that changed the way of seeing and performing dance. Not only did she break the rules for the manner in which the body performed in time and space, she also challenged traditional methods of female body expressions. The first decade of her career was devoted to redefining dance and the female form. Dancer Bessie Schonberg explains about Graham's early history of experimentation: "She tried to find ... within her that elementary point of beginning. In other words, she kept on peeling the onion all of the time ... more and more and more was stripped and stripped away" (Jowitt 40). Graham's credo was "you moved between the shoulders and the knees and that was it" (ibid 41). This new dance form was very disconcerting to many living in the 1920s. The theater critic Stark Young, for instance, felt her movements were too angular and acerbic. He said they were almost Aztec in their lines and mass. Every time he saw Graham dance, "he thought she was going to give birth to a cube" (Londondance.com).
Despite the fact that Graham's actions appeared angular, they were, explained Schonberg, "circular like making a beckoning gesture, as if inviting someone to follow" (Jowitt 42). In addition, Graham often made a whip-like motion forward and backward, where her body curved and arched into space. The body also leaped, twisted, bent and fell backward to the floor. Graham identified a method of breathing and impulse control she called "contraction and release." For her, movement originated in the tension of a contracted muscle, and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed.
As a young woman, Graham said she was going to create a system of movement for dance that had never existed before and people would long remember. She did just that. Although she was already 40 years old when first establishing her name, Graham become one of the supreme innovators of the twentieth century (Campbell). She developed about 200 dances, a repertore of astonishing breadth and enormous power, often with herself at the center as a dancer. However, Graham was never content to be the only one driven and fanatical: Dancer Stephen Hodes once said with affection and admiration, "If she felt you were resistant when she was creating, she'd go at you like a savage animal" (Perron).
In the late 1920s, Graham jarred audiences with her themes as well as dance approach. In "Revolt," the audience was jolted with a direct portrayal of human injustice. In "Heretic," Graham dressed in white and played herself off against a set of elven women in black jersey tube dresses who tried in various ways to oppress the solitary rebel. In the 1930 "Lamentation," she featured a solitary, grieving woman who rocked back and forth with anguish (Gardner 273).
Some of Graham's works were political. In the mid- to late 1930s, she presented the situation in the Spanish Franco war. Her dances "Immediate tragedy" and "Deep song" were about this war, displaying sympathy for Spain and commitment towards social relevance. The working man in Depression America was another theme (Wheeler 38). It is not difficult to understand that modern dancers, such as Graham, supported the labor movement and wanted to demonstrate the treatment of workers' issues in their choreography, considering the fervor with which they themselves sought dignity as workers (ibid).
Another aspect that Graham exploited, which separated her modern dance form from the classics, was the use of voice. In such works as "American Document" and "Letter to the World," the spoken word became an integral part of the works (Neehdham 206). Sometimes, the movement evoked the words; other times, the voice called forth in emotional return. The result was a new form of dance-play that did not lose any of the importance of dance but rather enhanced it in a way never accomplished before.
Modern dancers strived to carve out a new kind of cultural event, using the theatrical conventions of ballet performances, but deriving the meaning of their work in initiating a more active participation of the audience (Foulkes 131). As Graham explained:
It is for the audience to finish what is essentially a conversation between the dancer and itself (the audience). The dance must be magnet. She does not throw roses to the audience like a ballerina. She…