Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
From the 1920s to the 1970s, Martha Graham was a revolutionary dancer, choreographer, and instructor who changed the art of dance.
Awards: Capezio Dance Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom, National Medal of Arts
Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. In her early life in Pittsburgh, she explored theater with her nurse Lizzie, an experience that Graham described as her introduction to the performing arts. At fourteen years old, she moved to California and later established herself in New York as a dancer and choreographer. She developed her own technique called the Graham Technique and contributed to the field of modern dance, as well as ballet. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976, the first Guggenheim Fellowship as a dancer, and the National Medal of Arts. Additionally, she was awarded the Capezio Dance Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Samuel H. Scripps-American Dance Festival Award. Graham died on April 1, 1991, in New York.
Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania to Jane Beers and George Graham. Her introduction to the theater came from her nurse, Lizzie (likely Lizzie Pendergast. See Ancestry.com, "Graham, Dr. G. G.,"1900 U.S. Census). During Graham’s childhood in Pittsburgh, Lizzie created a playroom theater, where Graham engaged in imaginative play. In her autobiography, Graham stated, "I never saw a dance performance in Pittsburgh. Dance wasn’t even heard of" (Graham 31). Through Lizzie’s creative playtime in Pittsburgh, Graham learned what a theater could be. Another important lesson learned early in her life came from her father. Dr. Graham stated, "Movement doesn’t lie," and this phrase echoed through Graham’s work in dance, where she noted, "'Either a performance is honest or it is not'"(Horosko 1).
At fourteen years old, Graham's family moved to Santa Barbara, California. It was in California that her love for dance took hold of her life, when, in 1911, she saw her first performance of the Denishawn company. In Santa Barbara, she enrolled in a junior college—Comnock School of Expression—to begin her training. She realized she needed more serious training, however. Graham’s idol, Ruth St. Denis, owned a dance school with her husband Ted Shawn in Los Angeles. Thus in 1916, Graham enrolled at the Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, training mostly with Shawn. It was at the couple’s school that Graham discovered how she could move in new ways.
Inspired to break away from the Denishawn touring companies because of its strictness, Graham moved to New York and began teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, at John Murray Anderson’s Robert Milton School of Theater Arts in New York City, and at her own studio in Carnegie Hall. Ten years after taking her first dance lesson, Graham’s company—the Martha Graham Concert Group—gave their first performance on April 18, 1926 in New York.
Graham’s teaching and choreography was influenced by her mentor Louis Horst, whom she met at Denishawn and who later became the musical director at her school. Horst pushed Graham to realize her own potential and introduced her to influential composers including Aaron Copeland, (who composed Appalachian Spring), Gian Carlo Menotti, and Samuel Barber. Graham’s choreographic work proceeded toward developing a dance curriculum for those who trained with her. Once established, Graham Technique turned into its own standalone training. The technique built upon classical ballet training and evolved into a form of modern dance. In 1938, Graham’s company started to include male dancers, after originally including only women. Notable men in the dance world trained with Graham and danced in her company, including Erick Hawkins, whom she later married, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor.
One of Graham’s most famous works, Appalachian Spring, deals with a pioneer frontier marriage. The setting is sometimes said to be rural Pennsylvania, but Shaker culture seems more influential. Graham’s childhood fascination with folklore and mysticism translated into the dance. The starkness and dark nature of some of her works can be attributed to her childhood spent in Pittsburgh, where steel mills turned the sky dark and blackened clothing. As Graham stated, “My childhood years were a balance of light and dark” (Graham 18).
In addition to Graham’s work with dancers, she also worked with actors at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. While there, she choreographed and directed plays. As she progressed in her career, she worked with well-known ballet dancers such as Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Liza Minelli, Margot Fonteyn, and Maya Plisetskaya. In the latter stages of her career—the 1970s and 1980s—Graham remained the head of the company she founded in 1952, the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance. She stopped dancing in 1969 at age seventy-five.
During her long career, Graham choreographed more than two hundred works, created her own dance vocabulary and technique, and remained the only artistic director of her company—the oldest dance company in the country. In her autobiography, Blood Memory, she explained her need to continue dancing well past the age most dancers perform. Her awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976. Graham was the first dancer to receive this award. She also received the first Guggenheim Fellowship for a dancer in 1932, the Capezio Dance Award in 1960, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979, the Samuel H. Scripps-American Dance Festival Award in 1981, and the National Medal of Arts in 1985. She also received honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale. Graham died on April 1, 1991, in New York at age ninety-six from cardiac arrest after a fight with pneumonia.
Blood Memory: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday Books, 1991.
Modern Dance Forms in Relation to the Other Modern Arts. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company Publishers, 1987.
Martha Graham: Portrait of the Lady as an Artist. New York: Knopf, 1966.
Thoms, Victoria. “Martha Graham’s Haunting Body: Autobiography at the Intersection of Writing and Dance.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 40, no. 1, 2008, pp. 3-16, Project MUSE, https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/236923.