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Martha Graham & Modern Dance

In the development of modern dance, how successfully did Martha Graham (in Ezra Pound’s phrase) “make it new”?

In order to decide whether Martha Graham made dance ‘new’, it is necessary to examine dance history, to look at the characteristics of nineteenth century ballet and the choreography of Graham’s predecessors, Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis.

Ballet is thought of as a French art because the first school was in France, the early books were written in French, and the French were responsible for turning it from an entertainment into an art form. The early ballet was performed on the floor of a hall, with the audience surrounding the dancers. It was not until the mid-1700s that ballet started using the proscenium stage. At this time, there were changes in leg extension and elevation because both were more effective on the proscenium stage. Early dancers wore heavy costumes and masks, which were worn late into the Eighteenth Century. Jean-Georges Noverre recommended abolishing the custom of ‘dancing with masks.’ (1) Noverre placed less emphasis on execution, and more to feeling. He believed that balletic movement should ‘move the audience emotionally, through its dramatic expressiveness.’ (2) Noverre also emphasised the importance of the unification of scenery, music and plot.

One of the most important technical advances of the Nineteenth Century was the development of pointe shoes. Marie Taglioni is thought to have been the first person to go up on pointe in 1825, although it is likely that she had predecessors. However, Taglioni was the ‘first to popularize the technique, in the ballet La Sylphide.’(3) The pointe shoes were vital in creating the ‘illusion of weightlessness’ and ‘feminine beauty’(4) that was required for Romantic ballet. Nineteenth century ballet took two main forms, Romantic and Classical. The aims of Romantic ballet were to express moods, emotions, actions and reactions of characters. The Romantic ballet was concerned with ‘mysterious and mythical themes, haunted by supernatural, feminine creatures, beyond the grasp of mortal men.’(5) Consequently, the scenery was romantic and gothic and the dancers often wore wings. The focus was upon the female dancers, rather than the male dancers who merely supported the women. The ballerina system was at its strongest in France, where ballerinas occasionally dictated the choreography and music. Therefore, the music tended to be second rate and the intellectuals refused ‘to take it seriously or to consider it on a par with music, literature, or the other arts.’ (6)

Audiences and critics alike grew tired of Romantic ballet, where dancers ‘aspired to skim and spin like heavenly puff-balls’ .(7) Instead, the audiences turned their attention to Russian Classical ballet, where the emphasis was upon athleticism. During the Nineteenth Century, many teachers went to Russia and revolutionised Russian ballet. Charles Louis Didelot revolutionised Russian ballet by making the ‘dancer “fly” by using invisible wires’ (8), and Marius Petipa is praised for helping to raise Russian ballet to world pre-eminence. However, his male dancers had weak roles therefore, Petipa became known as ‘a ballerinas’ choreographer’. (9)

The key characteristics of Classical ballet were technique and training, rather than emotional expression. The dancers were expected to jump high and traverse the stage quickly. Their costume was influenced by this athleticism, that is tutus were worn short in order to reveal the line of the leg. In Classical ballet, there was a principal male dancer and a principal female dancer with both a male and a female chorus, adding a sense of balance.

When Petipa left Russia, ballet split in two directions – there was a revival of classical ballet and a ballet that matched the ‘Post-Revolutionary Socialist realism.’ (10) Diaghilev, an avant-garde artist who wanted to Westernise the arts, formed a group of dancers called the Ballets Russes, who moved to Paris in 1909. Unlike the old dances which ‘created a uniform pattern of speed and technique’, the new dances varied in style and tempo. (11) The Ballets Russes experimented with ‘theme, movement, set design, music and costuming.’ However, they also adhered to traditional choreography. (12)

Despite the experimentation in the Ballets Russes, American dancers grew frustrated with following the European tradition. They wanted something they could identify with so they set about “making it new”. Wheeler argues that what ‘made the new dance ‘modern’ was its subject matter and, along with its revolutionary stance on stage, its progressive positions off the stage.’ (13) The new dances tackled social issues such as fascism, the Depression and the workers movement. The reason they rejected ballet was because of the ‘frivolousness of its concerns onstage’ and the ballet audience members who were ‘capable of purchasing a high-priced ticket to support “generously ballyhooed European artists”’. (14) Instead, they wanted dance to be directed at the average American citizen. Three of the early pioneers of modern dance were Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis.

Loie Fuller incorporated a theatrical element in her dance. Working with her brother, a theatre technician, Fuller began experimenting with the effect that gas lighting had on her silk skirt. One reviewer described the effect as ‘“unique, ethereal, delicious . . . she emerges from darkness, her airy evolutions now tinted blue and purple and crimson, and again the audience . . . insists upon seeing her pretty piquant face before they can believe that the lovely apparition is really a woman.”’ (15) Fuller’s intention was to make the audience focus upon what was making manipulated, the combined effect of light and dancing, rather than the form of the dancer. Although Fuller “made it new” by introducing light techniques to her routines, her choreography is still grounded in the world of fantasy and illusion, similar to that of the Romantic ballet of the Nineteenth Century.

In 1903, Duncan declared that ‘the dance of the future would be similar to the dance of the ancient Greeks, natural and free.’ (16) Duncan criticised ballet because she believed that it went against the natural by ‘“deforming the beautiful woman’s body.”’ (17) In contrast to Fuller, Isadora Duncan made the audience focus upon the body by wearing free flowing clothes and bare feet, inspired by ‘the simplicity of classical Greek art’. (18) This was certainly a “new” concept in a time when ordinary women still wore tight corsets and did not show their ankles. However, Duncan also favoured ‘a simple stage setting and simple costumes.’ (19) While her costumes were considered radical, they were very simple in design.

Ruth St. Denis’ began her dancing career in a dime museum and vaudeville houses, before touring the United States and Europe with David Belasco’s production of Zaza. During this time, St. Denis became interested in the dance and drama of Eastern cultures. In 1905, St. Denis began her solo career, dancing in Broadway theatres and private homes until she hired Ted Shawn in 1914. (20) Denishawn was founded in 1915, with a curriculum that included ‘ballet (on demi-pointe), ethnic and folk dance, Dalcroze eurythmics, Delsarte exercises and yoga.’ (21) While Denishawn was “new” in the sense that is drew on previously ignored cultures, they tended to follow rather than innovate. Therefore, the second generation of modern dancers, including Martha Graham, rebelled against Denishawn’s ‘art nouveau exoticism and commercialism’. (22)

What is most “new” about Martha Graham is her attitude to dance. Whereas Russian and French ballet of the Nineteenth Century focused upon fantasy and technique, Graham placed an emphasis upon the communicative power of dance. She hoped that the audience would feel the essence of the message in her dance, even if they did not necessarily understand it.

Graham’s attitude to dance was arguably influenced by her father, a psychologist, who told her that ‘movement never lies’. (23) Later in her life, she would use this theory to display human emotion through dance. Another early influence upon Graham was Ruth St. Denis, who inspired her to dance. Graham admits ‘“I worshipped everything about Miss Ruth – how she walked, how she danced. Miss Ruth was everything to me.”’ (24) However, Ruth St. Denis thought of Graham as ‘too old, small and not particularly attractive.’ (25) In later years, Graham rejected the ‘ornate style of Denishawn productions, and her dancers were devoid of the expected glamour and make-up, instead appearing mask-like.’ (26) However, Denishawn’s practise of drawing upon other cultures inevitably influenced Graham in her representation of primitive culture.

Graham left Denishawn in 1923 and began working with the Greenwich Village Follies, before teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and the John Murray Anderson School in New York City. By 1927, Martha Graham was working as a dancer and choreographer in New York.. (27) At this time, Graham began working with Louis Horst. Horst introduced Graham to ‘the work of the German modern dancer, Mary Wigman, and to the innovators of the school of modern painting, including the work of the Cubists and Wassily Kandinsky.’ He also taught her about musical form, encouraging her to work with contemporary composers. (28) Graham’s “long woolens” period began in 1926 and lasted until 1934. (29) By 1930, Graham identified a method of breathing and impulse control she called “contraction and release”, (30) based on Delsarte’s principle. Delsarte, a French singer, studied the relationship between emotion and movement. Around 1867, he argued that ‘the entire body, especially the torso, must be mobilized in movement and that expression comes from muscular tension and its release.’ (31) Although Delsarte had expressed this theory, Graham was one of the first dancers to put it into practice in order to portray emotion through dance. Graham said that with contraction, or the breath’s expiration, the chest curved inwards and ‘suggested to her fear and sorrow’. Release, with the expansion of the chest, ‘suggested joy and extroversion.’ (32) It was this method of dancing that gave Graham’s dancers a ‘hard, angular look’ that was unfamiliar to audiences used to the ‘smooth, lyrical bodily motions’ of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. (33)

During the early 1930s, or her “long woolens period”, Graham’s dances focused upon emotional themes. In Lamentation, Graham wears a long tube of material, leaving only her feet, hands and face visible to “indicate the tragedy that obsesses the body, the ability to stretch inside your own skin, to witness and test the perimeters and boundaries of grief, which is honourable and universal.” (34) By wearing a shapeless tube, Graham distracts the audience’s attention from the shape of her body, forcing them to focus on the movement of the body and the emotion that is represents.

In 1931, Graham made a trip to New Mexico and became interested in the American Indian culture. The use of curves and angles in primitive sculpture and the primitivism in modern art, such as Grande Danseuse by Picasso, led Martha Graham to use such shapes in works such as Primitive Canticles and Primitive Mysteries. (35) Primitivism is fresh or new since it is ‘always expressive of a “first seeing,” a “first feeling,” a “first experience”.’ (36)

Martha Graham began to develop choreography on nationalist themes, such as the ‘American Mythic heritage.’(37) Graham tried to express the American experience through typically American subjects and dances. She tried to express their “Americanness” by using ‘recognizable, symbolic movements and everyday movements.’ (38) Graham also manipulated the costume and the set to suggest an American setting. Graham’s first “American” dance was Frontier, in 1935, and her last “American” dance was Appalachian Spring, which was created in 1944. The solo figure of Frontier represented the typical Nineteenth Century pioneer woman, through both her movement and the costume. (39) The frontier was suggested by the simple set consisting of a barrier made up of two horizontal bars to serve as the frontier post. The intention was to evoke ‘the vastness of the American landscape before it was fully tamed by the settlers.’ (40)

While Graham drew upon long-founded ideas and practises, she was also innovative: ‘Martha’s style is highly individualistic and expressive, containing refined elements of theatricality, psychological insight, human emotion and motivation.’ (41) The main “new” features of Graham’s choreography were her treatment of male and female dancers, her manipulation of the human body, her use of costume, the sparseness of her sets, and her emphasis on the communicative power of movement. These characteristics can be easily identified in Appalachian Spring (1944) and Diversion of Angels (1948).

Between 1927 and 1938, Martha Graham worked with female dancers only. While she dealt with many social issues, such as the war, the growth of fascism and the workforce, the absence of men at her company meant that she did not tackle other aspects. The introduction of men in 1938 inspired new themes and was the inspiration for Appalachian Spring. Appalachian Spring was created at the time when Martha Graham was falling in love with one of her male dancers, Erick Hawkins. It is a dance about love and the American frontier, and would have been less convincing without male dancers to fulfil the masculine roles.

Martha Graham treated male and female dancers very differently to traditional ballet, where the male dancers often did not perform in a masculine way. Whereas Graham knew how women could dance, she did not know how it felt to be a male. As Graham wrote to Coolidge in August 1942, ‘“I have done those things only that I could feel and understand, not in a verbal sense, perhaps, but in my medium, my instrument, my body.”’ (42) That is, she could not choreograph the male movements because she could not feel them. Therefore, Graham asked her male dancers to create their own moves.

Appalachian Spring shows the male and female stereotypes through the revivalist preacher and his followers who ‘come and profess blessings and hope for dutiful females, but suffering and damnation for the sinner.’ (43) The revivalist preacher is very bold and upright in his movement, moving with purpose. His movements are angular, straight, bold and assertive. These movements convey his stern authority. The firm, masculine movements of the revivalist preacher stand in stark contrast to the chorus of four young women, who vibrantly curve their bodies in opposition to his rigid frame. Their exuberant movements portray their youth, vigour and innocence. The women are submissive to the preacher, as they appear to listen to and applaud his words.

The young frontier husband in Appalachian Spring is likewise upright, angular and bold. However, while he is ‘open and firm’, he is also inexperienced. There is a sense of his ‘possession and questioning’ when he runs his hand over his cabin. While he is proud, he has doubts and worries but his confidence will grow in time, with experience. (44) His firm masculinity is best shown in contrast to his young bride, who dips and curves her body on the stage.

Graham’s emphasis is on the natural movement of women. While the male dancers keep their bodies very straight, the women use their torsos to twist and turn in new ways, suggesting a fluid femininity. The new wife’s inexperience and apprehension is shown by her reluctance to fully expand her body. The young wife falls to the floor and twists on her knees, suggesting a sense of vulnerability. Her movement expresses both optimism and inexperience. This is clear in comparison with the strong, flowing movements of the older pioneer woman, who is more confident and experienced. She exudes feminine energy and a sense of calmness. It is this strength of character that makes the mature pioneer woman the ‘source of stability and support’ in the new community. (45)

Whereas traditional ballet expected a dramatic entrance and exit of the dancers, filled with movement, Graham allowed her dancers to walk across the stage if necessary. She uses the contrast of the stillness of one dancer against the movement of another. Graham was also especially interested in fall and recovery: ‘Falls, which acknowledged the power of gravity rather than defying it, were incorporated into her method.’ (46) Whereas Nineteenth ballet was concerned with elevation, jumping high and appearing to fly, Martha Graham was interested in making use of the dance floor and the forces of gravity at work when a dancer fell downwards.

Graham’s use of costume is just a continuation of the dancers’ movements. The revivalist preacher’s rigid sternness is reinforced in his sombre costume. In comparison, the four young women are dressed in light, gently flowing skirts that dart about as they do. The new husband is dressed in plain, masculine attire in a simple colour. There is nothing decorative about his costume. In comparison, the young bride’s skirt almost dances by itself. As she moves her legs, the skirt shimmies in a feminine, curving motion. Similarly, the older pioneer woman’s costume emphasises her strength, experience and femininity. Without drawing too much attention to the body, Martha Graham’s costumes ‘liberate, augment, and define the roots of the movements themselves.’ (47)

What is perhaps more significant, or “new”, is that Graham’s dancers performed with bare feet. This is practical, since it allows the dancers to have better balance however it was also noticeably different. Whereas Nineteenth Century ballet dancers wore pointe shoes in order to create the image of a light, feminine woman, Graham’s dancers, like Isadora Duncan before her, are in contact with the earth. You could even say that Graham’s dancers are grounded in reality.

The set of Appalachian Spring is important since Graham argued that it is ‘essentially a dance of place.’ The set suggests the ‘questioning spirit’ and the ‘sense of establishing roots’ because of its simplicity. (48) While the set is incredibly basic, it nevertheless suggests the frontier landscape and the new home of the young couple. A sense of space is created by the horizon, of sky and a few clouds, lit with bright daylight in order to suggest optimism, hope for a bright new future. With such a blank set, Graham forces her audience to focus upon the movement of her dancers and the relationship between them, shown by their positioning on the stage. By setting a ‘quintessentially American’ (49) scene, Martha Graham had created something that American dancers could finally identify with.

The inspiration for Graham’s Diversion of Angels came from a visit to the Chicago Art Institute, where Graham saw a Wassily Kandinsky painting and resolved ‘“I will make a dance like that”’. (50) The dance is essentially about ‘the love of life and the love of love; the meeting and the parting of a man and woman.’ (51) However, Diversion of Angels is arguably influenced by Freudian psychology, since the three female dancers represent different sides of one woman’s character.

In Diversion of Angels, their costumes, as well as their movements portray the female characters, and each woman is shown in relation to the male dancer. He is firm and supportive, but appears to fade into the background against the vibrant women. The first woman, wearing white, is calm, serene and mature which is reflected is her slow, elegant movements. To Graham, the woman in white symbolises mature love: ‘she is only able to move in balance with her partner.’ (52) The second woman, dressed in yellow, is exuberant, youthful and athletic. She moves in a darting, energetic fashion. This woman symbolises ‘adolescent love’. (53) Finally, a woman wearing red darts across the stage. She is dynamic and passionate, which is shown through her curved, seductive movement The woman wearing red symbolises ‘erotic love’, and Graham thinks of her as ‘“the Kandinsky flame [she] had seen so long ago at the Chicago Art Institute.”’ (54) Graham celebrates the different kinds of femininity in Diversion of Angels, placing women at the centre of the audiences’ attention.

The plain costume of the dancers allows the audience to focus upon the movements of the body. There are no details to the simple, smooth costumes therefore only the colour differentiates between the dancers and their different emotional significance. The costumes allowed Graham’s dancers to ‘portray stark and simple emotions not often expressed in classical dance’ including fear, jealousy, anger and hatred. (55)

The set of Diversion of Angels, like the costume, is very plain. The dancers perform against a shadowy backdrop, which does not limit the scene to a particular place. While the colour inevitably suggests a mood, the scene is universal since it is not limited to place. This forces the audience to focus solely upon the dancers, their movement and what they hope to communicate. This is a sharp contrast to Nineteenth Century ballet, which placed an emphasis upon a detailed set, which set the romantic mood and told a story about the place. Martha Graham has made a strenuous effort to avoid this mistake since it detracts from the choreography.

While Graham draws on the fresh energy of primitivism for inspiration, she also invents a new style in dance. She communicates the feminine emotion of her female dancers through their natural, curving movement. Graham also gave her male dancers a free rein to create a new masculine dance style, which communicated the essence of male experience. These were bold, rigid movements centred on the world of the logical and mechanical.

However, one way that Martha Graham did not appear to lead or innovate is in her gender roles. Although she created masculine roles for male dancers, she tended to reinforce gender stereotypes. While she presents confident, mature women in her early dances, they are usually submissive to and dependent upon men. For example, the congregation of women worship the revivalist preacher in Appalachian Spring, and the young bride is dependent upon her husband for happiness. In Diversion of Angels, three female dancers are shown in relation to one man. Only the mature pioneer woman in Appalachian Spring is free from a visible dependency upon a man. It was not until Graham’s dances about ancient Greek tragedy that she portrayed women in a positive light: ‘One of her great accomplishments is to look at the patriarchal mythology from the feminine viewpoint.’ (56) Graham’s Cave of the heart (1946) and Clytemnestra (1958) focus upon the strong women in Greek mythology, bringing the women to the forefront, rather than the male “heroes”. Graham is quoted as saying ‘“Modern dance isn’t anything except one thing in my mind; the freedom of women in America”’. (57) However, I feel that considering the amount of independence some American women were enjoying during Graham’s time, her female roles are surprisingly unrevolutionary.

Not everything about Martha Graham’s modern dance was “new”. She adapted well-established theories, dance techniques and cultures to develop her dance style. However, what was “new” was that she was not afraid to put these ideas into practice. Although she was inspired by other cultures, Graham expresses American themes, such as that of the frontier in Appalachian Spring. American audiences and dancers could finally identify with the central themes and emotions of her choreography, as they had never been able to do before. Whereas Nineteenth Century ballet focused upon European concerns and flights of fantasy, Graham’s choreography focused upon the simple reality of American themes. Martha Graham ‘broke the traditional moulds, created new forms of expression, and forever changed the face of modern dance.’ (58)

  7. Louis Horst and Carroll Russell, Modern Dance Forms in relation to the other modern arts, 5th ed. (1977), p.53
  10. "Russian Ballet",
  11. "Russian Ballet",
  12. Jenny Gorman and Chris Sippel, "The Ballet Russes"
  13. Wheeler in Lijntje Zandee, "Martha Graham and Modern American Dance"
  14. Wheeler in Lijntje Zandee, "Martha Graham and Modern American Dance"
  18. "The Origins of Modern Dance"
  21. "The Origins of Modern Dance"
  22. "Modern Dance"
  23. Joseph H. Mazo, Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America (London: A & C Black Ltd, 1977), p.157
  24. "Martha Graham: The Innovation and the Artistry"
  25. "Martha Graham's Life"
  26. "Martha Graham's Life"
  29. "Martha Graham: The Innovation and the Artistry"
  31. "The Origins of Modern Dance"
  32. "The Origins of Modern Dance"
  35. Horst and Russell, Modern Dance Forms in relation to the other modern arts, 5th ed. (1977), pp.53-55
  36. Horst and Russell, Modern Dance Forms in relation to the other modern arts, 5th ed. (1977), p.60
  37. Lijntje Zandee, "Martha Graham and Modern American Dance"
  38. Zandee, "Martha Graham and Modern American Dance"
  39. Zandee, "Martha Graham and Modern American Dance"
  40. Zandee, "Martha Graham and Modern American Dance"
  41. "Martha Graham: The Innovation and the Artistry"
  42. James H. Billington, "A Dance Pioneer's Legacy"
  43. "Major Works of Martha Graham"
  44. appalachian spring handout
  45. Lijntje Zandee, "Martha Graham and Modern American Dance"
  46. Mazo, Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America , p.157
  49. James H. Billington, "A Dance Pioneer's Legacy"
  55. "Martha Graham's Modern Dance"
  56. Mazo, Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America , p.186
  57. Mazo, Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America , p.186
  58. "Martha Graham: The Innovation and the Artistry"


    Horst, Louis and Russell, Carroll. Modern Dance Forms in relation to the other modern arts, 5th ed. 1977.

    Mazo, Joseph H. Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America London: A & C Black Ltd, 1977.

    Billington, James H. “A Dance Pioneer’s Legacy”

    Gorman, Jenny and Sippel, Chris. “The Ballet Russes”

    Zandee, Lijntje. “Martha Graham and Modern American Dance”

    “Major Works of Martha Graham”

    “Martha Graham’s Life”

    “Martha Graham’s Modern Dance”

    “Martha Graham: The Innovation and the Artistry”

    “Modern Dance”

    “Russian Ballet”,

    “The Origins of Modern Dance”