Barbara Klein with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today, we explore
the life of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. She created almost two
hundred dance pieces. She is often
called the Mother of Modern Dance. Her influence on the world of dance
beginning of the twentieth century, women like Isadora Duncan and Ruth Saint
Denis wanted to create a new form of dance. Duncan and Saint Denis felt
restricted by ballet. Modern dance was created as a revolt against ballet.
Martha Graham was one of the most famous dancers and creators of dance, called
choreographers. She brought modern
dance to a new level of popularity in American culture. She created a new
language of movement that expressed powerful emotions. She started traditions
that are still used in modern dance today.
They include expressive movements of the body to tell a dramatic story,
special music, lighting, stage design and costumes.
Graham was born in the small town of Allegheny, Pennsylvania in eighteen
ninety-four. After Martha turned fourteen years old, her family moved to Santa
Barbara, California. While traveling
across the Midwest, Martha enjoyed the wide, open spaces of nature. She also
enjoyed the beautiful flowers and plants in California. The free, expressive
movements of modern dance were clearly influenced by the beauty of nature
in her life, however, Martha did not know that she would become a dancer. Her
father was a doctor and her family was very religious. They were members of the
upper class and did not accept dance as an art form. Still, in nineteen ten,
Martha's father took her to see a dance performance by Ruth Saint Denis, one of
the first modern dancers in America. Martha was sixteen and she decided then
that she wanted to become a dancer.
Saint Denis and Isadora Duncan were at the center of attention in modern dance.
They established some of the traditions we see today. For example, Duncan was
famous for starting the tradition of not wearing dance shoes while
performing. Saint Denis was famous for
creating dances influenced by other cultures. She studied dance from countries
such as Mexico and Egypt, instead of the European countries where ballet had
started. Martha Graham took an immediate interest in this new art form.
parents, however, did not approve of her sudden desire to dance. At this time,
people saw American dance as a lower art form.
Graham chose to follow her dream of dancing, even though she was
considered too old to begin dancing. She was in her early twenties when she
began studying dance in nineteen sixteen.
She attended the school created by Ruth Saint Denis and her husband, Ted
Shawn in Los Angeles, California.
Denishawn Dance School, Graham worked very hard to improve her ability to
dance. She trained her body to become strong enough to meet the difficult
demands of dance. She performed with the Denishawn dance company for several years
before moving to New York City. There, Graham performed in shows but she wanted
to make greater experiments with dance.
Graham started teaching dance at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New
York. Later she returned to New York City to teach at Carnegie Hall. She began
to choreograph, or create the steps of dances. In order to express herself
freely, she decided to establish her own dance company and school. In nineteen twenty-six she started the
Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.
enjoyed having her own company of students to perform her dances. Graham
produced a dance called "Heretic" in nineteen twenty-nine. She wore all white
and danced against a wall of dancers wearing all black. Graham began to work
with music composer Louis Horst. She worked with him until he died in nineteen
sixty-four. Graham once said that, without Horst, she would have felt lost.
nineteen thirty-six, Graham created "Chronicle," one of her most important
dances. "Chronicle" was influenced by
current events including the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War. The
dance expressed sadness and loneliness. At this time, showing strong emotions
in dance was very rare. Graham also
created dances based on ancient Greek tragic stories and famous female
first, people did not react well to Graham's style of dancing. It was very
different from European ballet, which was more commonly accepted. Graham's
dances were powerful, with strong and sharp movements. Some of the movements
involved contracting and releasing parts of the body, using the arms in
dramatic movements and falling to the floor.
These movements are still used in modern dance today.
In nineteen thirty-eight, President Franklin
Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, invited Martha Graham to perform at the
White House. She created a dance called "American Document." Graham later danced at the White House for
seven other presidents.
nineteen forty-four, Martha Graham created "Appalachian Spring," one
of her most famous dances. It tells the
story of a wedding among early American settlers. Aaron Copland composed this music for "Appalachian
nineteen fifty-one, Graham was among the people who established the dance
program at the Juilliard School in New York City. It is still one of the best arts schools in the country. Many
famous artists have begun their careers by studying there. Graham created her
largest dance in nineteen fifty-eight. She named it "Clytemnestra," and used
music from the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh.
worked with other famous and influential people in the world of dance. Many of
her students became famous dancers and choreographers. She also taught movement to famous people.
including singer Madonna, actress Bette Davis and film director Woody Allen.
her dances were filmed and made into a DVD called "Martha Graham: Dance on
Film." This is a collection of three programs Graham made for American
public television in the nineteen fifties and sixties. "A Dancer's
World" is an introduction to Graham and her work. She tells about her
dances and her dance group shows some of their methods. The DVD also includes films of two of her
dances, "Appalachian Spring" and "Night Journey."
continued to dance past the age of seventy. Once again, she was met with
criticism from people who came to watch her shows. Younger people knew that
Graham was an important influence but they did not understand the meaning
behind her dances. Graham began to suffer emotionally. She began to drink too
later wrote a book about herself, called "Blood Memory." In her book, she wrote that she performed
for the last time in nineteen seventy, when she was seventy-six years old. Two
years later Graham stopped drinking alcohol. She went back to her dance company
to choreograph more dances. The final dance she completed was called "Maple
Leaf Rag," which she finished in nineteen ninety. Scott Joplin composed the music.
"Maple Leaf Rag")
Martha Graham received many awards during her lifetime,
including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in nineteen seventy-six. She was
the first dancer to receive the country's highest civilian honor. She died in nineteen ninety-one at the age
of ninety-six. In nineteen
ninety-eight, Time magazine listed her as the "Dancer of the Century" and as
one of the most important people of the twentieth century. The Martha Graham
Dance Company still performs her dances in New York and around the world.
program was written by Elizabeth Stern.
It was produced by Lawan Davis.
I'm Steve Ember.
Barbara Klein. You can learn about
other interesting Americans at our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us
next week for People In America, in VOA Special English.