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Martha Graham

Many consider Martha Graham to be one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. She set in motion an entirely new concept of modern dance — one that transformed its very nature in both movement and tone. Her career spanned 70 years, during which she choreographed more than 180 dance compositions. She inspired hundreds of aspiring dancers. Many of her pupils later distinguished themselves as acclaimed choreographers.

Graham was immersed in the study of movement from the moment she was old enough to observe the fluidity of the body. Her father, a doctor who specialized in nervous disorders, believed strongly in diagnosing through observation. He focused on watching how his patients moved physically through a space. This was not lost on Graham, who later incorporated the relationship between body and space into all of her work. Graham’s interest in dance turned into a passion after she attended a performance of Ruth St. Denis, a premier ballerina in her day. Curiously enough, Graham’s parents were not thrilled with her career choice and had her attend a junior college. After her father’s death, she enrolled in the Denishawn dance school, which Ruth St. Denis founded with her husband Ted Shawn.

While Graham began her career in ballet, her passion was for modern dance. Once she began teaching, she was able to have complete control over her craft. The study of the body’s intimate relationship with movement was the foundational piece of Graham’s extraordinary vision. She choreographed her dances to embrace harsh emotions, incorporating what she called “contraction and release” breathing that allowed for jerky movements, sharp bends, elasticity of the body and falls.

The themes of her work reflected what was happening socially and politically at the time. One of her most celebrated pieces, Lamentations, was a solo piece depicting a woman wrapped in a single piece of fabric shaped into a tube. This is thought to be a response to industrialization, particularly the skyscrapers that were beginning to rise in New York City.

Martha Graham’s contributions to the world of dance earned her numerous awards and recognitions. She was granted the highest award given to an American civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But her greatest legacy was how she changed the face of dance forever.

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