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Week 8: Martha Graham

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Week EIGHT: Martha Graham: the Mother of Modern Dance

This week, we focus solely on Martha Graham. There is quite a bit of viewing in this assignment. Please allow ample time to complete this week’s work, your due date for this week’s journal submissions is Monday November 4th by 10am. Please turn in all Journal Entry questions via email to me with Week 8 Journal and YOUR NAME with DL3 in the subject line. 

Week 8: Modern Dance  in the 20th Century- Martha Graham- the Mother of Modern Dance

GRAHAM: Martha Graham is often called the mother of modern dance. She revolutionized the world and form of modern dance through the development of her technique which focused on contraction and release, all based from the pelvis. Her work was most always sexual in its nature of dancing from the center of one’s body, which she considered to be the pelvis.

-Please view this documentary on Martha Graham: you can skim this, you do not need to watch the entire doc. It is wonderful footage of Martha Graham performing, be sure to watch a few of the pieces to get a great idea of this artist, it is rare to have such rich footage of such an early pioneer.

Video: Graham: In Performance – this is 2 hour documentary on Graham and her work.

-Please view this brief video on Martha Graham and her technique:

More on Graham, from the Martha Graham Company’s historical page, please read:

In Brief

Recognized as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century Martha Graham created a movement language based upon the expressive capacity of the human body. It all began in 1926 when Martha Graham started teaching a group of dancers who had been drawn to her creative work. Thus began the Martha Graham Studio, to remain under her personal guidance for the next 66 years. When official accreditation came to dance in 1980 with the formation of the National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD), it adopted Martha Graham’s term, “Professional Studio School” to denote independent dance studios that teach to professional standards. Students who have studied at the Martha Graham School have moved on to professional dance companies such as the Martha Graham Dance Company, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Jose Limon Dance Company, the Buglisi Dance Theater, Rioult Dance Theater, The Battery Dance Company, Noemi Lafrance Dance Company, as well as other companies throughout the world and well known Broadway shows.

Martha Graham

Martha Graham’s creativity crossed artistic boundaries and embraced every artistic genre. She collaborated with and commissioned work from the leading visual artists, musicians, and designers of her day, including sculptor Isamu Noguchi and fashion designers Halston, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein, as well as composers Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Norman Dello Joio, and Gian Carlo Menotti.

Influencing generations of choreographers and dancers including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp, Graham forever altered the scope of dance. Classical ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov sought her out to broaden their artistry, and artists of all genres were eager to study and work with Graham—she taught actors including Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minelli, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, and Joanne Woodward to utilize their bodies as expressive instruments.

Graham’s groundbreaking style grew from her experimentation with the elemental movements of contraction and release. By focusing on the basic activities of the human form, she enlivened the body with raw, electric emotion. The sharp, angular, and direct movements of her technique were a dramatic departure from the predominant style of the time.

With an artistic practice deeply ingrained in the rhythm of American life and the struggles of the individual, Graham brought a distinctly American sensibility to every theme she explored. “A dance reveals the spirit of the country in which it takes root. No sooner does it fail to do this than it loses its integrity and significance,” she wrote in the 1937 essay A Platform for the American Dance.

Consistently infused with social, political, psychological, and sexual themes, Graham’s choreography is timeless, connecting with audiences past and present. Works such as Revolt (1927), Immigrant: Steerage, Strike (1928), and Chronicle (1936)—created the same year she turned down Hitler’s invitation to perform at the International Arts Festival organized in conjunction with the Olympic Games in Berlin—personify Graham’s commitment to addressing challenging contemporary issues and distinguish her as a conscientious and politically powerful artist.

Martha Graham remained a strong advocate of the individual throughout her career, creating works such as Deaths and Entrances (1943), Appalachian Spring (1944), Dark Meadow (1946), and Errand into the Maze (1947) to explore human and societal complexities. The innovative choreography and visual imagery of American Document(1938) exemplified Graham’s genius. The dramatic narrative, which included the Company’s first male dancer, explored the concept of what it means to be American. Through the representation of important American cultural groups such as Native Americans, African-Americans, and Puritans and the integration of text from historical American documents, Graham was able to capture the soul of the American people.

During her long and illustrious career, Graham created 181 masterpiece dance compositions, which continue to challenge and inspire generations of performers and audiences. In 1986, she was given the Local One Centennial Award for dance by her theater colleagues, awarded only once every 100 years, and during the Bicentennial she was granted the United States’ highest civilian honor, The Medal of Freedom. In 1998, TIME Magazine named her the “Dancer of the Century.” The first dancer to perform at the White House and to act as a cultural ambassador abroad, she captured the spirit of a nation and expanded the boundaries of contemporary dance. “I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer,” she said. “It’s permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable.”

Please read Brittanica’s page on Graham:

Errand Into the Maze is one of Graham’s most famous works

From the Oxford Dictionary:

Errand into the Maze is a “modern dance work in one act with choreography by Graham, music by Menotti, set by Noguchi, and costumes by Edythe Gilfond. Premiered 28 Feb. 1947 by Martha Graham Dance Company at Ziegfeld Theater, New York, with Graham and M. Ryder. Based on the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, it symbolizes the struggle between the self and its most secret terrors.”

The piece is set within a Greek Myth, some feel it represents the female protagonist’s struggle to conquer her inner demons, more specifically, fear of sexual intimacy.

The original program notes from its first performance describing the piece, read: “that errand-journey into the maze of the heart to face and do battle with the Creature of Fear.”

Please read this review of Errand Into the Maze from a 1988 performance:

Please view the following Martha Graham pieces and clips:

1.    1. Errand Into the Maze

  1. Lamentation– Martha Graham

Some of next few clips involve Graham technique with regard to floor barre. This is the way in which her dancers warm up- all of it centering from the pelvis and core. This is instrumental to the Graham technique, everything stems from the pelvis and contraction. 

  1. graham floor barre:

  1. Crockett demonstrates as Richard Move does Graham:

  1. Katharine Crockett in rehearsal (please watch the last half of this video)

  1. Crockett as Clytemenestra

  1. Graham technique

Journal Entries:

Please pull from your viewing and reading of Chapter 6 in your text to answer the following questions.

  1. What was unique about Martha Graham’s technique and approach to modern dance? Why do you think it was so revolutionary?
  2. Do you think her being a powerful woman focusing her work on female heroines and sexual power was important in the mid 20th century?
  3. What part of the body is the Graham based technique centered around?
  4. Who were Graham’s teachers, what influence do you think they had on her?
  5. What do you think Errand Into the Maze is about?
  6. Choose another Graham piece- Lamentation or Appalachian Spring, and write briefly about why you think this piece stands the test of time and was really something unique and original at the time of its conception.
  7. Balanchine and Graham were contemporaries, both creating ground breaking works in the same city in the same time period, while working in two very different genres of dance. Compare the work of these two choreographic giants: George Balanchine (Ballet) and Martha Graham (Modern Dance). How are they different, similar? Do you have a preference for one or the other, or do you appreciate both, explain.
  8. Have you ever done anything similar to Graham technique, what do you think it will feel like to center all movement from one place?
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