Martha Graham, a pioneer in the establishment of American modern dance, was one of the principal choreographers of the twentieth century. Her work, which spanned more than seven decades, resulted in the development of a movement technique and a body of 180 choreographic works. Known also for her innovative collaborations, Graham worked with sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who designed over thirty-five sets for Graham works; lighting designer Jean Rosenthal; costume designer Halston; and many composers, including Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Robert Starer, William Schuman, and Louis Horst, who acted as accompanist and music director for Graham from 1926 to 1948. Graham founded a dance company in the 1920s that continues to perform her repertory.
Martha Graham was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on 11 May 1894 and commenced her dance studies in 1913. She studied with Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis at their Denishawn School in Los Angeles beginning in 1916 and, within two years Graham was teaching at the School. From 1919-1923, Graham performed with the company, attracting critical acclaim. She left Denishawn in 1923 and made her Broadway debut in John Murray Anderson's The Greenwich Village Follies. Her first independent concert was performed in New York City in April 1926 with three female dancers. By the end of the 1920s, Graham's female ensemble, known as the "Group," had expanded to sixteen. During this period, Graham's choreographies, such as Revolt (1927), Poems of 1917 (1928), and Immigrant (1928) demonstrated the social values that played an important role in American modern dance of that era. From 1929 until 1938, Graham choreographed twenty-one works for the Group and thirty-six solos for herself. Some of the important dances from this period include Heretic (1929, music by de Sivry); Lamentation (1930, music by Kodály); Panorama (1935, music by Lloyd); Chronicle (1936, music by Riegger); and American Document (1938, music by Green).
During the 1930s Graham established herself as one of America's most important artistic voices and, in 1938 she began to teach at Bennington College, Vermont where she remained until 1942. During her first summer at Bennington, Graham met dancer Erick Hawkins, who became her lover and later her husband. As the first man in what had been an all-female ensemble, Hawkins inspired Graham to explore new choreographic concepts that included Jungian psychology, Greek mythology, and the emotional turmoil of human relationships. She also tested use of spoken narrative and other theatrical devices. The late 1930s and 1940s were, perhaps, Graham's most creative choreographic years with noted works that included Every Soul is a Circus (1939, music by Nordoff); Letter to the World (1940, music by Johnson); Deaths and Entrances (1943, music by Johnson); Herodiade (1944, music by Hindemith); Appalachian Spring (1944, music by Copland); Dark Meadow (1946, music by Chavez); Night Journey (1947, music by Schuman); and Diversion of Angels (1948, music by Dello Joio). During these years a number of important dancers performed with Graham, including Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, Sophie Maslow, Jane Dudley, Anna Sokolow, Ethel Butler, and Jean Erdman.
World-wide tours of Graham's company were made possible in the 1950s with financial support from Batsheva de Rothschild and the U.S. State Department. Beginning as early as 1948, Graham began to create works in which she did not appear and, during the 1950s and 1960s, the dancers in her company were younger than she. Among the dancers who gained distinction during this era included Yuriko, Ethel Winter, Pearl Lang, Matt Turney, Helen McGehee, Miriam Cole, Mary Hinkson, Robert Cohan, Stuart Hodes, Paul Taylor, and Bertram Ross, who acted as Graham's onstage partner until she retired from the stage in 1969—when she was in her mid-70s.
She became seriously ill in the fall of 1970 but her school continued without her presence. She returned to her duties as director and choreographer in 1972 and began an era of reviving works and teaching her roles to a new assemblage of young dancers, including Takako Asakawa, Yuriko Kimura, Janet Eilber, Diane Gray, and Janet Lyman. Male dancers included Tim Wengerd, Peter Sparling, and Ross Parks. During the 1970s Graham's programs also included noted ballet artists Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Dame Margot Fonteyn.
By the end of the 1970s Graham was no longer choreographing to specially commissioned music and worked exclusively with pre-existing scores, drawing upon the works of Bartók, Varése, and Stravinsky.
Graham choreographed up until her death on 1 April 1991. Her ground-breaking choreographic structure and unique technique has influenced many generations of performers and her place in the development of American modern dance has best summed up by writer Anna Kisselgoff: "Martha Graham's name remains a virtual synonym for modern dance." In 1929 New York Times dance critic John Martin noted of Graham's work "It burns with the slow and deadly fire of the intellect. She does the unforgivable thing for a dancer to do—she makes you think."