One Sunday morning shortly before the turn of the century, a Pittsburgh doctor and his wife took their 2-year-old daughter to a Presbyterian church. When the organ music started, the child broke away from her embarrassed mother and began pirouetting up the aisle.
It was fitting that the first public performance of Martha Graham, who died last week at 96 of cardiac arrest in her home in New York City, was something of a shocker. A rule breaker and a groundbreaker for more than six decades, the long-faced woman with the imperial bun of black hair was to dance what Picasso was to painting and Joyce was to literature. One of the most influential dancers, choreographers and teachers of the 20th century, she revolutionized her art. ending the 350-year tyranny of classical ballet with its vaulting leaps, pointed toes and intellectual precision. Instead, Graham favored—and created—the muscular, sensual, earthbound movements of what became known as modern dance. “Out of emotion,” she once said, “comes form.” The results of her philosophy have enchanted audiences from Toledo to Tokyo.
Graham was a diminutive woman—only 5’3″—but her stature and her stamina were enormous. During her lifetime, Graham created so many memorable works that she was lionized by the dance world in virtually every decade of her professional presence. She danced and choreographed to music as fresh and diverse as Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. “As a dancer, studying with her all those years ago. Martha helped form my body,” said one of her more famous pupils, former First Lady Betty Ford. “As a woman of independent thought, she helped form my mind.”
The oldest daughter of George and Jane Graham, Martha moved with her family to Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1908. When she was a freshman in high school, her parents took her to see the early modern dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Los Angeles—and she was hooked. She spent her next three summers at their Denishawn dance school and enrolled in the company after completing junior college.
By the mid-’20s Graham was a fixture in Greenwich Village, forming her first dance company and teaching body movement to budding actors at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Among her pupils over the years: Eli Wallach, Gregory Peck, Joanne Woodward, Woody Allen, Tony Randall, Bette Davis—and more recently, Madonna, who says she wants to play Graham if a movie is ever made of her life.
One of that movie’s more mysterious segments would feature composer Louis Horst, who wrote original scores for several of Graham’s works and was romantically involved with her for many years. Horst accompanied Graham at her 1926 New York City dance debut, and they maintained a professional partnership until 1949. When he died 15 years later, she destroyed their entire correspondence so that no one could ever learn the extent of their relationship. In 1948 Graham married a dancer in her company, Erick Hawkins, who was 14 years her junior. The marriage lasted only two years, and they had no children.
Until Graham, stopped dancing—incredibly, not until she was 75—she usually cast herself as the lead in her own creations, mainly dances with strong psychological themes. It took two years for her to adjust to not dancing. But when she returned to choreography in 1971, it was with a fury. She remained at the cutting edge of the dance world until her death and was working on a new piece about Christopher Columbus for next year’s 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. The work would have been her 181st. “Dance is my passion.” she once said. “It’s all I really know.”