This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 11, 2017: To the Woman at the Retirement Center

May 11, 2017: birthday: Martha Graham

Today is the birthday of American modern dance pioneer Martha Graham (1894), who once said: “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that others are behind the time.”

Graham was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until she moved to Los Angeles in her teens that she began dancing. She enrolled in dance school and got noticed by talent scouts, who recruited her for popular traveling shows like the Greenwich Village Follies. In 1922, when she was 18, she saw an abstract painting by Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and said, “I want to dance like that.” She started thinking about classical forms like ballet, which she found emotionally and physically restrictive, and about the importance of breathing in dance. She developed what became known as “The Graham Technique,” which centered on the idea of the contraction and release of breath. She also founded her own company, The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance (1926), which is now the oldest, continually performing dance company in the world.

Graham’s choreography was muscular, emotional, and visceral. In the beginning, most of her dancers were female and they wore stretch jerseys. A lot of audiences were dismayed and baffled by the dances Graham performed, but she also introduced a frankness to dance, especially in her willingness to portray grief, lust, and sexuality. She said: “I wanted to begin not with characters or ideas, but with movements […] I wanted significant movement. I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.”

She choreographed more than 180 works. Her best-known work, Appalachian Spring (1944), was in collaboration with composer Aaron Copland. Copland had no idea what the piece would be about, only that Graham told him she wanted an “American theme.” He was surprised, when he completed the score, to find out the title of the work: he’d never set foot in Appalachia. Other works drew on Greek mythology and biblical stories. Graham danced with her company until she was 75 years old. She died in 1991.

Martha Graham said: “Art is memory. It is the excavation of so many memories we have had — of our mothers, our best and worst moments, of glorious experiences we have had with friends or films or music or dance or a lovely afternoon on a sloping, green hill. All of this enters us and, if we are artists, must be shared, handed over to others. This is why it is so important to know what came before you. It is also important to understand that things will follow you, and they may come along and make your work look pedestrian and silly. This is fine; this is progress. We have to work with what life presents to us, and we have to work as well as we can while we can.”