Martha Graham (1894-1991): her biography
All the quotes on this page come from Martha Graham's
Blood Memory (Doubleday). Thanks a lot to Walt Derk who sent me this
- 1894: birth in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) on May 11,
her father was a doctor.
My childhood years were a balance of dark and light.
- 1908: her family moved to Santa Barbara (California).
1911: she saw a performance of Ruth Saint-Denis and decided to become
I went to the theatre, the Mason Opera House, with a dark dress and
a hat my father had bought for me.(...) He pinned a corsage
of violets to my gray dress and that night my fate was sealed.
The curtain parted.
The audience was still. Miss Ruth was doing a program that included her famous solos -"The Cobras", "Radha", and "Nautch". Also on the program was her famous dance "Egypta".
- 1913-1920: she studied theater and dance at the University of Cumnoch
(and graduated in 1916).
- 1916: she joined the Denishawn School in Los Angeles
(school of Ruth Saint-Denis and Ted Shawn). There she danced several
important roles, including Shawn's Xochtil (1920),
and met the composer Louis Horst.
- 1923: she left the Denishawn (with Horst).
- 1926: she taught at the Eastman School of Rochester.
she gave her first recital in New-York (48th Street
Theatre) on April 18, with Betty McDonald, Evelyn Subier and Thelma
Braerce. It included 18 short pieces (musics of Scriabine,
Debussy, Satie, Ravel and Horst).
The first concert was held at the 48th Street Theatre on April 18,
1926. I danced solos to the ;usic of Schumann, Debussy, Ravel,
and others. Louis Horst was my accompanist. (...) I did many dances,
and everything I did was influenced by Denishawn. There was an audience.
They came because I was such a curiosity- a woman who could do her
- 1927: opening of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary
Dance. Her pieces in that period often dealt with social
Vision of Apocalypse, Lamentation,
- 1929: her first non-solo ballet, Heretic.
- 1930s: because of the economic crisis, her ballets
had no sets, and she made most of the costumes herself.
- 1936: she refused to go the Olympic Games in Berlin.
The formal invitation arrived, late in 1935. It never entered my
mind to say yes.How could I dance in Nazi Germany? I replied:
"I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time.
So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecutes,
have been deprived of the right to work for
ridiculous and unsatisfactory reasons, that I should consider
it impossible to identify myself,
by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things
She created Chronicle (against imperialism),
Deep Song (about the Civil war in Spain),
Primitive Mysteries and Frenetic Rhythms
(about Indian and Mexican traditions)...
1938: She was invited by Mrs Roosevelt at the White
House, and created American Document
(dealing with American Independence and Abraham Lincoln).
In 1937, I danced at the White House for the first
time for President amd Mrs. Roosevelt; I would dance there for
seven other presidents. I danced in a little garden that was filled with flowers.
- 1939: Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins (who was to become
her husband) joined her company.
- 1940s: her company toured in the USA and in Cuba.
She created El Penitente
and Letter to the World
at the Bennington Festival, and also
(1944), which was her first collaboration with the set designer
Many of her ballets in that period dealt with
mythology :Cave of the heart
(Medea), Errand into the Maze
(the Minotaur), Night Journey
(Oedipus and Jocast)...
1948: she got married with Erick Hawkins.
Erik danced with my company, and gradually we had a very deep love affair. After
eight years of living together, Erik decided we should marry.
I didn't want to but I did. During that ninth year
it all fell apart. It shows. Never try to hold on anything.
- 1954: first tour of her company to Paris (her ballets were
booed by the audience...)
- 1955: Paul Taylor entered her company (as a dancer).
- 1956: she won the Dance Magazine Award.
- 1959: she created Episodes
with Balanchine, (ballet danced by her company and the
New-York City Ballet).
Mr Balanchine was wonderful to work with, considerate and concerned-
a joy to be with.
- around 1970: she stopped dancing. Then she had to face
some very hard years of depression and health problems,
before creating new ballets again.
A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first,
the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer
respond as you would wish. After all, I choreographed for myself. I never
choreographed what I could not do. I changed steps in Medea
and other ballets to accomodate the change. But I knew. And it haunted me. I only wanted to dance.
Without dancing, I wished to die.
The last time I danced was in Cortege of Eagles.
I was seventy-six years old. (...) I did not plan to
stop dancing that night. It was a painful decision I knew I had to make.
- 1973: She created Lucifer and The Scarlet Letter for Rudolf Nureyev and Margpot Fonteyn.
Many people have asked me why I did Lucifer with
Rudolf Nureyev. Lucifer is the bringer of light. When he
fell from grace he mocked Gosh. He became half god, half man.
As half man, he knew men's fears, anguish, and challenges.
He became the god of light. Any artist is the bringer of light.
That's why I did with Nureyev. He's a god of light.
And Margot Fonteyn was such a glorious complement to him at it. Luminous as night.
When I first saw Margot Fonteyn she was a great and beautiful figure.
The magic of Margot's presence is an elusiveness of spirit
that defies description.
- 1984: Her company was invited by Rudolf Nureyev
at the Paris Opera, and
she was given the Légion d'Honneur by the French government.
In 1980. a well-meaning fundraiser came to see me and said,
"Miss Graham, the most powerful thing you have going for you to raise money
is your respectability." I wanted to spit. Respectable!
Show me any artist who wants to be respectable.
- 1991: death on April 1. She was working on a new ballet for the
Olympic Games of Barcelona, called The Eye of the
I'm asked so often at ninety-six whether I
believe in life after death. I do believe in the sanctity of life, the
continuity of life and of energy. I know the anonimity of death has no
appeal for me. It is the now that I must face and want to
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