Martha Graham is recognized as a great innovator in dance, but she was an impressive communicator as well. It was Graham’s belief that words could not always express the hidden emotional world made visible by dance.
Her goal was to create dances that would be “felt” rather than “understood.” She was often inspired by the ugly aspects of life and put them on display. All her dances had personal significance. They expressed fears and uncertainties that she herself had overcome.
In 1930, Graham premiered a haunting solo dance of mourning called Lamentation. These rare photos show her sitting on a low bench, wearing a tube-like shroud with only her face, hands, and bare feet showing. In the dance, she began to rock with anguish from side to side, plunging her hands deep into the stretchy fabric, writhing, and twisting as if trying to break out of her own skin. She was a figure of unbearable sorrow and grief. She did not dance about grief, but sought to be the very embodiment of grief.
Graham recalled, “One of the first times I performed it was in Brooklyn. A lady came back to me afterwards and looked at me. She was very white-faced and she’d obviously been crying. She said ‘you’ll never know what you have done for me tonight, thank you’ and left. I asked about her later and it seemed that she had seen her nine-year-old son killed in front of her by a truck. She had made every effort to cry, but was unable to. But when she saw Lamentation she said she felt that grief was honorable and universal and that she should not be ashamed of crying for her son. I remember that story as a deep story in my life that made me realize that there is always one person to whom you speak in the audience. One.”
Graham moved in a way that gave anger and grief back to her audiences. She had a genius for connecting movement with emotion. She could make visible all those feelings that people have inside them, but can’t put to words. No matter what the medium, communication is hard work, and this was true of Graham’s dances. When the concept for a new dance was in its early stages, it was “a time of great misery.” Propped up in her bed, she often worked into the late hours, jotting down thoughts, impressions, even quotations from books—whatever she could find to nourish her imagination. “I would put a typewriter on a little table on my bed, bolster myself with pillows, and write all night.”
She read widely as she searched for ideas and inspiration, studying psychology, yoga, poetry, Greek myths, and the Bible. Gradually, the ideas that filled her notebooks would begin to reveal a pattern, and she would write out a detailed script.
Graham’s work again and again portrays situations where a woman is called to a high purpose, but is unable to answer that call until she overcomes her fear. This is how Graham saw herself. She said she had been given “lonely, terrifying gifts” that could be seen almost as a divine command to plumb the depths of the human spirit, no matter what comfortless truths might be found there.
She was asked by the U.S. government to become a cultural ambassador in 1955 and tour major cities in seven countries. She lectured in every city, but speaking made her nervous. Agnes de Mille describes one scene in her biography, Martha. “She hung onto the barre, clung to the walls. She couldn’t think what to do with her hands, with her robes, with her feet.” Finally, she escaped into her dressing room and locked the door. Through repeated effort, Graham conquered her fear and went on to become what State Department officials called “the greatest single ambassador we have ever sent to Asia.”
Until she was 90, Graham continued to deliver lectures, which she had developed into an art form. A striking figure with a seductive voice, poetic insights, and a faultless sense of timing, she learned how to hold an audience spellbound.
You could say that by trying to discover herself, she founded the world of modern dance. During her long journey, she invented a new way of moving, a unique dance language that has thrilled audiences all over the world and enlarged our understanding of what it means to be human.
All of us are unique. We each have our own pattern of creativity, and if we do not express it, it is lost for all time.
Graham challenged the conventions of dance and overcame every obstacle so she could present new ideas. Some loved her, and some reviled her, but she persisted in overcoming her fears to express the feelings in her soul. Her commitment to expressing her feelings transformed dance forever.