Martha Graham

By: Ingrid Schorr
May 11, 2010

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MARTHA GRAHAM (1894–1991) somehow emerged a dance radical from a Scorpion Bowl of influences: early childhood in Pittsburgh, veiled both literally (against coal dust) and metaphorically (by her protective psychiatrist father); adolescence in Santa Barbara, where she emulated a hokey (but gorgeous) “Orientalism”; her late start as a dancer, at age 22, with the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, where she was draped in veils and tinkly things, paillettes and snake bracelets, and danced various interpretations of the Exotic Person from the Orient.

Only Martha Graham could find a way out of this exotica and into a caul of stretch woolen jersey, clawing at the famous Noguchi stage sets. The body has only two states, she came to understand: expansion and contraction. Wrap the body in thorns, perch it on a wretched narrow rocking chair or on a bed with an edge like a knife; it still comes down to breathing in and breathing out. “She dances as though she were about to give birth to a cube,” snarked one contemporary critic, and he wasn’t far off. Yet the dance world, including the men — Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor — came to her, this upstart, this pseudo-Oriental Presbyterian descended from Myles Standish, to share the stage with her Jocasta and her Phaedra.

ALSO BORN ON THIS DATE: Phil Silvers | Richard Feynman | Denver Pyle

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What do you think?

  1. Pittsburgh – so much to answer for: Annie Dillard, Billy Strayhorn, Len Swann, and Martha Graham.

    So much good stuff here, though particularly “Scorpion Bowl of influences” and “caul of stretch woolen jersey” will stick with me.

    The thing I always recall about her is the cult-like quality of her dancers. Though “cult” has more of a negative connotation than I intend. It was a religion to them. I remember reading about one of her dancers going to see a doctor about some ailment and him being just floored by the muscle control in her abdominal sheath. Women weren’t supposed to be that strong.

    Incidentally, I’m close friends with the daughter of Mark Ryder one of her dancers/lovers during the 40s. I really should pump her for more gossip.

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