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Spotlight: Martha Graham

The studio's gearing up for our float in New Plymouth Christmas Parade tonight (here's hoping the weather holds off!). In the meantime, here's this week's Spotlight Saturday on Martha Graham.

Graham was born on 11 May 1894 in Allegheny, later Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father was a doctor practising an early form of psychiatry. Graham did not encounter dance until 1911, when she saw Ruth St. Denis perform in Los Angeles. Around 1915, at the age of 19, she joined the new Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. She stayed until 1923, and in 1922 performed one of Shawn's Egyptian dances with Lillian Powell in a short film by Hugo Riesenfeld.

In 1925, Graham joined the staff of the Eastman School of Music, under Rouben Mamoulian, then head of the School of Drama. Their projects included the short film The Flute of Krishna, featuring students of the school. Mamoulian left shortly thereafter, and Graham followed despite being asked to stay on. She founded the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in 1926, and debuted her first solo concert on 18 April that same year. Her company continued to perform pieces that she had choreographed, and in late 1926 she entered into a collaboration with Japanese-American photographer Soichi Sunami. Over the next five years they created some of the most famous images of early modern dance.

Martha Graham by Soichi Sunami

Among Graham's students was the heiress Bethsabee de Rothschild, who became a close friend. Rothschild later founded the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel in 1965, and Graham was its first director. Graham's technique was revolutionary, and was based on a stylized form of breathing that became known as 'Contraction and Release'.

Martha Graham by Barbara Morgan

Graham's works were numerous. In 1936, she created Chronicle, a dark piece covering the isolation and depression of the period after the Wall Street crash of 1929. The piece touched on the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War. That same year, she declined an invitation from Hitler to dance at the International Arts Festival, which was running parallel to the Olympics in Berlin. Two years later, she was invited to perform at the White House by President Roosevelt, becoming the first dancer to do so.

In 1939, Erick Hawkins became the first man to join the company, dancing the male lead in a number of her works. They were married in July 1948 after the New York premiere of Night Journey, but he left the company in 1951 and they divorced in 1954. On 1 April 1958, Graham's company premiered Clytemnestra. It had a score by Egyptian-born composer Halim El-Dabh, and was the only full-length work of Graham's career. She herself played the title role and spent almost the entire ballet on stage. The work was based on the story of the Greek queen Clytemnestra, whose husband Agamemnon led the invasion force that sacked Troy. Clytemnestra has an affair while Agamemnon is away at war, and in revenge he orders the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia (a twist on the original story, in which Clytemnestra had an affair because of Iphigenia's sacrifice). Eventually, Clytemnestra's son Orestes murders her, and the ballet follows her to the afterlife. The work was a huge success, and even had a limited run on Broadway.

Paul Taylor and Martha Graham, 'Clytemnestra'

Graham resisted having her works recorded, believing that live performances should only exist on the stage. There are a few exceptions; several photographers captured her performances, and she considered Philippe Halsman's photographs of her work Dark Meadow to be the most complete record. In later years, she allowed some of her works to be reconstructed. She wrote an autobiography entitled Blood Memory, in which she records that her last performance came in 1970 at the age of 76, in the work Cortege of Eagles. She created some 181 works.

Martha Graham in 'Appalachian Spring', 1944

After her departure, Graham struggled with depression. It was some years before she could bear to watch younger dancers recreating the works she had danced with her husband. Her health declined drastically when she began abusing alcohol to numb the pain. She survived a suicide attempt, after which she was hospitalised. When she was released in 1972, she quit drinking and returned to the studio, choreographing a further 10 new works. Her last completed ballet was Maple Leaf Rag in 1990.

She died on 1 April 1991 from pneumonia, aged 96. Her autobiography was published posthumously. She has been called the 'Picasso of Dance', in that her influence over modern dance is of a similar magnitude to Picasso's influence over modern art. Much of her technique has been preserved and is still used in modern dance today.

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on the Nicholas brothers.

- Selene

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