The story of Martha Graham, the choreographer who inspired Madonna

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Among others, he taught Liza Minnelli, Woody Allen, and Bette Davis. Also a dancer, she was one of the most important artists in the US.

When the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham turned 95 years old in full artistic activity, the critic Clives Barnes of the New York magazine Dance Magazine He headed an editorial with these words: “Although you don’t need to be reminded, Martha Graham is an institution of the United States. An American institution such as the flag, motherhood and apple pie; everyone knows her, everyone respects her ”.

Question: How did a revolutionary choreographer, at the beginning of the 20th century and starting from the most radically independent and even marginal place, manage to become an institution in the United States? A short and real answer: he had great courage, great artistic integrity and an almost religious dedication to his work.

Martha Graham is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, -of the arts as a whole and not only of dance- and an exceptional personality. Certainly she was part of a small group of pioneers of that nascent modern dance and it is necessary to name here her colleagues, the great Doris Humphrey and Hanya Holm. But even knowing that the comparisons are odious, it is equally true that Graham’s career was incredibly long and also that he produced a dance language for the 20th century and an enormous repertoire of works in every imaginable range: dramatic, humorous, lyrical, poetic; in the variety of her palette she has been compared to Pablo Picasso.

On the other hand, she created herself a technique for the training of dancers, the only one born exclusively from an individual head; the other great technique, that of classical ballet, was amassed over three centuries with the contributions of different teachers, choreographers and interpreters. There is no author of the classical ballet technique with a first and last name; but there is the graham technique that has been taught for decades in dance schools around the world.

Martha Graham also founded a company that in 2020 entered its 95th anniversary, by far the oldest in modern dance, and trained generations and generations of dancers in its technique.

But not only to dancers: outside the strict field of dance, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Joanne Woodward, Woody Allen, Liza Minelli and Madonna are among his disciples.

Madonna was a teenager when she began attending Martha Graham’s school in New York and She used to arrive two hours before her own class so she could see Martha as she entered the studio. Two ballet stars, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, were honored that the choreographer was putting on a play for them and Mikhail Barishnikov, who chose him for the role of The penitent. Two enormous American choreographers emerged from her company: Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham, and her influence on the creators who succeeded her can be compared only, perhaps, to that of George Balanchine.

He was born in 1894 in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania state; But in 1908 the family, made up of fathers and three daughters, moved to Santa Barbara, in sunny California, because of the asthma of one of the girls. When Martha was 17 her father took her to see a dance show in Los Angeles. It was a solo recital by Ruth St. Denis, a very celebrated dancer at the time who performed oriental-inspired pieces. They were not very authentic dances: neither too Egyptian nor particularly Hindu nor too Japanese. But Ruth St. Denis had a genuine and powerful stage personality, and no one cared much about authenticity.

It is in that recital that appeared for Martha Graham, as a revelation, the path that awaited her. A few years later he entered the Denishawn School, which Ruth St. Denis had created together with her husband Ted Shawn in 1915. The approach of this school was very revolutionary and offered a comprehensive education for the training of a professional dancer; The curriculum included classical dance (but with bare feet), ethnic dances from America and Spain, yoga, oriental dances, makeup, lighting, music, and a special topic: the art of posing for photographs, which Ruth St. Denis considered essential to a performer’s career.

Martha Graham was educated at St Denis and Shawn’s school, but she was also a member of the Denishawn Company, which was actually made up of two distinct ensembles: one gave serious recitals and the other performed on the music circuits. vaudeville, a very popular genre in the United States of the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th and that was later displaced by another newer and cheaper entertainment: the cinema.

The vaudeville shows brought together in one evening numbers as varied as trained dogs, ventriloquists, comic actors, singers, monkeys, magicians and dancers. Martha Graham, dissatisfied with many aspects of Denishawn, left California to settle in New York, where to earn a living she joined the Greenwich Follies magazine company on Broadway. After a while he resigned, began teaching classes and exploring his own path while subsisting on a minimal income. Three years later Louis Horst joined him in New York; Horst had been Denishawn’s musical director and for a long time he was Martha’s lover, protector, friend and supporter, the “wall,” he said, “where ivy can lean to grow.”

Another great support for Martha Graham in her early experimentations was a small group of dancers with whom she began to try out a new language of movement. He found in them a devoted dedication; They weren’t empty headed girls but women who took dance very seriously. They gave Martha as much time as they had: every day from dusk to midnight, except holidays and weekends when they rehearsed the entire day. The husbands of these dancers formed the club “Husbands of the Martha Graham Group” to entertain himself while his women spent the hours in the dance studio. When Martha asked them to rehearse one New Year’s Eve, the boys rebelled and things took a more normal course.

Graham was a difficult personality: temperamental, often cruel and despotic, impatient and angry (it is said that she and her husband, the dancer Eric Hawkins and the great love of her life, were on the verge of pushing each other off the edge of a cliff during a violent argument). But at the same time, she could be compassionate, generous, tender, and a very loyal friend.

He also had courage: in 1935 the Nazi government sent him an invitation, the only one addressed to an American artist, to participate with his company in the 1936 Berlin Olympics; three years later the Second World War would begin, but there were already persecutions in Germany against the Jewish community. This invitation would have brought Martha Graham worldwide publicity and a desperately needed sum of money. However, he told the German representatives: “See, half of my dancers are Jewish.” They protested: “all will be treated with respect.” “But do you really think,” Martha answered, “that I could enter a country where its people are treated that way?” “It’s a shame,” was the consul’s reply. “Actually,” said Martha, “it is bad for you, because everyone will know exactly the cause of my refusal.”

In 1937 he danced for the first time at the White House invited by Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she would become a close friend. The assistant assigned to her told her: “You cannot appear barefoot in front of the president.” Graham replied, “I don’t walk barefoot even in my own home; it is the character that I interpret in my dance who is barefoot ”. She had a sacred concept of the scene and her retirement as a dancer was the hardest decision of her life..

“I never think about the things I did; only the ones I want to do and the ones I haven’t done yet “. This is how Martha Graham spoke in an interview shortly before her 90th birthday. He still had seven more years to live and several works to create.


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