Martha Graham: Uncompromising and unsurpassed

April 02, 1991|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun Staff

OF ALL THE revolutionaries of 20th Century art, Martha Graham seemed to have found a way to live and challenge convention forever.

It is even hard to believe that she died yesterday at age 96, after dancing and choreographing for three-quarters of a century. She died of cardiac arrest at her Manhattan home after coming down with pneumonia following a 55-day tour of the Far East with her Martha Graham Dance Company.

She choreographed more than 180 dances, the last of which she invented last October.

She was the most uncompromising of choreographers, never seeming to be influenced by passing fads from other artists. Her style of movement remained strong, heavily rooted in the ground, often female-dominated, full of unabashed drama, and anti-balletic to the core.

She was inspired by Greek mythology, the early American frontier, Emily Dickinson's poetry, Joan of Arc. Whimsy was rarely in her vocabulary.

A woman of enormous ego, she naturally placed herself as the centerpiece of many of her dances. Those who saw her perform have told of her awesome power, her endless leg extensions, and an instep you could run water under.

She had a hard time retiring from the stage. And when she could no longer dance, she would greet her audience before a performance in a flowing gown cleverly covering every inch of her aging body.

Isadora Duncan may have invented barefoot dance, but when she died her ideas evaporated with her spirit.

Martha Graham took off her shoes and built a shrine to her beliefs: a dance company, a school and a technique of exercises based on her style that is taught in high schools and colleges throughout the world.

Along the way she choreographed hundreds of dances for her remarkable proteges, who must have the flattest stomachs in America from dancing her gut-wrenching works.

She also left a landscape scattered with other now world famous choreographers who formed their earliest artistic ideas in her studios but broke away to invent their own movement forms. Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, Anna Sokolow and Erick Hawkins are just a few of them.

Over the decades, some found her style too harsh, too rigid, as more refined balletic styles crept into modern dance. But Graham had staying power and her company thrived.

Apparently there was always something so right and prophetic about what Graham did that modern dancers and fans alike eventually came back to her, back to the womb.

One of her most devoted fans is fellow dancer/choreographer Agnes de Mille, who wrote this about Graham almost 40 years ago:

"I almost always thought of her as a girl friend -- almost, but not quite always; one does not domesticate a prophetess."

De Mille called her "a woman who for better or worse never compromised, who although she had known prolonged and bitter poverty, could not be bought or pushed or cajoled into toying with her principles. She was a brave and gallant creature."

"Dancers for untold generations will dance differently because of her labors . . . boys and girls who have never seen her will use and borrow, decades hence, her scale of movement. Technically speaking, hers is the single largest contribution in the history of Western dancing."

Forty years later, it's still true. Martha Graham lives!

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