Martha Graham, genius of dance, dies Innovative work spanned six decades

April 02, 1991|By Anna Kisselgoff | Anna Kisselgoff,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Martha Graham, a revolutionary in the arts of this century and the American dancer and choreographer whose name became synonymous with modern dance, died yesterday in her home in Manhattan. She was 96.

Miss Graham died of cardiac arrest after being treated for two months for pneumonia, said Ron Protas, general director of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Miss Graham had become ill in December after a 55-day tour of the Far East with her troupe. She entered the hospital on Jan. 15 and returned home on March 20.

Frequently ranked with Picasso, Stravinsky and James Joyce for developing a form of expression that broke the traditional mold, Miss Graham was initially acclaimed as a great dancer.

Yet ultimately her genius -- universally recognized as she became the most honored figure in American dance -- was embodied in her choreographic masterworks and her invention of a new and codified dance language.

The Graham technique, which is now used by dance companies throughout the world, became the first enduring alternative to the idiom of classical ballet.

Powerful, dynamic, jagged and filled with tension, this vocabulary combined with Miss Graham's distinctive system of training to set her above other dance innovators.

Although such achievements were part of Miss Graham's multifaceted pioneering role in helping to establish modern dance outside the older ballet tradition after the 1920s, she continued to amaze her public for more than 60 years. She choreographed more than 180 works.

Miss Graham's dances spoke eloquently against the crushing of the human spirit, and one of her frequent themes was the fTC condemnation of intolerance, especially toward non-conformists.

Miss Graham usually cast herself at the center of her works until 1969, when she gave her last performance and retired reluctantly from the stage at the age of 75.

Audiences throughout the world were often disturbed by Miss Graham's frank acknowledgment of human sexuality, especially in her famous cycle inspired by Greek myths.

Miss Graham's work revealed an integrated vision. She began using contemporary scores for the company she formed in 1929. After 1934, she tended to use commissioned music and was guided by her music director and mentor, Louis Horst, a composer who insisted that dance had a life independent of music and did not derive from it.

Martha Graham, the eldest of three daughters, was born on May 11, 1894, in Allegheny, Pa., to George Graham, a physician who specialized in mental disorders, and the former Jane "Jenny" Beers, a descendant of Miles Standish. In 1908, the family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif.

In 1916, after graduation from a junior college, the Cumnock School, Miss Graham enrolled in the Denishawn school in Los Angeles and then joined the Denishawn Company. Denishawn, organized by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, was then the only major dance company that worked outside the classical ballet tradition.

John Murray Anderson saw Miss Graham with Denishawn and hired her for his Greenwich Village Follies in 1923 and 1924.

But in those two years, Miss Graham realized that neither Denishawn, with its exotic pretexts for dances, nor the commercial theater was right for her.

She joined the dance division of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where she taught dance.

On April 18, 1926, she made her concert debut at the 48th Street Theater in New York with works that still showed the influence of Denishawn.

Miss Graham taught in the early years in her Manhattan studio at 66 Fifth Ave., near 13th Street, and at the Neighborhood Playhouse. She assembled a company of women.

From her group, augmented by men in 1938, came the next generation of modern dancers, choreographers and teachers: Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, Pearl Lang, May O'Donnell, Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham and later Paul Taylor and John Butler.

Miss Graham, who had a long-term relationship with Mr. Horst, was married in 1948 to Mr. Hawkins. They separated in the early 1950s and were later divorced.

L In the 1930s, Miss Graham was known for her American themes.

After 1946, she immersed herself in Hebrew and Greek mythology with "Cave of the Heart," "Night Journey," "Errand," "Into the Maze," "Judith," "The Witch of Endor," "Phaedra" and, most powerfully, the full-evening "Clytemnestra" of 1958.

Miss Graham left no immediate survivors.

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