Mention modern dance and one immediately thinks of the inimitable Martha Graham, who died in Manhattan on Monday at age 96. Dancer and choreographer extraordinaire, she defined the idiom, ultimately becoming the most honored figure in American dance.
Her genius and passion transported the lexicon of modern dance into world art. She was neither its inventor nor its only pioneer, but it was she who shaped the genre. Her rarefied technique, the school and company she founded and the huge body of work bearing her name puts her in the class of Picasso, Stravinsky and James Joyce in engendering a form of expression that shattered the traditional mold. Her technique, embraced by dance companies worldwide, became the first lasting alternative to traditional ballet.
Martha Graham was a woman defined by energy and passion. As a dancer, she employed the elementary principle of contraction and release to create powerful, fluid motion characterized by percussive angular moves and sexual tension. An innovator, she was known for her suspensions and falls using the thigh and knee as a lever on which to raise and lower the body to the floor. As a choreographer, she defied convention, shocking with sensuality and suggestion. Throughout a career that spanned more than 60 years and 180 works, she hewed to the belief that dance should touch audiences viscerally rather than intellectually.