Martha Graham

April 04, 1991

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.

To Martha Graham, dance was the highest form of expression, a moving language of ideas, passion and emotion. In a statement of her artistic credo, published in a collection called "This I Believe" in 1954, she wrote of the power of dance, "The reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living. . . The instrument through which the dance speaks is also the instrument through which life is lived -- the human body."

Her dances were eloquent commentaries on the power of the human spirit. A recurrent theme was the condemnation of intolerance toward non-conformists. Her own life as a creative and unconventional artist was intertwined with the spirit of her works. Her dramatic heroines -- the figure conquering sexual fear in "Errand into the Maze," the hopeful American pioneer in "Frontier" -- overcome obstacles armed with inner-strength and self-understanding.

Yet Ms. Graham liked to emphasize the separateness of her work and private life. "I have always fought against any dramatization of my peculiarities or my personality," she once said. But her personality, filtered through her work, has forever changed the world of dance.

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