Art Works Blog

From the Archives: Happy Birthday Martha Graham!

Washington, DC

Studio portrait of dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. Photo by Chris Alexander

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of iconic dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As quoted by NEA Dance Director Nigel Redden in the Summer 1984 issue of Arts Review, "Martha invented charisma."  Redden went on to say "When Martha Graham demonstrates a movement with a tilt of the head or a twist of the shoulder, her impact as a performer and teacher is immediately obvious....And it is not a coincidence that a great many choreographers and dancers active in modern dance today have been her students or have danced in her company." To celebrate Graham's legacy, here she is in her own words, as excerpted from a conversation that took place between Graham, Redden, and Ron Protas (the general director and associate artistic director of Graham's dance company) in the faculty lounge of the Martha Graham Center in New York City.

Yes, I was there at the beginning [of modern dance]. I don’t remember it because I’ve been busy so much in just going ahead, do you know, not in looking to the past. Not in feeling that I was a revolutionary. I’m not a revolutionary. I’m a very traditional person. The only feeling I have is that the world has changed so much and the young people have changed in their bodies and their attitudes toward life so much. We have vitamins today, which means greater strength. We have a beauty contest going on all the time. Diet, terrific diet. So it has bred a body of long legs, beautiful legs mostly, and people who honor the body very much. I feel that as a dancer, particularly, you have to love your body. It’s your one instrument of life. You have to honor it. You have to discipline it. And you discipline it by technique and preparing yourself to be a voice that is, in some way, universal. Dancing has changed and I think that we’re going back to, in many ways, primal sources, although the movement itself is by no means primal. It’s highly sophisticated bodies and these young people are highly aware of themselves. I think that’s the biggest change---the change that they demand from the choreographers, is that they’re much more highly equipped as dancers than when I started….

Everything is motivated by an impulse, by a will, by a rejection or an acceptance, by an intake of a breath or an expulsion of a breath, which is acceptance or rejection. And that I try to explain. I try to say that this is not what we call abstract in any sense of the word. Most people think of abstract as having no meaning. I always tell them that orange juice is the abstraction of an orange. I said, “Do it with zest.” Because zest in the dictionary has one meaning: and that is, a slice of a lemon peel. See how basic those things are. Now we use many of the French terms, balletic terms here. I try to have them always translated. I try not to use French terms myself, except when I have to. Then I tell them, “These are action terms.” I don’t care whether it’s a rond de jambe, a glissade, or a plié. Every one is an action term. A pas de chat, a step of a cat. It means something holy to use as long as it’s in French, you see. Wonderful, and we get very snobbish about it. And children go home with the idea that they learned the pas de chat today. Well, it’s an evolution of a cat’s tail. And that, I think is essential….

[Standing ovations are] very moving. But [they are] very sobering, because you realize you’ve been permitted as an instrument to give something that people want. A need, a warmth, a light, an urgency, and you realize that you’ve been an instrument. You don’t create that. You put yourself in a condition for that, but you don’t create. I use the word create very sparingly. I feel only god creates, and we are receptive to. I’m speaking of god now as a force, not as a bearded gentleman in heaven….

I used to teach…at the Neighborhood Playhouse to Gregory Peck and Tony Randall, and I had Edmund O’Brien and Eli Wallach and Lorne Green and all those big bullies, who said they didn’t want to be dancers. And I said, I’m not trying to make a dancer of you. I wouldn’t dishonor the art. But I will teach you to walk like a man.

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