The world of dance has revolved around ballet for centuries.
Since the beginning of professional dance in the 14th century, the prim and proper structure of ballet has been a set standard for any aspiring dancer. However, at the end of the 19th century, a new style of dance arose, breaking old uniformities and creating a new genre of dance. With the stern mindset of the modern dance pioneers, the dance society began to shift as modern dance became a new major player among the big dogs at the time: ballet and vaudeville. Additionally, Martha Graham can be credited for helping to popularize the world of modern dance. Through her learning from the original modern dance pioneers, branching out to her own school, and creating a foundational technique, Martha Graham has been a huge influence in the world of modern dance, as evidenced by this investigation. This essay will specifically identify the leading influential factors of Martha Graham’s history and behavior to the second generation of modern dance. Within the early 20th century, spanning from 1920-1940, this essay will evaluate the impact of Graham’s development within the Denishawn company, the Martha Graham Studio, and the Graham technique.Origins of Modern Dance The origins of modern dance began in Europe with Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller.
These two women, separate yet connected, have been considered as the two pioneer women of modern dance. They had only just begun to blaze the long trail, as their dance academies would develop many new talents. Loie Fuller started in burlesque shows, where she harnessed the use of long skirts and fabrics. From this foundational element, Fuller created productions centered around fabric choreography and light reflection. Although popular in America, Fuller wasn’t receiving the recognition she wanted, so she moved to Paris, France, where she became a leading revolutionary in the arts. Here she made a name for herself as she produced more aesthetically pleasing dances and shows. She even made a connection with Isadora Duncan, helping to sponsor her shows. (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica)Isadora Duncan began her career in the theatre, with a passion for dance.
However, in America, the presence of ballet throughout all performing arts was restricting to the young actress. With the feeling of melancholy on her back, Duncan moved to London where she was able to explore her options, finding inspiration from Greek culture and implementing it into her style of dance. Her dance productions took on a new profound idea centered around what she believed looked “pretty”, with a foundation rooted in Greek elegance (O’Connor). The most popular genre of dance during the early 20th century was ballet.
Ballet was in a transitional period from romantic ballet, observed in the mid to late 19th century, to neoclassical ballet, which took more momentum in the late 1920s. Regardless, ballet was the most popular genre of dance in America during the early 20th century, and its emphasis in any performing art production may have been seen as overbearing. Although the ballet industry remained a crowd pleaser to the eyes of many Americans, those who were rejected by the industry began to revolt against its unfairness and prejudices.What further drove the expansion of modern dance was the fact that many women resented the ballet industry and revolted against it. Many admired the works of the popular American vaudeville dancers but weren’t as keen on the tap dancing scene and show-boat performance style. Thus, the rise of new styles that were completely different from what had previously been seen in ballet, vaudeville, circuses, burlesque, and all other types of visual and performing art history. Breaking away from the traditional technique, production setup, and music of ballet, Duncan and Fuller began to experiment more with the use of fabrics, lights, costumes, and beats.
In order to refute the ballet industry, which required extreme turnout that was unnatural and painful, the use of barefoot dancing, as well as a more parallel foot position, began to gain momentum. Furthermore, these two women created the schools that produced the most iconic modern dancers today. From the companies of Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller, a new generation of dancers arose who eventually ventured out into their own domains. Out of these emerged two iconic dancers and lovers, Ruth St.
Denis and Ted Shawn. They merged together to create Denishawn Dance Company & School, the first dance academy to produce a dance company in America.Ruth St. Denis began her career as a solo artist heavily inspired by Eastern philosophy, art, and dance forms. Her first production was Radha, performed in 1906. Although not completely culturally accurate, it was favored by the modern-lovers of the time, and received excellent reviews.
St. Denis believed that dance was a spiritual expression, and her choreography and performances reflected this idea.Ted Shawn had a rough beginning as a survivor from diphtheria and temporary paralysis at the young age of 19. But as he recovered, he discovered dance as an outlet for physical and mental therapy. Shawn began his dance career in a ballroom troupe. He later moved to New York in 1914, where he discovered St.
Denis and her exceptionally different dance style. He fell in love with her, both artistically and literally, and soon became one of her protegees. The two married that same year. They served as creative outlets to each other as they began to create artistic masterpieces together.
Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn joined their talents and established the Denishawn Dance Company & School in 1915. This school incorporated the Eastern dance techniques St. Denis admired, but had a strong basis for proper modern technique. Although modern technique was not fully developed in the early 1900’s, the Denishawn Dance Company produced some of the most basic technique for the modern dance genre.
ExperienceFrom this combination arose historically the most influential and renowned modern dancer: Martha Graham. Graham originally studied under the Denishawn academy, where she performed, produced, and eventually taught for the school. The foundation that she gained was ultimately necessary for her growth as an influential figure in the development of modern dance in the 20th century.
Within the Denishawn company, Graham cultivated technique and style by learning from the pioneers of modern dance. The Denishawn company began teachings rooted in ballet, specifically for warm-up purposes. However, a typical class would move from warm-ups to pas de basque and then to ‘arms and body’, which were movements in the center of the floor, similar to that of slow, adagio movements, and fast, allegro combinations seen in ballet classes(). The pas de basque would consist of one’s arms being raised parallel above the head, and the body making a grand arch sideways towards the leading foot. The ‘arms and body’ was a free-flowing, open exercise – comparable to improv – completed to a waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Thus, a foundation for modern classes was born.
Graham carried these ideas and teachings throughout her career as she began to conduct her own classes for the Denishawn company. Eventually, she began to mold her understandings of the foundation into her own style. After 8 years with Denishawn, Graham decided to take a new job with the Greenwich Village Follies, where her extended knowledge of modern dance was utilized. After 2 years with the Greenwich Village Follies, Graham proceeded to broaden her career(). She moved to New York in the hopes of creating a name for herself and spreading her style and technique to a wider audience. While juggling teaching jobs around New York City, Graham finally established her own dance company in 1926().
Thus, the outbreak of the Martha Graham Dance Company was furbished. Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and Dance Company Once Martha Graham broke from Denishawn, she created her own school and began to share her own style. This school, established in 1926, was named the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. Here is where her first concert debuted in the spring of 1926, consisting of 18 short solos and trios choreographed by Graham herself and influenced by her Denishawn background (). From the school emerged her iconic dance company, also known as the Martha Graham Dance Company. In 1929, Graham’s first company production debuted called Heretic. Heretic was Graham’s first important piece of work, as it showcased the raw and frank choreography that soon became associated with modern dance. The dance itself showcases the idea of non-conformity and originality, as the main dancer is dressed in white, as the rest of the chorus is costumed in black.
Within the storyline, the production contains the theme of rebellion in a hostile society (Dunning). This dance was a clear distinguisher of Graham’s departure from her roots in Denishawn to distinguishing her future and new style. The Martha Graham Dance Company was essentially the modern dance icon of the late 1920’s. Due to the degree of popularity brought upon by Graham’s productions, audiences and dancers alike were drawn to this new profound structure of dance. The company itself created productions unlike any other that had previously been seen in the 20th century or before. The obvious difference between modern dance and ballet was consistent throughout Graham’s productions, and only progressed as Graham technique developed. There was also a clear distinction between modern dance and vaudeville, even though some of the same fundamental techniques were incorporated, such as parallel foot position, as mentioned earlier.
Of course, the development within the Martha Graham Dance Company began to shift as time elapsed and Graham was exposed to new material. From her initial starch and simple design, Graham began to add props and sets to her production, making them much more elaborate in both length and stimuli (). Her technique continued to expand as new dancers, talent, and inspiration cycled through her dance company. Graham’s productions were focused on the American life and struggle of the individual (MarthaGraham.com). One of her most popular productions is Appalachian Spring, which details the life of a newly wed couple in their pursuit of happiness and a new life, but the troubles they face along the way.
Within her company and productions, she experimented with social, psychological, political, and sexual themes. Some of her pieces were deemed ‘controversial’ due to her artistic exploration. In Graham’s 1937 essay A Platform for the American Dance, she claimed that, “A dance reveals the spirit of the country in which it takes root. No sooner does it fail to do this than it loses its integrity and significance.” (MarthaGraham.com) Thus, the contentious themes forged into the Martha Graham Dance Company.One of Graham’s most iconic choreographic works is Lamentation.
The definition of lamentation is the passionate expression of grief and sorrow (). Dance Magazine (April 1930) reviewed the work as “a statuesque composition, which relied for much of its eloquence upon an ingenious and simple costume arrangement.” Record (Philadelphia, November 1932) also stated that, “When Miss Graham… depicts the dumb agony of grief, she does not droop like a flower or attitudinize like Patience on a monument, she is grief from the first stricken bewildered gropings of her head and torso to the last moment when she averts her covered head with a finality that is pitiful and terrible.” Graham’s sole purpose of this dance was to portray deep emotion and embody the feeling of grief. Due to Graham’s deep emotional and spiritual performances, her audiences became mesmerized and continued to support Graham and the modern movement.
Thus, Graham became the new foundation of modern dance, as many new revolutionary dancers arose from her academy, such as Merce Cunningham. Cunningham was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1939. Throughout his duration in the company, Cunningham performed in lead roles of several productions such as El Penitente in 1939 and Appalachian Spring in 1944.
He began to learn the style and technique introduced by Graham and developed his own interpretation of it. Eventually, he broke away from the company to start his own in 1953. Nevertheless, the Graham technique and style was seen as new standard for the world of modern dance, and was used widely by aspiring modern dancers, such as Cunningham (Cunningham Bibliography).Altogether, The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance alone greatly influenced the development of modern dance in the early 20th century because of its initiation of the first modern dance company, as well as being a school of learning for foundational modern dance technique. The school produced several talented artists that gave justice and credit to Graham and her technique. These artists spread the awareness of modern dance as they continued on their own paths to greatness. Furthermore, the Martha Graham Dance Company reached out to its growing audience and generated more publicity and entertainment for America in the early 20th century.Graham Technique Graham is most noted for her style and technique.
As it developed, the Graham style received the rightful name of Graham technique. Graham technique has been signified as the “cornerstone” of American modern dance, as it was one of the first systematized American dance techniques (TIME). Graham focused on the basic functions of the human form and proceeded to electrify the body with raw and concentrated emotion. Between the energy and the sharp and angular movements of the contraction and release technique, a brand new style was born, emerging from the modern world and creating a new standard (MarthaGraham.com). Graham’s interpretation of modernism flows throughout her productions.
The term ‘modernism’ is defined by notions such as ‘attempts to render human subjectivity in ways more real than realism: to represent consciousness, perception, emotion, meaning and the individual’s relation to society through interior monologue’ (Childs). These characteristics are commonly found in Graham’s dances, such as in Appalachian Spring (1944), Deaths and Entrances (1943), and Letter to the World (1940). The importance of these themes are to showcase the thinking process of Graham, and how it directly translates to her way of choreographing, producing, and portraying her dancers (Bannerman). She focuses much more on personal, inner perception, more so than clock-driven, external reality (Bannerman). This sense of timelessness and modernity is what draws her audience in, which causes the popularity of the modern dance movement to grow.The Graham technique includes essential and foundational movements such as contraction and release, spiraling, falls, and other aspects. Among all of these, however, the most notable aspect of Graham technique is that of contraction and release. This fundamental technique is seen throughout modern dance, as it has become the most common uniformity for choreographing a modern dance piece.
The element of contraction and release is simple, as it’s just the contraction of one’s body or body part, and then its dramatic release. This technique was identified, popularized, and wildly utilized by Graham. The movement was based on her own interpretation of the Delsartean principle of tension and relaxation. From this scientific theory, Graham made the connection to her style of dance, and from there sprouted arguably the most iconic modern dance movement in the early 20th century. Moreover, the elements of spiraling, falls, and more contribute to the overall vision of a Martha Graham production. Spiraling is the rotation of the spine approximately 45 degrees around its vertical axis, thus moving the shoulders to face a different angle while the rest of the body is facing its original direction (Hart-Johnson). Additionally, falls are quite common throughout a Graham production, as it gives an element of suspension portrayed to the audience.
Falls consist of contraction and manipulation of the body’s center of gravity to create a dramatic effect of one being lifted and released (Graff). Other aspects of the Graham technique include the hands, which maintain a cupped ‘praying’ position in many dances, as well as the arms, which are seen to be placed in a port de bras position (Daly). Port de bras means “movement of the arms”, and is typically seen in the transition from the frontal first position, to the open second position, to the high fifth position (Daly). As time progressed, the Graham technique flourished since its initial stages. Although the choreographic technique has remained nearly constant, the scene in which the dances take place has evolved. Originally, Graham kept her stage sets bare, concentrating on the dancers and their technique. But as time progressed, she utilized modern and minimalistic sets and props to emphasize her choreography and storyline. For example, in Appalachian Spring (1944), Graham received assistance from Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi.
Copland composed the infamous ballad, and Noguchi designed the set and props. All of these elements are combined to create Graham’s wonderful masterpieces. Another significant example of the use of these techniques is seen in the dance production Frontier, which debuted in 1935. This production embodies many of the major themes, techniques, and skills that define a Martha Graham production. The themes include the collaboration with designers and composers to create a cohesive environment, the exploration of human nature and curiosity throughout history, the use of elaborate costumes, the incorporation of floor work in expressive freedom.
(Cohen) Additionally, the fundamental choreography of the piece is quite iconic, as it engulfs many of Graham’s most common techniques, such as contraction and release, spiraling, and falls. The purpose and implication of this production – and many others – is to show the blunt break from traditional ballet to a completely new style and technique within the modern dance realm, created and popularized by Martha Graham. Graham technique has strongly influenced the works of renowned modern dancers, such as Erick Hawkins. Hawkins began his professional dance journey at George Balanchine’s American Ballet. He continued a few years within the ballet world before becoming the first man on the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1938. From here, Hawkins learned directly from Martha Graham the Graham technique and starred in several of her productions as the lead male role.
He grew as a dancer and took his learnings to create his own technique, which consisted of “directed, free flow of movement initiating from the center” (Celichowska). Hawkins fully enveloped Graham technique and morphed it into something new that only broadened the horizons of the modern dance world.All in all, Graham technique especially influenced the development of modern dance in the early 20th century as it became a sturdy foundation for dancers to grow upon. As Graham accepted new ideas, people, and skills into her company and productions, her technique and reputation progressed and prospered in positive ways. From this, more dancers were attracted to Graham technique, and quickly learned and continued to develop general modern technique.
Thus, the modern dance world had more to offer to its audience, which in turn expanded, creating more appeal for modern dance in the early 20th century.Graham Compared to OthersOf course, there is some room for argument regarding the influence of Graham compared to other modern dancers. For instance, Jose Limon also heavily impacted the world of modern dance in the 1940’s.
However, in comparison to Graham, Limon took a different, more humanized approach to modern dance. Limon moved to New York City in 1928, where he saw his first modern dance production by Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi. He soon enrolled in the Humphrey-Weidman school and company, where he began to create a foundation for his reputation in the modern dance world. Meanwhile, Limon was also performing on Broadway, until he made his final debut in 1943 and initiated the Limon Dance Company in 1946. He then spent the next thirty years teaching his technique, creating dance masterpieces, and spreading awareness of modern dance (“Founders”). Limon technique is similar to Graham’s, but has its own distinct characteristics.
Limon technique consists of fall and recovery, rebound, weight, suspension, and succession and isolation (“Limon technique”). Limon technique has been taught for decades as a foundation to modern dance, just as Graham’s. But, however, some believe that Limon’s style may be more influential or promising compared to Graham’s.Regardless of opinions, Limon is a strong suit in the world of modern dance, and has undoubtedly aided the spread of modern dance genre, but he did make his appearance and true __ much later than Graham. Limon is considered to be in the ‘second generation’ of modern dance, where as Graham is in the ‘first generation’.
Therefore, Graham began her career before Limon, giving her a better advantage to paint the path of modern dance.ConclusionIn conclusion, the investigation pursued has brought insight and connections to the influence of Martha Graham in the development of modern dance in the 20th century. From Graham’s foundation being set by the original pioneers of modern dance, to her creating her own style and defining uniformities, Graham has aided the paving of a revolutionary fine arts path. Bursting through the glass ceiling, Graham defined the importance of modern dance to the psychological, physical, and emotional state of the dancers, as well as the audience. The clear significance of Martha Graham in the modern dance world lies within her groundbreaking technique and its implications throughout the dance community. Therefore, the implication of Graham’s technique contributes to the overall knowledge of modern dance, and the potential for growth, as seen in the production of new styles and techniques birthed from the original Martha Graham Dance Company.
Without her influence, modern dance may not have gained as much popularity in the early 20th century and may have failed to increase the momentum needed to catapult the dance entertainment industry to where it currently lies today.