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Woman Crush Wednesday: Martha Graham

Martha Graham never considered herself a genius. For her, the measure of a dancer was their passion, and by that metric, Graham was exceptional. In creating 181 ballets and a dance technique that bears her name, Martha Graham was as prolific as she was committed to energizing the spectator into “keener awareness of life through dance.” The angular, jagged, and direct movements which defined her innovative style continue to influence the development of dance worldwide. Graham began her illustrious career, and influenced the world of dance from, here in Greenwich Village.

Martha Graham

Graham never set out to establish a technique; her endless experimentation sought to expose the depth of human emotion through movement. Inspired by modern painting, the American frontier, Native Americans, and Greek mythology, Graham’s philosophy was rooted in the belief that “movement never lies” — that dance exists as the performance of living. Known best for conceiving performances herself for the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Neighborhood Playhouse, Graham was equally at home collaborating with artists, fashion designers, and composers. A true visionary, Martha Graham is remembered as a pioneer of art and truth.

Greek Mythology Dances

Graham was deeply connected to The New School, which nurtured her career on its campus. She organized a revolutionary modern dance series at the university in 1933. These performances took place in the ultra-modern egg-shaped auditorium, designed by the Austrian architect Joseph Urban. That auditorium, located at 66 West 12th Street, opened on January 1, 1931 and was created during the depths of the Great Depression. The striking 500-seat auditorium was designated an interior New York City landmark on June 3, 1997 — one of the very few in New York City, and one of the only ones in Greenwich Village.

Joseph Urban designed auditorium at The New School

The New School’s Dance Studio which is located in the basement of 66 West 12th Street, was also designed by Urban and is named after Martha Graham. It is a circular space centered around a sunken waxed maple floor and framed by four pillars. Urban originally used a powerful color scheme there in a highly innovative way in order to make up for the low ceilings as well as to create the sense of drama inherent to dance.

Graham is one of the many avant-garde artists The New School nurtured over the many years since its founding. Graham had her first dance studio at 66 Fifth Avenue beginning in the 1930s and remained there through at least the 1950s. The studio started off as an all-female dance company, and it was while located here that Graham first integrated men into her work and school.

The Martha Graham Dance Company, founded in 1926, is known for being the oldest American dance company. Long after Graham’s death in 1991 it has continued on, now located at 55 Bethune Street in Westbeth.

Graham is one of many women, and one of many dancers, who made history in the area South of Union Square for which we are seeking landmark designation. To help us secure landmark designation for this endangered area, including Graham’s former dance studio at 66 Fifth Avenue, click here to send a letter to city officials in support.

The life and work of Martha Graham will be on display as part of our 2021 Annual Benefit: VILLAGE VOICES. Our benefit will feature an engaging installation of exhibit boxes displayed throughout our neighborhoods featuring photographs, artifacts, and recorded narration that will provide entertaining and illuminating insight into the momentous heritage of the Village. 

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