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Women Crush Wednesday: The Power of Martha Graham

Martha Graham’s (1894-1991) remarkable career as a dancer and choreographer spanned more than 70 years. During her lifetime, she saw contemporary dance evolve from a new art form to a well-established one, in large part due to her many contributions. She was a pioneer, but also a visionary, creating her own movement language while demonstrating that modern dance could explore the depths and expanse of human emotion and a dance technique that could embody the essence of human narratives. All over the world today, elements of her movement technique have become foundational in dance. It’s no wonder, then, that she is known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.” It is also no wonder that her career was based primarily in Greenwich Village. In the 1930s and 40s, Martha Graham’s dance studio was located at 66 Fifth Avenue (see also here and here). This part of the Village was a hotbed of social activism, and Graham’s choreography, particularly in pieces such as Panorama and Chronicle, was influenced by this. Graham’s life and work are celebrated in Village Preservation’s public outdoor exhibition, VILLAGE VOICES 2022.

VILLAGE VOICES’ Martha Graham exhibit at Westbeth Artists’ Housing

As a young dancer, Graham considered the style of her teacher, Ruth St. Denis, cliche, and she thought the form of ballet was too artificial, too rarified, and too “un-American.” Graham sought to change the art: using her body to experiment, she invented her own movement vocabulary. Her interest in sharp, contracted movements illustrated a different side of female power. She began to focus her choreography on the personal struggles and conflicting desires of humans.

In 1926, she founded the Martha Graham Dance Company and began choreographing works that frequently use Greek mythology as inspiration. Her dances aren’t the usual stories of heroic men: she most often flips the focus, telling stories from a woman’s point of view. Graham recast the stories of the Western canon through female protagonists whom she captured as timeless, intense, and powerful. Graham was known for dancing the main role in her works and lit up the stage with her passionate performances, dancing well into her 70s.

Martha Graham Lamentations (1939)

In 1936, Graham was invited to perform at the Olympic Games in Germany, which was then ruled by the Nazis. Graham refused: “So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of the right to work for ridiculous and unsatisfactory reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible.”

But Graham had more to say on the subject, and later that year her groundbreaking dance piece Chronicle had its premiere. The work was created in response to the rise of fascist governments in Europe. Graham’s goal: to show the tragedy of war in a way everyone could understand. The cast was entirely made up of women, as Graham had no men in her company at the time.

Anti-war Ballet Chronicle (1936)

Among the most memorable parts of Chronicle is Steps in the Street, a group dance featuring rigid arm gestures, fast jumps, and patterns that are constantly changing. The dancers, all dressed in black, form an army, and one woman appears to be lost among them.

Martha Graham’s Steps in the Street

Graham was 26 years old when the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. In 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this historic moment—and the progress women have made since then—the Martha Graham Dance Company created The EVE Project, a celebration of female power that features classic Graham works about women alongside new works from other female choreographers. The EVE Project also brought us 19 Poses for the 19th Amendment, which both honors the Suffragists and accentuates Martha Graham’s revolutionary approach to representing women onstage. In an era when women characters in dance were generally goddesses, princesses, flowers, or swans, Graham began dancing complex, flawed, determined, and very powerful women, both heroines and anti-heroines: Medea, Phaedra, Jocasta, Emily Dickinson, and Clytemnestra, to name just a few. The power inherent in the 19 Poses, derived from Graham’s vast body of work, is offered to anyone who chooses to own them – to learn, remember, and make their own.

A dancer from the Graham Company doing one of the 19 Poses on A Monument to Choice

On October 14th, 2022, from 2 PM – 4 PM, Village Preservation in collaboration with the Martha Graham Dance Company and as a part of our outdoor public exhibition VILLAGE VOICES, will host a free public workshop in Gansevoort Plaza at A Monument to Choice. Dancers from the Graham Company will teach the 19 Poses to the public!

The life and work of Martha Graham will be on display from September 18 – October 30 as part of our 2022 Annual outdoor interactive public art exhibition: VILLAGE VOICES. Our exhibition features an engaging installation of exhibits displayed throughout our neighborhoods featuring photographs, artifacts, and recorded narration that provides entertaining and illuminating insight into the momentous heritage of the Village.

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