Martha Graham was born in 1893 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and moved to Santa Barbara, California as a teenager. Her father was a graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Baltimore and a specialist in nervous disorders. George Graham’s influence on the young Martha was profound. “Bodies never lie,” he once told her.
Martha Graham began her study of dance at the newly established Denishawn School in Los Angeles at the age of twenty-three. A protégé of Ted Shawn, she appeared with him in the popular Denishawn ballet Xochitl, dancing the part of a passionate Aztec maiden, a role that established her reputation as a magnetic performer. In 1924, dissatisfied with her opportunities at Denishawn, Graham left to take a job with the Greenwich Village Follies at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City, and began to explore her potential as an independent artist. She experimented with new ways of moving in classes she taught at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York, and on April 18, 1926, gave her first concert at the 48th Street Theater in New York City, appearing with three of her students.
In the years that followed, Graham created more than 180 ballets and developed a unique technique of movement based upon principals of contraction and release. Early ballets by Martha Graham had names like Claire de Lune, Desir, Danse Languid, and Maid with the Flaxen Hair. Yet within a few years titles such as Revolt, Immigrant: Steerage, Strike and Poems of 1917 revealed her commitment to the contemporary world. For example, Heretic, in 1929, staged “the essence of the eternal struggle of the individual with something new to offer, coming up against the blank wall of conservatism in any field,” a theme that was repeated often throughout her career. As an artist, and particularly as a woman artist, she was a rebel in conventional American society.
Graham made a sympathetic portrait of an American woman through Frontier (1935), a dance that must have had special resonance for Americans during the Depression and as America’s heartland (some of it settled in the 1860s) became America’s Dust Bowl. Her 1936 Steps in the Street (which was part of a larger work called Chronicle), subtitled “devastation, homelessness, exile,” might have referred to any of the tragedies of the period (among them, the Depression and the Spanish Civil War which many American artists commented upon). American Document (1938), which included structural elements from minstrel shows and words from writings such as the Declaration of Independence, a letter from Red Jacket of the Senecas, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, made reference to America’s troubled history. Graham’s own heritage, perhaps, allowed her to apply a broad lens to American history.