The Search for Identity Through Movement: Martha Graham’s Frontier

Martha Graham’s Frontier, an early solo piece by the great choreographer, focuses on the frontier woman and the challenges of Westward Expansion. Graham’s innovative work utilized a minimalist set by Isamu Noguchi and music by Louis Horst to highlight the emotions and symbolism within the work.

Classroom Activities

Discuss: Ask the group what the term frontier means to them and ask them to create their own lists of definitions and associations for the word.

Analyze: Using the Movement Analysis Worksheet, have students identify spatial patterns (i.e. circular, rectangular, lines at right angles) within Graham’s Frontier. Once students can confidently identify these patterns in space, ask them to identify body shapes and different movement qualities (i.e. light/strong, fast/slow, direct/indirect).

(For more information about Movement Analysis, student should read: Words for MovementMovement Observation Guidelines, and Rethinking Movement Analysis.)

Martha Graham, "Frontier," 1935; Photograph by Barbara MorganDiscuss

  • What are the movement themes (repeated gestures, locomotor movements) in Frontier?
  • What are the repeated spatial patterns and movement qualities (i.e. strong movement, light movement) in Frontier?
  • What traits does the woman in Frontier seem to have?
  • How does the dance relate to America’s Westward Expansion?
  • Why might these ideas about being American have resonated within the cultural agendas that defined 1930s America?
  • How might the dance have resonated with those concerned about American economic and agricultural issues?
  • How does the Frontier woman resonate with our ideas about American women in the 1930s?  With contemporary ideas about women?
  • Ask students to compare the definitions and associations list they created at the beginning of the class, based on their interpretation of the concept of the frontier, to their present understanding.
  • Can you think of other ways that dance and movement might create a distinctive national or ethnic identity?

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