Martha Graham, (born May 11, 1894, Allegheny county, Pennsylvania, U.S.—died April 1, 1991, New York, New York), influential American dancer, teacher, and choreographer of modern dance whose ballets and other works were intended to “reveal the inner man.” Over more than 50 years she created more than 180 works, from solos to large-scale works, in most of which she herself danced. She gave modern dance new depth as a vehicle for the intense and forceful expression of primal emotions. Graham was one of three daughters of a physician who was particularly interested in the bodily expression of human behaviour. After some time in the South, her family settled in 1909 in Santa Barbara, California, where she discovered the rhythm of the sea and became acquainted with Asian art, influences that were to be evident in her choreography throughout her career. Graham’s professional career began in 1916 at Denishawn, the schools and dance company founded in Los Angeles by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, where as a teenager she was introduced to a repertory and curriculum that, for the first time in the United States, explored the world’s dances—folk, classical, experimental, Asian, and Native American. She was entranced by the religious mysticism of St. Denis, but Shawn was her major teacher; he discovered sources of dramatic power within her and then channeled them into an Aztec ballet, Xochitl. The dance was a tremendous success both in vaudeville and in concert performance and made her a Denishawn star.
For Martha Graham, the dance, like the spoken drama, can explore the spiritual and emotional essence of human beings. Thus, the choreography of Frontier symbolized the frontier woman’s achievement of mastery over an uncharted domain. In Night Journey (1948), a work about the Greek legendary figure Jocasta, the whole dance-drama takes place in the instant when Jocasta learns that she has mated with Oedipus, her own son, and has borne him children. The work treats Jocasta rather than Oedipus as the tragic victim, and shows her reliving the events of her life and seeking justification for her actions. In Letter to the World (1940; also called The Kick), a work about Emily Dickinson, several characters are used to portray different aspects of the poet’s personality.