In the early 1900’s, in order to be considered a legitimate art form, dance was expected to be graceful and beautiful, and because of this, ballet was the most accepted and appreciated dancing medium.
At this time, in Allegheny City, lived a girl who dreamed of being a dancer. While worshiping Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham bloomed into the Picasso of Dance, and initiated the modern dance movement. Through this movement, Martha Graham used her: attitude, theater, and unique technique, to rebel against the common traditions of dancing, and created a modern technique which transformed the realm of dance to represent more than just beauty.
Unlike other dancers, Graham did not care for what the critics approved of or what was expected of her, which helped establish her unpredictable reputation as a dancer. Using her irrational attitude to her advantage, she succeeded in creating a dance form that was real and not focused on projecting only beauty. In her autobiography, Graham described how when choosing whether to represent beauty or the eccentric nature of every woman, “in each character , played according to what she felt was the wild one” (Graham 58). This unconventional objective of hers was out of the ordinary, since more emphasis was placed on what was appealing to one’s eye. Graceful movements and elaborate costumes were used in order to enhance the beauty of ballet, and yet Graham’s distinct perspective on how modern dance should follow “modern painters and architects in discarding decorative essentials and fancy trimmings” in order to prove how “ dance was not to be ‘pretty’ but much more real” (Graham 120).
For example, while working in the Greenwich Village Follies, Graham would never wear any type of revealing garment, because she truly believed as a dancer she will allow her work speak for itself since she “ not a showgirl” (Graham 95). Her bold attitude towards the costumes she would wear whenever she danced with the Follies, created a more artistic feel to her dance, instead of relying on what would please the audience most to see the dancers in. Whether it is pure genius or the inclination to be wild, Graham inspired many of her dancers to embrace dismal clothing and forced their movements to paint a contemporary picture, which later became a form of art. Through her use of theater, Graham set the stage for dramatic movements that not only expressed various issues of the time, but also a powerful meaning in every gesture a dancer would form. With every ballet, Graham taught the audience a life lesson, using her essence of drama.
In El Penitente, her ballet of 1940, she illustrated how every woman who “is worth anything” has three phases to her personality, which were the qualities of “being a virgin, of being the temptress-prostitute, of being the mother” (Graham 26). Whenever an audience would come to see Graham in her natural habitat, somehow a deeper meaning to the show was always evident. A huge impact was seen on the modern dance movement, since now dance was characterized as a form of art that allows symbolic or purposeful meanings behind every gesture. In this way, Graham became a triumphant figure in society by communicating her ideas of what women should be seen as, or even what she viewed real beauty as. Using her strict belief of how “dance is the foundation of theatre,” Graham would entice the audience to look past superficial beauty and see the truth behind rigid movements” (Graham 106). In reference to the drama used in El Penitente, critics acclaimed how the “two-dimensional look of painted images, its shapes and colors reminiscent of work by Georgia O’Keeffe,” and how every dancer almost fit the image of a painted part of nature (Dunning 1).
Graham’s use of theater was strange and unique because in most forms of dance at the time, dancers would stay away from two-dimensional shapes in order to create a ballet which would fill the stage completely and seem artistic (Dunning 1). The modern dance movement was positively impacted by Graham’s theater skills to give every performance another meaning besides superficial beauty. Graham created her own technique, which is specific to modern dance choreography and is the foundation of the modern dance movement. In order to properly become attuned to the muscles in her body, Graham created the shifting of a dancer’s weight as a prime technique all modern dancers needed to master.
As described by Graham herself, the technique “would later evolve the weight is shifted in the strange animal way that is not ballet but contemporary dance,” which at first was very foreign to all dancer who would attempt such a strategy” (Graham 104). Upon hearing of such a technique, even George Balanchine had stated how Graham created her own “classical technique,” which is very important to modern dance since this weight shifting technique allows dancers to tap into the nature of their bodies and become one with nature, in a sense (Graham 104). Using her momentum, Graham would use physics and anatomy to her advantage whenever she choreographed any performances. Graham impacted the modern dance movement greatly because she created a different technique in which dancers still use even today, especially in contemporary dances. Through the shifting of weight, Graham successfully paved the way for dancers to use real movement to create a contemporary dance style. In conclusion, Graham always was able to leave the audience in awe of her brilliance whenever she performed.
Her choreography created the modern dance movement, and allowed dancers to explore areas of dance which were alien to them. Through her: attitude, theater, and technique, Graham really made a difference to the dancing realm and became an inspiration for countless years to come. Due to Graham’s accomplishments, people of the time began to alter their perception of dance to reflect not only how dance can be beautiful, but also how modern dance is a form of art.
1. Dunning, Jennifer. “Dance: ‘El Penitente,’ By Graham.
” New York Times 5 June 1986, n. pag. http://www. nytimes.
com/1986/06/05/arts/dance-el-penitente-by-graham. html. 15 Sep. 2013.
2. Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. Doubleday, 1991.