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Martha Graham Essay

Throughout history, Modern Dance has been pioneered by inspirational choreographers such as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. Martha Graham in particular, revolutionised the dance industry with her numerous choreographed works. By experimenting with foreign movements and establishing the fundamental technique in Modern Dance, Martha Graham clearly expressed this dramatic dance style as a new form of life. Her style, created from raw emotion, challenges the technical barriers of traditional ballet and has evolved into today’s contemporary dance form.

Born into a privileged life in 1894 near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, Graham was inspired from her father being a specialised physician interested in the way the human body moves. In 1915, she studied dance with Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis, the innovative teachers at Denishawn. She then moved to the Greenwhich Village Follies for two years to establish her lengthy career. Living in a time of misconceived ideas, Martha Graham used her dancing genius to represent the many issues in American society in an abstract form.

Martha Graham’s technique is classically based but tweaks the usual symmetrical body alignment with sharp, precise and angular shapes. Graham’s moves communicate through the dancer, her emotion and stance on American social issues. These moves are expressed through; contraction, release, spirals, flexed hands and feet, rolls, flexion and suspension, clenched fists, fall and recover, curl and twist. Her stimulus for creating movements was breathing and the way she could emotionally express how she felt about life. The contraction starts from the pelvis and travels up the spine.

This curvature in the upper body is developed from an exhalation of breath. The release brings the body back to a neutral position with an inhalation of breath. All of the dancers in her company have an extremely strong core and maintain flexibility even though strength is the dominating component. To train the dancers, Graham would often perform classes with just floor work to strengthen the technical elements (contract, release and spiral) as well as learning control. Here the discipline of dance was drilled before allowing the freedom of performing.

Graham was quoted, “Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired. ” Her experimental technique allowed her dramatic view on life to be performed through Modern Dance. One of Graham’s theatrical works Night Journey, displays her established technical elements of modern dance. Inspired by Sophocles’ Greek Tragedy, the dance begins with King Oedipus and his Queen Jacosta complementing each other in their arms.

As the dynamics in the music develop, intruding onto the stage are six chorus members (Daughters of the Night) in a grieving state. Lunging forward in a contraction with their fists covering their eyes, they repeat this sequence around the stage recovering to a release in between each contraction. As the contraction is a Graham interpreted symbol of the human emotion grief, this has been consequently used multiple times throughout. Showing locomotion in unison as they clench their fists and flex their hands demonstrates this pleading state.

These movements, contractions, releases, developpes, attitudes and shuffling of feet, depict the women as vulnerable to lustful desires. Graham was quoted, “The body is your instrument in dance, but your art is outside that creature, the body. ” The expression of the upper body is sharp and angular with the reoccurring contraction and release. Non-locomotor movements are often in isolated poses of fear positioned around the males. At the time, women were often discriminated against not having the same power as men.

Graham has used this theme to display the social inequality sending a message that men have been in control of women for centuries and that women need to break free. The males use dominating gestures throughout, with the blind-seer Tiresias, portraying power and purpose with the repetition of arabesque promenades and high levels. These foreign movements have expressed the themes in a dramatic way developed from her dance style. In this Greek themed performance, the women wore long black dresses with stripes down the side and crown-like head pieces. King Oedipus wears a simple black tunic revealing most of his body.

Tiresias dresses in a black flowing coat, carries a wooden staff, and wears mask to show he is blind. Tiresias uses this wooden staff to indicate his wisdom and this symbolizes truth. The silk rope used to hang Queen Jacosta symbolises the connection to Oedipus from birth til death. The music is an extension to the dancers and enhances this performance dramatically. Wild, fierce and harsh would be a way to describe William Schumann’s dynamic instrumental score. The dancers reacted with the music emotionally as well as physically increasing the overall effect of the performance.

This choreographic style has allowed modern dance to communicate life’s emotions through drama intertwining with physical movement and relationships. Martha Graham has created countless choreographic pieces that have revolutionised the traditional outlook on dance. The Martha Graham Company was established in 1926 and is still a leading company to date. She has pioneered the Modern Dance industry by creating the fundamental technique and applying it to her 181 choreographed performances. Martha Graham has created a dance style to express a new form of life which has changed the dance world forever.


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