Martha Graham was born on this day in 1894. Her long life spanned most of the 20th century, and she was one of its finest interpreters. Her influence on modern dance, and other arts, can hardly be overstated. Widely considered the mother of modern dance, Graham brought political protest, social issues, violence, sex and a degree of emotional intensity to dance that had not been seen in the U.S., perhaps anywhere. Although many of her most iconic pieces, such as “Night Journey,” “Appalachian Spring” and “Clytemnestra” were choreographed several generations ago, it is impossible to think of them as anything but modern. Her work was stark, strange, sculptural, offputting, lyrical, spasmodic. But, even now, emphatically new. Too new, maybe. Painfully so.
There she is in a dress that seems about to eat her alive. There she is as a high priestess. A goddess. A strange amalgam of bird and flower. She is often pictured with one leg pointing to the sky, while the most magnificently full skirt ever designed fans out about her in what seems the courtship display of a decidedly non-native bird.
She cultivated a whole generation of dancers and choreographers, themselves considered parents of contemporary dance. Merce Cunningham, most famously. Paul Taylor. She collaborated with composers, artists, fashion designers, notably the Japanese sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, whose three-dimensional set pieces are so intimately entwined with images of her work. A game of Six Degrees of Martha Graham might turn up every modern artist one could name. Yes, even Madonna.
Here she is, casting a terrible spell, in the creepy, Oedipal “Night Journey,” with Paul Taylor, among others, and those iconic Noguchi sets (which, by the way, you can vogue with yourself at the Noguchi museum in Queens).