The roots of dance were laid in the ancient times. Dance is a kind of art that people use to express their soul, inner feelings and impressions. Thus, one may feel freedom and isolation from the rest of the world while dancing. Dance, music, as well as painting had a turning point when artists refused classic style and shifted to something revolutionary in the world of art. Dance is a special way of non-oral expression of thoughts, but all people think differently. Thus, the form of expression was also various that provoked the emergence of new dancing styles.
Martha Graham in the Development of American Modern Dance
The following research is aimed to study the contribution of Martha Graham in the development of American modern dance. Many people did not dare to encroach on such a sacred thing for dance art as ballet. Martha Graham was one of the first dance pioneers who realized how to develop classical dancing styles into the dance, which would portray the spirit of her epoch at best. Her efforts resulted in the emergence of modern dance. It is important to observe the timeline of her development as dancer. However, she had the predecessors in modernization of dance such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Moreover, Ruth St. Denis was Martha Graham’ mentor. Nonetheless, Graham had quite a new purpose as she aimed to transmit a social message to her audience. Concerning an evidence of her influence on the innovation of American modern dance, one should get in touch with her mostly distinguished ballets, such Frontier (1935) and Appalachian Spring (1944), which describe her methods and technique at best.
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Martha Graham was born in 1894 in the family of doctor who paid great attention to the physical movements. Martha’s father taught her about the significant role of movements in order to understand people. The process of her evolution as a modern dancer was long and thorny, but Graham was lucky to have a comfortable childhood and her family supported her, in spite of their strict Puritan beliefs. She chose the language of movements because she believed that “movement never lies” (Graham, 2006). Additionally, she was very inspired by a famous dancer Ruth St. Denis. When she saw her performance for the first time, it greatly effected her further career choice. Freedman (1998) states that “Martha Graham stared at her poster transfixed, studying every detail of Ruth St. Denis’s costume and appearance” (p. 21). Her Hindu-styled costume, exotic dance, bare feet and a manner she moved on stage caused an unforgettable effect on Graham’s perception of dance. Eventually, Martha Graham became one of her numerous pupils at Denishawn school. Being a partner of Ted Shawn, Martha got a chance to improve her dancing skills extremely. Soon, the pupil who was less perspective became one of the leading dancers in Denishawn company. Step by step, Martha Graham gained the experience required to start solo career. At first, a lot of critics did not take her seriously and considered her to be either too short or heavy and old, but her talent and aspiration were impossible to conceal (Freedman, 1998). Martha Graham always put dancing on the first place during her entire life. Dance was so important for Graham that she even refused to have children. When she had had to retire, it led her to attempt of suicide. However, Graham had a successful and fruitful career as a choreographer, which brought her back to life.
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For the current study, it is important to give consideration to the triggers, which pushed American dancers to refuse from traditional dancing styles. Obviously, there were several reasons of modern dance initiation. First of all, most American dancers were frustrated with classical traditions of European dance, which they considered to have imperialistic and rigid nature. Additionally, “they wanted to be taken seriously as artists rather than be seen simply as entertainers” (Brown, n. d., p. 2). Dancing a classic ballet prevented dancers from expression of their feelings and thoughts. Moreover, classic dancing styles limited them and did not allow any improvisation. Because of these restrictions, American dancers were unable to show the life and spirit of average Americans, as traditional ballet was mainly aimed at the perception of high-class European audience. Modern dance was quite the opposite to ballet and allowed dancers to improvise with style and tempo, give up any patterns of speed and technique of classical ballet. Actually, modern dance gave them freedom, which they needed most of all. Modern dance contrasted sincerity, freestyle and expression with canon of poses and cold beauty of classical ballet. There are no fuetes in modern dance, but there is a true movement of spirit. Instead of point shoes, modern dancers were barefooted, and imperial pompousness of the conventional ballet was replaced by real setting of mind. Therefore, modern dance became a perfect alternative to the conventional dancing styles.
Martha Graham greatly contributed to the evolution of American art of dance and developed an eloquent language of movements that provided the communicative power of dance. Freedman (1998) states that “Graham invented a revolutionary new language of dance, an origin way of moving that she used to reveal the joys, passions and sorrows common to all human experience” (p. 12). She compared her movements to the movements of animals, which were wild, beautiful and graceful. At the same time, Graham avoided to describe or imitate any material or animate objects on the stage and she tried to feel herself like these objects.
However, modern dance did not consisted only of movements as Graham expressed the feeling of freedom and emancipation. Modern dance really unchained women who did not have the right to vote at that time. Martha Graham fought for emancipation not by the means of politics but dance. In many ways, she became the role model for the contemporary women. One of the best examples is Graham’s ballet called Frontier (1935), where the famous dancer created a masterpiece in collaboration with a composer Louis Horst and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The solo part, which was performed by Martha Graham, describes the pioneer woman during the exploration of the Frontier in nineteenth century. Most movements of the dance are minimalist and focused to draw attention at the solo female dancer. Graham danced in her special percussive and angular movement style, in order to reflect the inversion of roles that men and women experienced during this period. By means of the dance, Graham explored the gender and national identity, while she as a dancer represented the image of American expansion to the West and the advance into unknown limitless space. In the Frontier, Martha Graham extends her expressive movements, applying her own method of contraction and release, which imitated the act of breathing. Another innovation in this ballet was the use of floor, in order to show the extensive gravity that was not considered aesthetical, although had a spectacular effect.
Classical ballet was aimed to diminish the gravity, and ballet dancers were supposed “to fly” on stage, while Martha Graham did the opposite. She revolutionized theories of movement and created a new mode of dance, which was not known before. With the help of these movements and methods, Martha Graham managed to depict the Frontier as a symbol of travelling to the unknown. At the same time, Graham never resorted to realism in her ballets; she accepted only inner reality (Kisselgoff, 1991). Instead of portraying something, Martha Graham preferred to be something while dancing. It means that she refused from any literal imagery, but approved abstraction. In this case, her similarity with Picasso and other avant-garde artists is evident.
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Another famous ballet of Martha Graham is Appalachian Spring (1944), a story about a wedding day of a rural American couple. Fruitful collaboration of Martha Graham and composer Aaron Copland resulted in one of the most symbolic works of the twentieth century, which precisely reflected the tensions of Americans at that time. Both Copland’s music and Graham’s choreography harmoniously blended with each other. In Appalachian Spring, Martha Graham showed her talent of choreographer, which probably, made her even more influential than career of dancer. According to Graham, “Appalachian Spring is essentially a dance of place. You choose a piece of land. Part of the house goes up. You dedicate it. The questing spirit is there and the sense of establishing roots” (as cited in Khadarina, 2007). The ballet was a quintessence of the exotic gracefulness of Appalachia and domesticity of America, which was reflected in the relationships between the bride and her husband.
According to the classic dance dogmas, female dancers should be an incarnation of weakness and fragility on the stage. In that time, women were supposed to dance using smooth and graceful curve movements, while men used to move in straight lines. Martha Graham denied this concept and applied the opposite one. She was the first who refused to follow the traditional stereotype of feminine nature in her dancing, and even strived to dance in a typically masculine way. The role of women in modern dance was opposite to that in classical ballet and it explains why there were so many women among pioneers of modern dance.
Modern dance did not put the stress on feet as it is used in ballet, and instead of this it put stress on torso. Martha Graham released the dance from theatrical conventions and strict academic doctrine. Modern dancers were barefoot and wore unconventional clothes. Graham was willing to destroy all existing notions of dance. In order to express some emotional themes in dance, Martha Graham used falls and trembling or shivering movements. She formed some movements through imitation of sexual or violent actions. Being such a tiny and fragile woman, Martha Graham managed to create a hurricane on the stage, demonstrating a masculine strength and control along with feminine flexibility. She tried to make an impression of gravity, while suddenly falling down or flying up the stage. Martha Graham (2006) was convinced that “great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” By means of passion and aspiration, Martha Graham explored a new world of dance, which had its own language and nature.
Martha Graham’s impact on modern dance popularization can be hardly underestimated as she spread it all over the world and her performances gathered thousands of spectators in all corners of the planet. Kisselgoff (1991) stated that “Martha Graham was Frequently ranked with Picasso, Stravinsky and James Joyce for developing a form of expression that broke the traditional mould.” She became a dancer and icon of the twentieth century. Additionally, practice was of paramount importance for Graham. She considered that “Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired” (Graham, 2006). The famous dancer and choreographer was convinced that dancing is not just an act of body movement in the space, but means of self-expression of human soul.
Probably, Martha Graham was not an inventor of the modern dance itself, but she developed it and created the newer form of dance, which remained almost unchangeable from her time. Undoubtedly, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis were dancers who laid the foundation of modern dance, although the concept of dance they followed was quite different from Martha Graham’s one. For instance, Ruth St. Denis based her ballets mainly on the oriental cultures, such as Japanese, Hindu or Egyptian mythologies, and Isadora Duncan was greatly inspired by the idea of the dance of the future, which is immensely tighten with the concept of interrelationship between nature and human.
As for Martha Graham, her conception of modern dance was quite revolutionary and innovative that allows to consider her a pioneer of American modern dance. She made an emphasis on American culture and her ballets were mostly aimed at the portrayal of human nature. First and foremost, Graham appealed to people’s feelings and emotions, trying to depict them as realistically as possible. Finally, the modern dance created by Martha Graham is still actual. According to Kisselgoff (1999) “the Graham technique, which is now used by dance companies throughout the world, became the first enduring alternative to the idiom of classical ballet.” She managed not only to create a new vocabulary of movements, the system of training, but also to make the structure of modern dance popular and actual even after seventy years.