May 11th, Martha Graham’s 117th Birthday

Today is the 117th birthday of Martha Graham, the American dancer and choreographer. She is known to be one of the leading pioneers of modern dance, and is often compared to Stravinsky in music, Picasso in art and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture.

Graham was very animated and passionate as both a performer and a choreographer. Her talent created a whole new language of movement, one that presented passion, ecstasy, rage and other common human emotions.

Her Career

Graham danced for more than seventy years. Throughout her career, she became the first dancer to perform in the White House, the first to be honored with the most esteemed civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Graham also was the first dancer ever to travel as a cultural ambassador. Before her death in 1991, Graham was given honors from Paris’s Key to the City to the Order of the Precious Crown of Japan.

“I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. It’s permitting life to use you n a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable,” Graham said of her life as a dancer.

Later in Life

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As she aged, Graham was forced off the stage by critics who said she was past her prime. In Blood Memory she wrote:

“It wasn’t until years after I had relinquished a ballet that I could bear to watch someone else dance it. I believe in never looking back, never indulging in nostalgia or reminiscing. Yet how can you avoid it when you look on stage and see a dancer made up to look as you did thirty years ago, dancing a ballet you created with someone you were then deeply in love with, your husband? I think that is a circle of hell Dante omitted… When I stopped dancing, I had lost my will to live. I stayed home alone, ate very little, and drank too much and brooded. My face was ruined, and people say I looked odd, which I agreed with. Finally my system just gave in. I was in a hospital for a long time, much of it in a coma.”

Graham did not only survive her hospital experience; she learned from it. In 1972 she rid her life of alcohol, went back to her studio, rallied her company and continued to choreograph ten more ballets as well as many revivals.