CR Muse: Martha Graham and the Modern Art of Dance

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This is CR Muse, a new series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Martha Graham was the dancer of the century—not only according to Time magazine in 1998—but because she’s revolutionized dance as we know it. She was the first dancer to be invited to perform at the White House, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1976. She was even immortalized in photographs by Irving Penn and Andy Warhol. (She would have turned 124 this Friday.) But what made Graham such an icon?

For one, her unique approach to dance was ground-breaking. After founding her namesake dance company in 1926, Graham became known for challenging choreography that saw dance as an act of artistic expression. Bette Davis, Madonna, and Liza Minelli were among those who flocked to Graham to learn how to move. Her style—which created a narrative through emotional movements—was perfect for actors who sought to convey their characters through more than just line readings.

But it wasn’t just technique that made Graham noteworthy (although it cannot be understated how her style truly modernized the world of dance). As a choreographer, Graham collaborated with composers and set designers to create the aesthetic world for her creations. Meanwhile her costumes, which were minimalist in design and would often feature floor-length skirts, not only highlighted her movements, but sometimes acted as an extension of her body—a way for her to craft shapes and play with the human form, as seen in her dance “Lamentation.” Not one to miss an opportunity to collaborate with other artists, Graham worked with fashion designers like Calvin Klein and Halston (who also supported the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance) over the years.

What arguably made Graham truly modern, however, was how many of her pieces were focused on contemporary issues in society and politics. It was this line of creation that elevated her work to the level of important cultural commentary, proving that dance had its place among other art forms as a powerful tool of expression. Though she passed away in 1991, Graham’s legacy lives on not only through her dance company (which still performs today), but also through her establishment of dance and movement as an incredibly beautiful, and deeply human, act.

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