Martha Graham's Unique Style And Her Influence On Choreography

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Dance is much more than a way to entertain an audience. It is a powerful voice to communicate emotions and messages to the world. Choreography has the opportunity to be influenced by what is happening during a specific time period. As well, choreography can prompt audiences to expand their perspectives on real life issues and to broaden their ideas about their places in the world. Martha Graham and Jiri Kylian choreographed pieces that both reiterated and transformed the world.

Lamentation, choreographed by Martha Graham illustrates how modern dance reflects culture and influences society. It premiered January 8, 1930 in New York City. During this time period, people dealt with the uncertainty of world wars, The Great Depression, and communist and socialist politics. As a result, cultural nationalism developed and Americans drifted away from ballet as they felt it had European roots. Jowitt wrote, “To American choreographers, as to the painters, freedom meant the discarding of old forms and the creation of forms born of necessity” (Lansdale, 170).

Further, in response to the crises around them, people turned to self-reflection and began to investigate human experience. Graham rejected traditional classical ballet and its decorative, graceful movements and fairy-tale themes. With ballet and Vaudeville, she was unable to express the messages she wanted to present to audiences. Her work was influenced by this and she used dance as a mechanism to study human behaviour. She created a new dance language to display and share human emotions and experiences with audiences.

Additionally, she was influenced by the art movements present during that time period. In particular, she was drawn to Abstract Expressionism as it was based on emotion and being anti-figurative. Lamentation was created as Graham was interested in human behaviour, expression of emotion and rebellion against the norm. Polcari stated, “Graham presented dance as a mode of psychological, ritual, and historico-cultural self-examination that paralleled the concerns the Abstract Expressionists…were exploring in their painting…” (4).

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With the confrontational, experimental, and abstract nature of modern dance, Graham was able to display human emotion and create dances with emotional themes. For Graham and viewers, Lamentation was an experimental unveiling of abstract movement at that time. In the documentary Dancing: The Individual and Tradition, Jane Dudley explains, “Her sources for her movement were always out of her own being, out of her own unconscious state. And at the same time, with Martha, it was also a question of finding a whole new plastique, a whole new sculptural use of the body”. Through this piece of choreography, she wanted to direct her movements to the average American who was experiencing the same inner turmoil as herself.

Martha Graham utilized Lamentation to present the concept of grief, a human emotion, to audiences. She was clad in a tight, purple, tube-shaped costume which revealed only her face, hands, and feet. The costume restricted her movements which helped to portray the struggle humans have dealing with grief. The performance began with Graham seated on a bench performing grounded movements. She rocked side to side and front to back and then slowly contracted and released to an upward position. As the piece progressed, her movements became faster and more angular. These movements represented the inner struggle one has while dealing with grief. The Martha Graham Dance Company website explains her role as “the figure in this dance is neither human nor animal, neither male nor female: it is grief itself”. Martha Graham, who stayed seated for most of the piece, challenged audiences to look at dance from a new perspective.

Since the debut of the original Lamentation, there have been numerous performances and recreations of her work. In 2001, after 9/11, Martha Graham Dance Company performed Lamentation in schools to assist students to express grief as well as to get them to vocalize their emotions. In 2011, members of the Martha Graham Dance Company reworked Lamentation, and presented their adaptation in the form of a video instead of as a live performance.

With the creation of Lamentation, Martha Graham proved she was fearless as she rejected the European way of dancing. She refused to obey the social normalcy of ballet and modernized dance by dancing in bare feet and employing freer movements. Her choreographic use of emotion broadened the ideas about what could be expressed through dance. Pushing past traditions of pieces based on fairytales and historical themes, Graham created a new, modern dance language that dealt with real life issues. Her modern, gritty themes prompt audiences to think about their places in the world. This demonstrates her cultural significance in changing the world with respect to dance.

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