Into the Light

Doyenne of Modern Dance Martha Graham

by Katherine Stewart, Santa Barbara, Dec. 2008/Jan. 2009

On a crisp fall evening in 1966, Martha Graham brought a tale of seduction and murder to the stage of the Granada Theatre. Playing the role of the Old Testament heroine Judith, she danced her way into the heart of her victim, the evil Holofernes, across a dazzling set of pure brass sculptures made by Isamu Noguchi for the event. Although she was more than 70 years old at the time, her movements were taut, precise, and primal, still brimming with the talent and majesty that had made her one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. The crowds loved it. Reviewers called the show, “inspiring, amusing, and challenging ... a rare contact with profundity, brilliance, and frivolity conveyed with superb artistry.” For Graham, though, the evening in Santa Barbara was more than just another show in a long career. It was a homecoming.

Martha Graham arrived in Santa Barbara in 1908, at the age of 14, after a long train trip from Pittsburgh. The Grahams were Easterners by descent and disposition. Martha’s mother could trace her ancestry to Miles Standish and the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower; her father, a doctor, was the grandson of the president of Pittsburgh’s first bank. But the Grahams had already lost an infant son and, in the coal-fired air of Pennsylvania, their middle daughter, Mary, had developed chronic asthma. They came to California in search of healthier living conditions—but they may have gotten more than they bargained for. “My people were strict religionists who felt dancing was a sin,” Martha wrote. “But luckily, we moved to Santa Barbara, California.”

In her later memories, Pittsburgh was a study in black, “as if the city was spun entirely out of evening and dark thread.” Santa Barbara, on the other hand, was a place where the “sunlight was so rich, the landscape so clear, I drank in as much of it as my body could encompass.” The Grahams purchased a share in a Montecito olive ranch. With the sunshine, in Martha’s mind, came a sense of freedom and curiosity. “No child can develop as a real Puritan in a semitropical climate,” she mused in her old age. “California swung me in the direction of paganism.”

Graham was in Santa Barbara for just a few years, but they were decisive ones. Even later in life, she would show that she never forgot her roots.

* * *

In 1909, Martha Graham enrolled as a student at Santa Barbara High School, where she joined the basketball team, became editor of the Olive and Gold, the school’s literary magazine, and developed a flair for sewing her own dresses. One day, a poster in a shop window caught her eye of a bejeweled woman sitting cross-legged on a thronelike platform, her face wearing a mysterious half-smile. It was the Ruth St. Denis as the Hindu goddess Radha. Graham saw something liberating in the famous dancer’s exotic posture and costume. Martha begged her parents to allow her to attend the performance, and they agreed. By the end of it, she had determined that she, too, would be a dancer.

“There is probably no other single figure who was more influential in the world of contemporary dance than Martha Graham,” says Diane Vapnik, founder and executive director of Summerdance Santa Barbara, an annual festival of contemporary dance that took place from 1997 to 2006. “Her years in Santa Barbara were clearly formative in her ability to break with tradition, to articulate beauty and a sense of freedom.”

Upon graduating from high school in 1913, Graham enrolled in theater classes at Cumonck School of Expression, then in dance classes at Denishawn, both in Los Angeles. During several years of relentless training, she impressed her teachers with her discipline, her quick mastery of dance steps, and her determination to learn. She was admitted to Denishawn’s troupe in 1920 and began performing on stage with her idol, Ruth St. Denis.

At the age of 32, after a stint as a soloist in New York in a popular Broadway revue, Graham formed her own dance company, recruited a small group of dedicated performers, and began choreographing and performing her own works. At the time, most Americans thought of dance in the European tradition of ballet, with its mannered portrayals of dashing princes and dying swans. Graham wanted to present something much more real. Her subjects were wide-ranging, from ancient mythology to the ageless majesty of the American frontier. Unlike her delicate predecessors, she embraced the stronger emotions—anger, anguish, jealousy, confusion—and she soon began showing on stage “what most people came to the theater to avoid.”

In her 1929 piece, “The Heretic,” Graham dressed herself all in white and then threw herself against a forbidding array of a dozen dancers dressed in black. “They became a wall of defiance that I could not break,” she explained. It was pure Graham: the desperate search for freedom against the forces of oppression; movement against stillness; light against dark. “To many people I was a heretic,” she wrote in her autobiography, Blood Memory (Washington Square Press, 1992), “who goes against the heavy beat and footsteps of those she opposes.”

Graham was also a radical in her choice of troupes and venues. She was among the first in the American dance world to recruit Asian and black dancers. Touring the South in the pre-Civil Rights Era, she strong-armed a theater owner into desegregating his venue for her performances. In 1936, she turned down an invitation from the German government to perform at an international dance festival in Berlin. “So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted,” she wrote to Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels, noting that several members of her troupe were Jewish. “Do you think I would ask them to go?”

Both the woman and her work shocked some and discomfited others. But none could doubt that Graham was a master of her art. Her appetite for dance was the overriding passion in her life. “A dance must dominate me completely,” she said, “until I lose sense of anything else.” She had several romantic involvements, though they were invariably linked to her craft. Louis Horst, a composer and the musical director of Denishawn, was an ally and mentor who supported her decision to strike out on her own professionally. Later, at age 54, she married 39-year-old Erick Hawkins, the first male dancer she admitted to her company (that list grew to include such leading lights of contemporary dance as Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Bertram Ross), though the union only lasted a few years. While she made little room in her life for anything that detracted from her work, she founded the longest-running school of dance in America, cultivated some of the most influential dancers of our time, left a legacy of 181 choreographic works, and pursued ground-breaking collaborations with such 20th-century composers as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and William Schuman.

“She was a most exacting and demanding person to study with,” says Julie McLeod, executive director of the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance, who studied with Graham in New York from 1953 to 1955. “I was in awe of her. One day, she’d come to class dressed as Cleopatra, regal and elegant; the next day she’d come in looking like a harridan and screaming like a fishwife. But she knew where it was at; she knew how to fire people up.”

On November 2, 1966, Graham had her Santa Barbara homecoming. In the sold-out show at the Granada, her company displayed some of her most dazzling pieces. In addition to “Legend of Judith,” they performed “Seraphic Dialogue,” a drama about Joan of Arc; “Embattled Garden,” a drama about sexual attraction and antagonism in the Garden of Eden; and “Acrobats of God,” the final number that considers the discipline and creativity of the dancer’s life. In her later years, Graham planned to return with her company to Santa Barbara. But those intentions never materialized.

Perhaps she never made it back because, in a certain sense, she had never really left.

In the 1970s, her company collaborated with superstars from the world of classical ballet including Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. She was dubbed a “national treasure” by First Lady Betty Ford, and went on to travel the world as a cultural ambassador. Yet throughout her long career, her early years in California served as a touchstone for her art. In 1991, when she penned her memoirs at age 96—she died later that same year—Graham wrote about her arrival in Santa Barbara as though it had just happened: “Mother opened the windows and the sea breeze rushed in and suddenly the light gossamer curtains were flying in the wind, alive with the bright sunlight. I wanted to swallow that moment whole.”

In time, elements of her life in Santa Barbara became a part of her dances: the leaping dolphins, the night-blooming cereus in her back yard, the bold sense of color, the wild and beautiful olive trees at the ranch, the ocean air that encouraged the breath, the exhilarating sense of freedom, and, in a word, the seemingly endless light.

The Book
The Good News Club, by Katherine Stewart

The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children

About the Author
author Katherine Stewart Katherine Stewart has written for The New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Guardian. She lives in New York City. Contact her. More →


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