Graham was born in Allegheny City – later to became part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – in 1894. Her father George Graham practiced as what in the Victorian era was known as an “alienist”, a practitioner of an early form of psychiatry. The Grahams were strict Presbyterians. Dr. Graham was a third-generation American of Irish descent. Her mother Jane Beers was a second-generation American of Irish and Scots-Irish descent and was also a sixth-generation descendant of Myles Standish. While her parents provided a comfortable environment in her youth, it was not one that encouraged dancing. The Graham family moved to Santa Barbara, California when Martha was fourteen years old. In 1911, she attended the first dance performance of her life, watching Ruth St. Denis perform at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. In the mid-1910s, Martha Graham began her studies at the newly created Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, at which she would stay until 1923. In 1922, Graham performed one of Shawn’s Egyptian dances with Lillian Powell in a short silent film by Hugo Riesenfeld that attempted to synchronize a dance routine on film with a live orchestra and an onscreen conductor.
In 1925, Graham was employed at the Eastman School of Music where Rouben Mamoulian was head of the School of Drama. Among other performances, together they produced a short two-color film called The Flute of Krishna, featuring Eastman students. Mamoulian left Eastman shortly thereafter and Graham chose to leave also, even though she was asked to stay on. In 1926, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was established. On April 18 of the same year, at the 48th Street Theatre, Graham debuted with her first independent concert, consisting of 18 short solos and trios that she had choreographed. She would later say of the concert: “Everything I did was influenced by Denishawn.” On November 28, 1926 Martha Graham and others in her company gave a dance recital at the Klaw Theatre in New York City. Around the same time she entered an extended collaboration with Japanese-American pictorialist photographer Soichi Sunami, and over the next five years they together created some of the most iconic images of early modern dance. One of Graham’s students was heiress Bethsabée de Rothschild with whom she became close friends. When Rothschild moved to Israel and established the Batsheva Dance Company in 1965, Graham became the company’s first director.
Graham choreographed until her death in New York City from pneumonia in 1991, aged 96. Just before she became sick with pheumonia, she finished the final draft of her autobiography, Blood Memory, which was published posthumously in the fall of 1991. She was cremated, and her ashes were spread over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico.
- May, 11, 1894
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- April, 01, 1991
- New York, New York
Cause of Death