Communicating in any medium is hard work. Graham’s dances did not come easily to her. When the idea for a new dance was starting to take form, it was “a time of great misery.” Graham worked late into the night, propped up in bed, writing down thoughts, observations, impressions, quotations from books—anything that could help feed her imagination. “I would put a typewriter on a little table on my bed, bolster myself with pillows, and write all night.”
She read widely as she searched for ideas and inspiration, studying psychology, yoga, poetry, Greek myths and the Bible. Gradually, the ideas that filled her notebooks would begin to reveal a pattern, and she would write out a detailed script.
In her work, Graham repeatedly portrayed a woman called to a high destiny and forced to overcome fear before she could answer the call. This was personal, as Graham herself believed that she had been given “lonely, terrifying gifts”—a sort of divine command to penetrate the interior of the human spirit, no matter what comfortless truths she might find there.
In 1955, the U.S. government asked Graham to tour major cities in seven countries as a cultural ambassador. She gave lectures at each stop, but was a very nervous presenter. In her biography of Martha, author Agnes de Mille describes the scene: “She hung onto the barre, clung to the walls. She couldn’t think what to do with her hands, with her robes, with her feet.” Finally, she escaped into her dressing room and locked the door. But Graham tried again and again, and overcame her fear. Eventually, the State Department officials named Graham “the greatest single ambassador we have ever sent to Asia.”
Until she was 90, Graham continued to deliver lectures, which she had developed into an art form. A striking figure with a seductive voice, poetic insights and a faultless sense of timing, she learned how to hold an audience spellbound.
You could say that by trying to discover herself, she founded the world of modern dance. During her long journey, she invented a new way of moving, a unique dance language that has thrilled audiences all over the world and enlarged our understanding of what it means to be human.
She was protesting. Stark. And American. Some called her ugly, others called her revolutionary.
All of us are unique. We each have our own pattern of creativity, and if we do not express it, it is lost for all time. Graham defied customs, broke through barriers and presented new ideas. She was loved and reviled, yet persistent in overcoming her fears to communicate what she felt in her soul. By remaining committed to communicating how she felt, she changed dance for all time.
P.S. Happy belated birthday, Martha. On May 11, Google paid homage to her with this lovely animation. We wanted to honor her with our own little piece of the web.