Martha Graham (May 11, 1894 - April 1, 1991), an American dancer and choreographer, is known as one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance.
She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and moved to California when she was 14 years old. After seeing Ruth St. Denis perform in the 1910s, she took an interest in dance. Not until the age of 22 (1916) did she pursue her interest professionally by enrolling at Denishawn. In 1925, Graham became a dance instructor at the Eastman School of Music and Theater in Rochester, New York. She later set out on her own with the support of Louis Horst, an accompanist whom she had got to know while training at Denishawn and who grew to be her musical mentor and lover. Graham founded her own company, the Martha Graham Dance Company, in 1926. Her unique movement style -- widely recognised for its principle of contraction and release -- and imagery reflected the modern art of the times.
At Bennington College in 1932, Graham founded the first-ever bachelor of arts degree in dance. In 1951, she was a founding member of the dance division of the Juilliard School.
In 1936, Graham made her defining work, "Chronicle", which signalled the beginning of a new era in contemporary dance. The dance brought serious issues to the stage for the general public in a dramatic manner. Influenced by the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War, it focused on depression and isolation, reflected in the dark nature of both the set and costumes.
Graham's dancing life gradually came to a rest starting in the 1950s. In 1927, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was established. One of her students was heiress BethsabĂ©e 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, groomed its first generation of dancers, and made works for it.
In 1948, Graham married Erick Hawkins(a principle dancer in her company). She didn't want to marry, but after eight years of living together, he decided they should.
Her final dance performances came in the late 1960s, and from then on she focused on choreography. Some critics say that even though there is little physical record of her dancing, it is more memorable than her choreography. Graham continued working until her death from pneumonia in 1991 at the age of 96.
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by President Gerald Ford (the First Lady Betty Ford had danced with Graham in her youth).
In 1998, TIME magazine listed her as the "Dancer of the Century" and as one of the most important people of the 20th century.