The first thing you noticed was the face, a dead-white mask of anguish with black holes for eyes, a curt slash of red for a mouth and cheekbones as high as the sky. Even if Martha Graham had done nothing else worth mentioning in her 96 years, she might be remembered for that face. But she also made dances to go with it--harsh, angular fantasies spun out of the strange proportions of her short-legged body and the pain and loneliness of her secret heart. If Graham ever gave birth, one critic quipped, it would be to a cube; instead, she became the mother of American dance.
Graham was far from the first dancer to rip off her toe shoes and break with the rigid conventions of 19th century ballet. America in the 1910s and '20s was full of young women (modern dance in the beginning was very much a women's movement) with similar notions. But it was her homegrown technique--the fierce pelvic contractions, the rugged "floor work" that startled those who took for granted that real dancers soared through the air--that caught on, becoming the cornerstone of postwar modern dance. Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris--all are Graham's children and grandchildren. (Taylor and Cunningham even danced in her company, though they later repudiated her high-strung style.) Her methods are routinely taught today in studios the world over, but you need not have studied them or even have seen any of her dances to be influenced by them. They are part of the air every contemporary dancer breathes.
Born in 1894 in Allegheny, Pa., Graham moved with her family to California when she was 14. Three years later, she attended a Los Angeles recital by the dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis. It was the first dance performance of any kind that Graham had ever seen, and it overwhelmed her; in 1916 she joined Denishawn, the school and performing troupe that St. Denis co-led with her husband Ted Shawn. At 22, dangerously late for an aspiring dancer, Graham had found her destiny.
After seven years with Denishawn, Graham moved to New York City and struck out on her own, giving solo recitals and eventually launching her own company, in 1929. To raise funds, she danced at the opening of Radio City Music Hall, modeled furs and later gave classes in which she taught such actors as Bette Davis and Gregory Peck how to move. (Richard Boone claimed that to die onscreen, he simply did a one-count Graham fall.) But nothing could deflect her from what she believed to be her sacred mission: to "chart the graph of the heart" through movement. "That driving force of God that plunges through me is what I live for," she wrote, and believed every word of it. Others believed too, partly because of the hurricane-strength force of her personality--the Graham company would always bear an unsettling resemblance to a religious cult, with the choreographer as high priestess--but mainly because she delivered the goods.