Her fierce choreography sometimes amazed and sometimes horrified, but in it she embodied modern dance--arrogantly and spectacularly

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    Graham came decisively into her own in the '40s, turning out in rapid succession the decade-long series of angst-ridden dance dramas--enacted on symbol-strewn sets designed by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi and accompanied by scores commissioned from such noted composers as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber--on which her reputation now chiefly rests. Cave of the Heart (1946), one of her many modern recastings of ancient Greek myth, contains a horrific solo in which the hate-crazed Medea gobbles her own entrails--perhaps Graham's most sensational coup de theatre and one recalled with nightmarish clarity by all who saw her bring it off.

    "How do you want to be remembered, as a dancer or a choreographer?" Graham was asked by choreographer Antony Tudor. "As a dancer, of course," she replied. "I pity you," Tudor said. His words proved prophetic. In her prime a performer of eye-scorching power, Graham insisted on dancing until 1968, long after her onstage appearances had degenerated into grisly self-caricature. Her unwillingness to let younger soloists take over led her to replace her signature pieces with new dances in which she substituted calculated effects for convincing movement. Adoring critics pretended nothing was wrong, but in fact she produced virtually no work of lasting interest from 1950 to her death 41 years later.

    Her wishes notwithstanding, it is not likely that Graham will be remembered as a dancer, at least not very clearly: films of her performances are scarce and mostly primitive. Much of her choreography has failed to wear well, especially by comparison with the work of George Balanchine, the unrivaled master of neoclassical ballet, and Taylor and Cunningham, her apostate alumni. No more than half a dozen of her dances, most notably Cave of the Heart and Appalachian Spring (1944), her radiant re-creation of a pioneer wedding, seem likely to stand the test of time. The rest are overwrought period pieces whose humorless, lapel-clutching intensity is less palatable now that their maker is no longer around to bring them to life.

    Yet a theatrical legacy cannot always be measured by such seemingly objective yardsticks. Though there is no film of Nijinsky dancing, no one questions his place of honor in the history of 20th century ballet. Even if her beleaguered company should someday close its doors and her dances cease to be performed, Graham will doubtless be remembered in much the same way, for the shadow she cast was fully as long. Did she invent modern dance? No, but she came to embody it, arrogantly and spectacularly--and, it appears, permanently. "When the legend becomes fact," said the newspaper editor in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "print the legend." The legend of Martha Graham long ago became fact, just as her utterly personal technique has become part of the common vocabulary of dancers everywhere. "The center of the stage is where I am," she once said. It still is.

    TIME contributing writer Terry Teachout covers dance for the New York Daily News

    Some Memorable Moves

    The century's most vivid moments in dance were as diverse in tone and technique as jazz, opera and punk rock. Here are three:

    Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers turned hoofing into pop poetry. In The Gay Divorcée (1934), their pas de deux added full-clothed seduction to Cole Porter's ballad.

    Choreographed in 1928 for the legendary Ballets Russes, this first masterpiece by George Ballanchine jump-started classical ballet with a jolt of cool, clear modernism.

    He slipped, he slid, he conquered: with this smooth cameo on Motown's 25th anniversary TV special in 1983, Michael Jackson brought street dancing into the spotlight.

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