Born in 1894 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Martha Graham’s family moved to Santa Barbara, California when she was fourteen years old. She attended her very first dance performance in Los Angeles at the Mason Opera House, which featured, none other than Ruth St. Denis. In that moment, one can discern that Martha was summoned by Terpsichore, the muse of lyric poetry and dancing. She soon began to study at the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Dance, which was founded by St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Upon leaving the school in 1923, Graham decided to create a dance form that was more grounded the human experience rather than dance as entertainment. She taught dance for one year at the Eastman School of music before relocating to New York City.   There in 1926, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was established in a small Upper East Side studio in New York City. On April 18, 1926, Graham presented the first concert of her own choreography, 18 solos, at the 48th Street Theatre in Manhattan. It was the beginning of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Throughout her lengthy career she collaborated with the most important and innovative composers of her era, among them were, Aaron Copland on “Appalachian Spring,” Louis Horst, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Carlos Surinach, Norman Dello Joio, and Gian Carlo Menotti. Equally, the list of dancers who worked with Graham and then went on to have important and long-lasting careers is extensive. Those who became known for their choreography or who formed acclaimed companies are, Martha Hill, Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, Pearl Lang, Jean Erdman, Matt Turney, Mary Hinkson, Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, John Butler, Robert Cohan, Stuart Hodes, Glen Tetley, Bertram Ross, Paul Taylor, and Donald McKayle, among others.

Martha Graham. Photo courtesy of the Martha Graham Dance Company

Martha Graham. Photo courtesy of the Martha Graham Dance Company

Graham continued to perform well into her 70s until a battle with alcohol caused her to be hospitalized. She not only survived that stay but quit drinking and returned to her studio and remarkably went on to choreograph ten new dances. Her final piece, at age 95, was “Maple Leaf Rag” choreographed to the music of Scott Joplin. She died in 1991 at the age of 96. Her autobiography, “Blood Memory”, was published posthumously later that same year.

Graham was named “Dancer of the Century” by TIME magazine and People magazine gave her the title of one of the female “Icons of the Century.” Because of her undeniable impact on her chosen art form, she is often referred to as the “Picasso of Dance.”

Now, led by artistic director and former company member, Janet Eilber, The Martha Graham Dance Company has announced GRAHAM100 – The First and The Future. The company will present three New York City seasons and tour internationally during the anniversary and the celebration of Graham’s life and work. This will span a three-season period (2023-2026) featuring “performances, new productions, exhibitions, film screenings, publications, discussions, and educational activities that build on the Company’s legacy of innovation and its present and future vision based on this incomparable legacy.” Press release by Janet Stapleton.

MGDC - Xin Ying and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham’s "Maple Leaf Rag" - Photo: (c) Hibbard Nash Photography

MGDC – Xin Ying and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham’s “Maple Leaf Rag” – Photo: (c) Hibbard Nash Photography

“We are proud to be the oldest dance company in the United States but have discovered that a celebration encompassing 100 years of artistic innovation informed by vast social, political, and technological change, needs a broader canvas than one season can provide! Three seasons will allow us to curate and organize this unmatched American legacy in ways that highlight not only the Company’s timeline of firsts and its historic impact but perhaps more importantly, its continuing relevance and influence,” stated Eilber.

Each of the three season will feature Graham’s masterworks along with several more recent and acclaimed contemporary choreographers. The three season will also include “a documentary in development with PBS, a new book of photography, an exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, new recordings of the great scores written for Graham, an annual opera collaboration, a national lesson plan based on a Graham classic, and creative partnerships and licensing by professional companies and universities worldwide.” Company press release.

MGDT -Lorenzo Pagano and Anne O’Donnell in Martha Graham’s "Dark Meadow Suite" - Photo by Brigid Pierce

MGDT -Lorenzo Pagano and Anne O’Donnell in Martha Graham’s “Dark Meadow Suite” – Photo by Brigid Pierce

Executive Director LaRue Allen says: “The 100th anniversary of the Martha Graham Dance Company is more than a red-letter day for Graham—the entire field of American modern dance has reason to celebrate. In an art form known for its ephemeral nature, the continuing success of the Graham Company shows that modern dance can be sustained, that it can evolve and remain relevant to successive generations.”

Information on the three season listed below was provided by a June 7, 2023 press release by Janet Stapleton.

The First Season:

The 2023–24 season, American Legacies, will focus on Martha Graham’s social activism, Americana, modernism, and her artistic collaborators. Main stage performances will include Graham classics such as Appalachian Spring (1944), Dark Meadow (1946), and Maple Leaf Rag (1990). The diversity of Graham’s collaborators on these works of Americana will be central to conversations convened to discuss their origins and the changing ways they are viewed by contemporary audiences.

New commissions will extend the exploration of American themes with two additions to the repertory. The Company will present a brand-new production of Agnes DeMille’s 1942 classic, Rodeo, with Aaron Copland’s iconic score reorchestrated for a six-piece bluegrass ensemble by the multi-instrumentalist and composer/arranger Gabe Witcher, opening conversations about the Black origins of that musical form. The work is co-commissioned by The Soraya at California State University, Northridge, and will premiere there on September 30, 2023—the launch of GRAHAM100. A longtime creative partner and supporter, The Soraya will collaborate with the Company on all three anniversary seasons.

Martha Graham Dance Company in Martha Graham’s "Appalachian Spring" - Photo by Melissa Sherwood

Martha Graham Dance Company in Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” – Photo by Melissa Sherwood

A new work for the Company by Jamar Roberts, who has created works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, San Francisco Ballet, and others, with a commissioned score by Grammy-winning composer Rhiannon Giddens, will be presented in tandem with Rodeo on tour and as part of the Company’s New York season at NY City Center, April 17–24, 2024.

Rodeo and the new work by Jamar Roberts were co-commissioned by the 92nd Street Y as part of its 150th anniversary celebration, and in honor and continued support of Martha Graham’s rich 92NY legacy. The Y will be partnering with the Company on events that expand our understanding of American dance and music, including panel conversations about iconic works of 20th-century dance and how we view them today.

MetLiveArts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will launch its series this fall with performances of some of Graham’s most powerful solos from the 1930s. The works will be presented throughout the galleries in dialogue with the exhibition Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s, Works include Lamentation (1930), Ekstasis (1933), Spectre-1914 (1936), Immediate Tragedy (1937), and Deep Song (1937).

The Company’s touring throughout 2023–24 includes performances in 13 cities across the U.S. and engagements in Spain, Italy, and Germany. The Company’s popular Studio Series, which offers audiences a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the Company in the intimate Martha Graham Studio Theater, will return this fall.

MGDC - Marzia Memoli, Lloyd Knight, Anne Souder, and Xin Ying in Martha Graham’s "Cave of the Heart" - Photo by Melissa Sherwood

MGDC – Marzia Memoli, Lloyd Knight, Anne Souder, and Xin Ying in Martha Graham’s “Cave of the Heart” – Photo by Melissa Sherwood

Second and Third Seasons:

GRAHAM100 continues in 2024–25 curated under the theme, Dances of the Mind, focusing on Graham’s psychological works, multifaceted women characters, and longtime artistic partnership with renowned visual artist Isamu Noguchi. Works to be presented—including Phaedra (1962), Errand into the Maze (1947), and Herodiade (1944)—foreground Graham’s command of complex ideas illustrated in movement and augmented with modernist sets and original scores. Graham’s long and fruitful collaboration with Noguchi will be explored on stage and in audience engagement activities.

The 2025–26 season, aligned with the national celebration America250, is titled The Masterpieces. Curated around the question “What is an American?” from Graham’s 1939 work American Document, the season focuses on Graham’s greatest works including Cave of the Heart (1946), Night Journey (1947), Chronicle (1936), and Primitive Mysteries (1931), and will include commissions and the culmination of many of the ongoing projects.

Other GRAHAM100 highlights:

Two programs that support commissions by professional companies and universities will be offered. The international Lamentations Variations Project invites organizations to commission new Lamentation Variations, short dances inspired by Graham’s iconic 1930 solo Lamentation, for their dancers. A digital showcase of these Graham-inspired selections will be part of the three-year celebration. Graham Everywhere extends an invitation to dance groups performing at many levels to license Graham classics. The resulting performances will be presented in a digital festival hosted by the Company.

MGDC - Leslie Andrea Williams in Martha Graham’s Spectre-1914 from "Chronicle" - Photo by Brian Pollock

MGDC – Leslie Andrea Williams in Martha Graham’s Spectre-1914 from “Chronicle” – Photo by Brian Pollock

The Company is also producing a national lesson plan for teachers, Our Own American Document, created by education specialist Cynthia Stanley. This instruction guide, supported by in-person and online professional development, leads students through the process of creating a dance based on American Document, choreographed by Graham in 1939. Little remains of the original choreography, but the themes resonate anew with today’s conversations about race, gender, nationalism, and how we see ourselves and our personal legacies as part of the evolving American story.

A documentary about the current Graham Company is in development with seven-time Emmy Award-winning documentarian Peter Schnall and Partisan Pictures with initial production support from PBS. The documentary team has begun filming and is joining the Company on tour in the coming season. The film is slated to premiere in the 2025–26 season.

The Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library has announced that the 2023–24 cycle of the Dance Research Fellowship will be dedicated to Martha Graham, with six awardees receiving funding to investigate various aspects of the Graham legacy and explore the recently acquired Graham archives. The Dance Division will schedule free programming throughout the anniversary period and is planning a comprehensive Graham exhibition at the Library for the Performing Arts in 2026.

Long Beach Opera's THE FEAST - Anna Schubert as Cleopatra - Photo by Phillip Faraone, Getty Images for Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Long Beach Opera’s THE FEAST – Anna Schubert as Cleopatra – Photo by Phillip Faraone, Getty Images for Segerstrom Center for the Arts

A three-season partnership between the Company and Long Beach Opera explores a deeper connection between dance and opera. These projects will feature Graham dancers and draw on the Graham physical vocabulary in new ways. As a precursor, the first work, The Feast, with music of G.F. Handel based on his seldom-staged opera Alessandro and starring superstar countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński was presented in May 2023.

The Company’s longtime partner, the music ensemble Wild Up and conductor Christopher Roundtree, are creating new recordings of many of the musical scores written for Graham. Commissioned by The Soraya, these state-of-the-art recordings will be released throughout the three seasons of GRAHAM100.

A new coffee table book from Deborah Ory and Ken Browar, known as NYC Dance Project, will be published by Black Dog & Leventhal and will feature the current Graham dancers along with archival photos from the past 100 years. It will be released in fall 2025.

An updated schedule of programs, partnerships, and engagements will be announced.

For more information about the Company, please visit their website.

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Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle with information provided by Janet Stapleton Public Relations.

Featured image: UCSB Arts & Lectures – Martha Graham Dance Co. – “Diversion of Angels” – Photo courtesy of the company.