Graham technique is a modern dance movement style and pedagogy created by American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894–1991). Graham technique has been called the "cornerstone" of American modern dance, and has been taught worldwide. It is widely regarded as the first codified modern dance technique, and strongly influenced the later techniques of Merce Cunningham, Lester Horton, and Paul Taylor.
Graham technique is based on the opposition between contraction and release, a concept based on the breathing cycle which has become a "trademark" of modern dance forms. Its other dominant principle is the "spiraling" of the torso around the axis of the spine. Graham technique is known for its unique dramatic and expressive qualities and distinctive floorwork; dance critic Anna Kisselgoff described it as "powerful, dynamic, jagged and filled with tension."
Graham technique is based on "contraction and release", and uses different parts of the body in opposition to one another to create spirals for dramatic tension. It also incorporates formal exaggerations of "natural" movements.
Contraction and release
The fundamental movement of Graham technique is the cycle between "contraction" and subsequent "release", which developed as a stylized representation of breathing. Along with the "fall and recovery" dualism of Doris Humphrey's technique, it is one of the most important concepts in early modern dance.
A classic Graham contraction is a movement originating from the deep pelvic muscles. These muscles, along with the abdominal muscles, pull the spine into a concave arc from the coccyx to the nape of the neck, with the pelvis tucked and shoulders forward. The spine grows longer, not shorter, in a contraction. The force of the contraction can be used to move the body through space or change its trajectory. The release may be considered a relatively passive return to a "normal" state, or alternatively an equally active outward propulsion of energy. The contraction is associated with the exhale, and the release with the inhale, although this connection may be merely conceptual.
Graham's decision to make movement originate from the core rather than distally echoes the style of Isadora Duncan, but Duncan wrote in her autobiography that movement originates in the solar plexus rather than the low abdomen.
The second fundamental concept in Graham technique is the spiral. The basic "spiraling" position consists of rotating the spine approximately 45° around its vertical axis, so that a dancer facing the front of the stage would have their shoulders aligned with the "Via Triumphalis", an imaginary line parallel to a corner-to-corner diagonal of the stage. In a "hip spiral", the movement initiates subtly from the hip and builds to maximum tension by pulling the opposing shoulder blade away from the initiating hip.
Former Graham dancer Ellen Graff, 2004
Like other early modern choreographers, Graham used floorwork to explore the themes of weight and gravity in new ways; European students were "shocked" when Anna Sokolow introduced them to Graham's "percussive" falling techniques in the 1950s.
Graham falls use contractions and manipulate the body's center of gravity, in order to control the timing and direction of a fall. There are a wide range of strictly codified Graham falls, including sitting and traveling falls; falls from elevation; and standing falls, which may be directed forward, backwards, to the side, or into a split. In almost all falls, the dancer exerts a strong upward force to counteract the force of gravity and suspend the body in space for artistic effect.
Graham falls can be used for dramatic effect, taking meaning in a choreographic context from manipulating the balance between actively suspending the body and surrendering to gravity.
Graham technique uses the hands in distinctive ways. They are generally meant to be active and purposeful, not decorative. They are often held in a stylized, cupped position, with the fingers held straight and pulled towards the palm. Arms typically move in response to impetus from the back or shoulders. Arm movements were often left unspecified in Graham's early work, and there is variation between Graham teachers' use of port de bras (carriage of the arms).:12
Graham technique is designed to make its dancers expressive and dramatic. Its movement vocabulary draws connections between the physical and emotional meanings of "power", "control", and "vulnerability". Movement initiates from the core, incorporating large back movements and dancing on the floor. The technique highlights weight and effort; according to Marian Horosko, "the body had to appear to be pushing through a heavy mass, much like the pressure confronted when walking through water."
The technique's "earthbound" and "assertive" character initially drew strong criticism. In a "vehement" 1934 review, Lincoln Kirstein wrote: "Her jumps are jolts; her walks, limps and staggers; her runs, blind impulsive gallops; her bends, sways," and called the effect "stark, earth-ridden, gaunt, inward-eyed." In contrast, Graham was strongly promoted by dance critic John Martin, who helped her to win a popular following.
Graham was exceptionally flexible, and many of her technique's exaggerated movements can be difficult or painful to execute.
Relationship to ballet
Graham dancers are trained to highlight their effort and use weight as a dramatic tool, while ballet dancers strive to appear weightless and effortless. Graham technique's use of large torso movements and floorwork represent further breaks from the balletic tradition. Graham explained that, although she respected the advances made in the course of ballet history, "Ballet…did not say enough, especially when it came to intense drama, to passion.":56 However, her extended collaboration with ballet-trained Erick Hawkins made her technique more balletic over time.:23
The technique was originally developed on an all-female company, although the company later included men. Graham sometimes criticized her dancers for failing to initiate from the pelvis, or as she sometimes put it, "move from the vagina"; the connection between Graham technique and the female pelvis led one of Graham's male dancers to develop "vagina envy". The pelvic origin of the contraction contributes to the role of sexuality in Graham technique.
Feminist dance scholar Dee Reynolds has argued that, because Graham technique was "so large and forceful, thrusting into and conquering space," it allowed Graham and her early all-female company to "redefine femininity as powerful and autonomous." Reynolds also noted that the idea of "moving from the vagina" is similar to late nineteenth-century ideas about "female hysteria," a supposed sexual disorder sometimes linked to dancing, and Graham's contractions could be seen as reclaiming the female body as an artistic medium.
Influence on modern dance
Graham, along with Doris Humphrey, Helen Tamiris, Agnes de Mille, and others, was part of an artistic movement in dance which rejected both the centuries-old tradition of classical ballet and the first-generation rebels of modern dance, such as those who taught at the Denishawn school where Graham studied.:47
The expressive force of Graham technique had a revolutionary effect on modern dance. Graham is now taught in most university dance programs, and remains the "hallmark" style of contemporary concert dance; its movement vocabulary is familiar to almost all professional contemporary dancers. It strongly influenced several other codified techniques, notably those of Merce Cunningham, Lester Horton, and Paul Taylor.
- Floor work Students stand to salute the teacher as she or he enters, then work on the floor for thirty to forty minutes. Students begin with "bounces" of the torso in three seated positions, and perform contraction exercises and kneeling combinations. The floor exercises emphasize core strength and stability, explore the articulation of the spine and torso, and start to coordinate the arms, legs and head.
- Standing exercises The floorwork exercises transition up to standing combinations, which work the legs, feet, and torso, and train balance and control.
- Across the floor These traveling combinations begin with simple walking exercises, and increase in complexity to include jumps and leaping turns. Students traditionally consider this section an opportunity for "real" dancing, in contrast to the other sections' duly executed technical training.
- Falls Each fall consists of a contraction and concurrent move from the feet or knees to the back. The falls are meant to demonstrate control of the body at each of the vertical levels previously practiced.
Martha Graham founded a school, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, which she sold in 1956. After Graham's death, Ron Protas, her sole heir, sued the school for the rights to use Graham's trademarked name and choreography. A federal court awarded the school the rights to the names "Martha Graham" and "Graham technique" in 2001, and the rights to Graham's choreography in 2002.
- Excerpts from Guidelines in Contemporary Dance Training, a DVD set produced by Graham dancer Phyllis Gutelius:
- Aggiss, Liz (1999). Bullock, Alan; Trombley, Stephen (eds.). The Norton Dictionary of Modern Thought. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 371. ISBN 9780393046960.
- "TIME 100: Martha Graham". Time. August 6, 1998. Archived from the original on 2011-07-06. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
- Reynolds, Dee (2013). "Dancing Free: Women's Movements in Early Modern Dance". In Lisa Rado (ed.). Modernism, Gender, and Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. Taylor & Francis. pp. 263–274. ISBN 978-1-136-51553-8.
- McFee, Graham (2003). Understanding Dance. Routledge. ISBN 9781134899463.
- Perces, Marjorie B.; Forsythe, Ana Marie; Bell, Cheryl (1992). The Dance Technique of Lester Horton. Princeton Book Company. p. 7. ISBN 9780871271648.
- Harss, Marina (12 September 2012). "A Form of Order: On Paul Taylor". The Nation. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
- Bannerman, Henrietta (1999). "An Overview of the Development of Martha Graham's Movement System (1926–1991)". Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research. 17 (2): 9–46. JSTOR 1290837.
- Kassing, G.; Jay, D.M. (2003). Dance Teaching Methods and Curriculum Design. Human Kinetics. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-7360-0240-0.
- Hart-Johnson, Diana (1997). "A Graham Technique Class" (PDF). Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement. 9 (4): 193–214. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
- "Graham Technique". Dance Spirit. 2009-03-19. Retrieved 2019-06-13.
- Kisselgoff, Anna (2 April 1991). "Martha Graham Dies at 96; A Revolutionary in Dance". The New York Times.
- Dunning, Jennifer (24 August 2002). "Martha Graham Center Wins Rights to the Dances". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
- Acocella, Joan (2008). 28 Artists & 2 Saints. Knopf Doubleday. p. 296. ISBN 9780307389275.
- Legg, Joshua (19 March 2009). "Graham Technique". Dance Spirit. Archived from the original on 8 August 2014. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
- Smith-Autard, Jacqueline M. (2010). Dance Composition. A&C Black. ISBN 9781408115640.
- LaMothe, Kimerer L. (2006). Nietzsche's Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 172. ISBN 9781403977267.
- Julia L. Foulkes (1 November 2003). Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-8078-6202-5.
- Debra Craine; Judith Mackrell (19 August 2010). The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. Oxford University Press. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-19-956344-9.
- Graham, M. (1991). Blood Memory. Washington Square. p. 251. ISBN 978-0-671-78217-7.
- Macel, Emily (July 2009). "Interview with Terese Capucilli". Dance Magazine. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
- Thomas, Helen (2003). The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 112. ISBN 9781137487773.
- Terry, W. (1978). I was there: selected dance reviews and articles--1936-1976. The Dance program. Audience Arts. pp. 53–61. ISBN 978-0-8247-6524-8.
- Lang, Pearl (1991). Horosko, M. (ed.). Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training, 1926-1991. Chicago Review Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-1-55652-142-3.
- Graff, Ellen (2004). "When your heart falls: The drama of descent in Martha Graham's technique and theater" (PDF). Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. 14 (1): 107–115. doi:10.1080/07407700408571443. S2CID 191443452. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-07-01. Retrieved 2016-07-29.
- Partsch-Bergsohn, I. (2013). Modern Dance in Germany and the United States: Crosscurrents and Influences. Choreography and Dance Studies Series. Taylor & Francis. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-134-35821-2.
- Daly, Ann (2002). Critical Gestures: Writings on Dance and Culture. Wesleyan University Press. p. 158. ISBN 9780819565662.
- Guest, Ann Hutchinson (2013). Your Move. Routledge. p. 89. ISBN 9781135800055. (with illustration of Graham-contracted hand)
- Franklin, Eric N. (2012). Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery. Human Kinetics. p. 333. ISBN 9780736067898.
- Gould, Karen (2004). Goethals, George R.; Sorensen, Georgia; Burns, James MacGregor (eds.). Encyclopedia of Leadership. 1. SAGE Publications. p. 594. ISBN 9780761925972.
- Horosko, M. (1991). Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training, 1926-1991. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-55652-142-3.
- Kane, Angela (2007). "Episodes (1959): Entente Cordiale?". Dance Research. 25 (1): 54–72. doi:10.1353/dar.2007.0020. ISSN 1750-0095. S2CID 208688483.
- Conner, L. (1997). Spreading the gospel of the modern dance: newspaper dance criticism in the United States, 1850-1934. University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Parviainen, Jaana (1998). Bodies Moving and Moved (PDF) (Thesis). Tampere University Press. p. 99. Retrieved 12 Mar 2015.
- Van Dyke, Jan (1992). Modern dance in a postmodern world. National Dance Association. p. 115. ISBN 9780883145258.
- Freedman, Russell (1998). Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780395746554.
- Scherr, Apollinaire (4 November 2001). "DANCE; Making a Career With One Eye on a Gender Gap". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
- Bannerman, Henrietta (2010). "Martha Graham's House of the Pelvic Truth: The Figuration of Sexual Identities and Female Empowerment". Dance Research Journal. 42 (1): 30–45. doi:10.1017/S0149767700000814. S2CID 194113637. Retrieved 12 March 2015. "The contraction as described above encloses the vagina and the womb.…a male dancer claimed to have "vagina envy"' no doubt because he was unable to obey that particular female-centered instruction.…Vagina envy may have represented the male dancer’s desire for the type of pelvic flexibility that lends itself best to Graham's style."
- Bullough, V.L.; Bullough, B. (2014). Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 163. ISBN 978-1-135-82502-7.
- Butterworth, Jo (2011). Dance Studies: The Basics. Routledge. ISBN 9781136584060.
- Traiger, Lisa (6 March 2008). "Common Ground: 5 Modern Techniques for the 21st Century". Dance Studio Life. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
- Bannerman, Henrietta (2010). "A question of somatics the search for a common framework for twenty-first-century contemporary dance pedagogy: Graham and Release-based techniques". Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices. 2 (1): 5–19. doi:10.1386/jdsp.2.1.5_1.
- Dunning, Jennifer (8 August 2001). "Federal Judge Allows Martha Graham Center to Use Her Name and Methods". The New York TImes. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
- Helpern, Alice J (1994). The technique of Martha Graham. Morgan & Morgan.
- De Mille, A. (1991). Martha: The life and work of Martha Graham. Vintage.