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New biography emphasizes dance icon Martha Graham's Pittsburgh roots

Martha Graham in an iconic pose in her work "Letter to the World," about Emily Dickinson.
Barbara Morgan 1940
Martha Graham's dance, Letter to the World, depicted the life of Emily Dickinson. Martha Graham played the role of Emily Dickinson.

Little more than a half-mile separates the 19th-century North Side birthplaces of three pioneering women artists from Pittsburgh. Writer Gertrude Stein, filmmaker Lois Weber, and dancer and choreographer Martha Graham were all born here over a two-decade stretch in the late 1800s.

Author Neil Baldwin
New Moon Photography
Author Neil Baldwin

All three left town before achieving their signature successes — Graham never even witnessed dance on stage until she departed Pittsburgh — and none of the three is today widely associated with what was then Allegheny City. But the author of a major new biography of Graham said that in her case, at least, that omission is a mistake.

Acclaimed biographer Neil Baldwin said he began his decade of research for “Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern” (Random House) near a spot North Siders know well — the blue state historical plaque on Brighton Road indicating the site where Graham was born in 1894.

The building, which possibly was located in what’s now California-Kirkbride, no longer stands. But Baldwin noted the site is situated on a hill and would have given a turn-of-the-century girl a vista overlooking the river valley, the nearby train station, a church, the old market house and even the Carnegie Library that all lay below.

“It’s kind of like a gateway to the west. That kind of feeling. It’s very, very powerful to me. The whole first chapter of the book, that’s what it’s all about,” he said in an interview in advance of a talk in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Dec. 1. “The thing I would like to stress is the homegrown quality of this woman, by which I mean she’s such a quintessentially American-minded and American-conscious dancer.”

Baldwin said Graham, the middle-class daughter of strict Presbyterian parents, also grew up hiking in the woods. He ties that experience to her best-known work, 1944’s “Appalachian Spring.”

“That name and that consciousness is based upon Pittsburgh’s situation and where it’s located in the Appalachian Mountains,” he said. “And I think that’s very important for people not just in Pittsburgh but around the country to understand this kind of rootedness in the land is so important.”

Ironically, he said, the family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1911 because one of Graham’s younger sisters had asthma, and the condition was aggravated by industrial Pittsburgh’s awful air quality.

Graham went on to revolutionize dance by creating her own technique to expand the emotional range of dance and rose to international fame starting in the 1930s. Baldwin notes that when Radio City Music Hall was launched, in 1932, Graham was one of the featured opening-night performers; she later became the first dancer to ever perform at the White House.

In contrast to classical ballet, whose dancers strive to appear weightless, Graham’s technique emphasized breathing, core muscles, and the dramatic power of effortful movement — an approach that opened the field for much modern and contemporary dance today.
Baldwin is an acclaimed biographer whose previous books include the lives of William Carlos Williams, Thomas Edison and Man Ray, often highlighting their small-town, or at least non-cosmopolitan, origins. He is also a poet, arts administrator, and the founding executive director of the National Book Foundation, the group that gives out the prestigious National Book Awards.

He said he became interested in Graham while teaching writing in the theater and dance department at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Dancers from the Martha Graham Company (which Graham founded in 1926, in New York City) were visiting to set a dance on students. Watching them work, he felt a deep connection with his career-long interest in 20th-century modernism across all art forms.

“Her choreography and her technique were so resonant with me, the way that she took on the space and moved her body in such different ways, and always made us aware that she was dancing while she was dancing, the same way that William Carlos Williams always knew that it was a poem, and Stuart Davis and Jackson Pollock always knew it was a painting,” said Baldwin.

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He said his biography emphasizes Graham’s relationship to all the inventions in art during her lifetime. She collaborated with the likes of composers Aaron Copeland, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, photographers Soichi Sunami and Imogen Cunningham, and designer Isamu Noguchi.

“My goal was to try to connect her to all of the people that in the arts, photography, music, visual arts, poetry, all the people that she either collaborated with or knew personally or knew over the course of her life,” said Baldwin. “That’s the big surprise for people, that she was an inveterate collaborator.”

Delving deeply into Graham’s journals, he got a sense of the enormous amount of work she did to prepare each of the 180 or so dances she choreographed during her seven-decade career. At one point, he said, he tried to replicate all the reading Graham did for just one short dance, “and after three or four months, I just gave up!”

Baldwin’s bio isn’t the first of Graham, and he said he hopes it is not the last. “My legacy is to open the door to the next generation of people to write about Martha Graham because there’s so much more to be explored.”

Baldwin’s Dec. 1 talk here, is presented at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. During the event, he’ll read a passage about Graham’s technique accompanied by students from Point Park University dance program, who’ll demonstrate it live.

More information about the event is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: