cover image Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life

Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life

Russell Freedman. Clarion Books, $19 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-395-74655-4

Freedman (Lincoln; Eleanor Roosevelt; Franklin Delano Roosevelt) once again animates American history through biography; here he adds culture to the mix as he chronicles the inspiring life of legendary dancer Martha Graham. The venerable author hooks readers in immediately with his description of young Martha learning to move her body by watching a lion pace from one side of its cage to the other. Freedman then seamlessly charts the fiery, passionate Graham's rise from a 19-year-old ""homely, overweight"" dance student to principal dancer to teacher to the creator of modern dance. The biography points up Graham's commitment to a ""uniquely American style of dance,"" focusing on such works as Frontier, an homage to her ancestral roots, and Appalachian Spring, for which she collaborated with composer Aaron Copland. Freedman acknowledges that the dancer's sources of inspiration and consolation came from other American artists: writer Emily Dickinson (the source of Graham's work Acts of Light) and composer Scott Joplin (Maple Leaf Rag was her last complete work), among them. Her passions were not circumscribed to her work; she also took stands on tough political issues, both in her dance (e.g., Deep Song, 1937, which ""expressed her anguish over the brutal Spanish Civil War"") and in her life--she refused to perform at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin (""How could I dance in Nazi Germany?""). But Freedman does not paint an unblemished picture. His abundant sources, including unpublished transcripts of an interview with Graham's longtime companion Louis Horst, as well as his own interviews with Graham's former dancers, colleagues and friends, make clear the shadow side of her passionate nature. What emerges from these pages is a multilayered view of a genius who danced and choreographed, and designed her own costumes and lighting, but who was also human--a woman who laughed and cried, hoped and feared, and who unflinchingly followed her dream. Stunning photographs, arrayed chronologically, demonstrate the dramatic changes Graham wrought upon dance as a discipline. Four at the close of the volume, showing Graham in what appear to be a dance sequence, are particularly spectacular. This outstanding biography speaks not only to dancers but to anyone interested in the arts, history or the American entrepreneurial spirit. Ages 10-up. (Apr.)