What we learn from Martha Graham

by Sunday, November 27, 2016
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” – Martha Graham

Graham’s Technique

Her work is often compared to that of Picasso’s on painting, Stravinsky’s on music, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s on architecture. She transformed the art form, revitalising and expanding dance around the world. In her search to express herself freely and honestly, she created the Martha Graham Dance Company, one of the oldest dance troupes in America. As a teacher, Graham trained and inspired generations of fine dancers and choreographers. Her pupils included such greats as Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Mercè Cunningham. Graham created in the late 1920s, she identify a new system of movement and new principles of choreography, her work remind me of Bauhaus: deconstruct- blend with other disciplines- re-assemble. Based on her own interpretation of the Delsartean principle of tension and relaxation, Graham identified a method of breathing and impulse control she called “contraction and release”.  Interesting for me is her father, a doctor specialising in nervous disorders, was very interested in diagnosis through attention to physical movement. This belief in the body’s ability to express its inner senses was pivotal in Graham’s desire to dance.

Based on her brilliant work, the sequence of contractions and releases, that we do  in the Aeroballet routine make everyone always in touch with their own torso and, in time, you will lear how to articulate the limbs around this specific organisation. The movement originated in the tension of a contracted muscle and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed. Muscles become controlled and defined, because Graham’s method make you aware about the connection between brain-nerve-muscle in a fast and decisive way.  Muscle control,  gave Graham’s dances and dancers a hard, angular look, which I still find really powerful. At that time the modern, angular look was very unfamiliar to dance audiences used to the smooth, lyrical bodily motions of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis.
In her first reviews, as a result, Graham was often accused of dancing in an “ugly” way, obviously I’m not agree… And I’m not the only one 🙂

Check her ’tilt’! It has been used in the famous campaign of Apple under Steve Jobs, Think different, which is just for brave and diverse people, or better for who decides that Diversity is a Statement…


Purpose of Dance

Graham took a psychoanalytical viewpoint on dance. The purpose of dance is to illuminate the life and struggles of the human experience, paying particular attention to humans’ inner nature.

Since the purpose of dance is to translate emotional experience in physical form, in the Graham technique, every movement must have a clear and perceivable meaning. This does not mean the movements must be realistic, only that the stylization must be meaningful and recognizable to the viewer as well as to the performer. Graham was clear on this principle: “Everything that a dancer does, even in the most lyrical thing, has a definite and prescribed meaning” (Mazo, 1977, p. 189). Further, she believed that the clear training of the dancer gave a freedom to the dancer’s ability to express the emotions and ideas of the choreographer. In Graham’s own words, training was the key to articulation: “If you have no form, after a certain length of time you become inarticulate. Your training only gives you freedom” (Mazo, 1977, p. 157).

Graham believed in rigorous training! Her demand for total discipline and attention during class, and her anger when this was not accorded her, are well documented.

Relation to Space and Gravity The Graham technique has a clear relationship to the floor and to gravity.  Many of the exercises in the Graham syllabus require the dancer to fall powerfully into the floor, and these movements are seen repeatedly throughout the Graham repertory. To Graham, this was not just a physical act; it was a psychological one. “We teach the falls to the left because, unless you are left-handed, the right side of the body is the motor side; the left hand is the unknown. You fall into the left hand – into the unknown” (Mazo, 1977, p. 157). The exploration of the space of the stage, including the floor itself, is part of the emotional content of the technique.

In Aeroballet and in general in dance we learn how to deal with the floor: standing, falling or interact.

Just have  a think: a bouncing ball goes up and down, the height decreases each bounce until it stops. As the ball moved some of the energy was used to push the air aside and some was converted into heat as the ball hit the floor. In a standing position the head has more energy that the feet because the distance to ‘fall’ in the floor is more . When we go up and down, that small movement it is a kinetic energy when we contract the muscles and potential energy when we release. Because space can reveal emotional content (this is very true in Architecture and interactive spaces are even more obvious), according to Graham, the set is an integral part of the ability of a dance to communicate: space, costumes, props.

Contract, release, energy and body

According to Martha Graham’s philosophy, movement is generated from three places: the action of contraction and release, the pelvis, and the emotional inner self. The contraction, or strong pulling back and curving of the torso, and the release of this movement by returning to a straight torso are symbolic of the dichotomies in life. It is the contrast between desire and duty, between fear and courage, between weakness and strength. The repeated use of the contraction and release gives a rhythmic energy to the movements in this technique, and its execution is central to the seated, lying, and standing exercises of the training method. The torso and pelvis, in this way, are the central focus of the movement, while the arms and legs move in concert with the spine.

Contraction while seated (a) and standing (b).


Moment Arm Force: A good Pliè
What is a good plié?  That’s the million-dollar question I often ask participants to do pliès: a successful plié takes the center of the body down and up along the plumb line (central axis) in an efficient manner, without bracing, tension or excess effort.
When done correctly, the plié enables participants to perform transitions, jumps, balances and turns, because it is from the torso. Understanding how the body works to produce the most efficient movements is key to improving technique, use better the body and burst the metabolism. Since the mind controls the body, change has to first happen in the brain to be permanent—in the way you feel, picture and experience the movement. Imagery allows you to improve control of your body.

Changes that happen in the pelvis  (this is why I’m reffering to Graham) during a plié are essential for maintaining alignment and turnout without gripping or forcing the joints. The human pelvis is designed to be elastic and respond to the movement of the legs and spine. Holding the pelvis rigid and tightening muscles increases tension, making movement more difficult and the body prone to injury.

1- Kneecap floating away from the femur in the same direction, the movement start from the hips and not from the knee, the knee cap floats perpendicular away from the femur as you extend the knee;
2-  When we can up from the plies we need to imagine a extension of a space behind your knee cap;
3- Visualise the iliopsoas (the muscle from the hip to the knee) and see how it drop forward to become horizontal to the floor.

This small movement produces a fast and fantastic result if it is performed properly. The contraction and release of the muscles will sculpt the legs.


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