Archive of Martha Graham’s Life Acquired by New York Public Library

A photograph from the Martha Graham collection, featuring Robert Cohan, Pearl Lang, Bertram Ross, Natanya Neumann, Stuart Hodes, and Helen McGehee in Eye of Anguish. Photograph by Cris Alexander. (All images courtesy the Martha Graham Dance Company.)

Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham is hailed as a profound and influential force in the development of American modern dance — an understanding that is sure to be enhanced by this week’s announcement that the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has acquired the archive of the legendary dancer. According to a press release from the Martha Graham Dance Company today, what would have been Graham’s 126th birthday, the multimedia collection contains films of Graham at the peak of her career, as wells as photographs, choreographic notations, correspondence, and other historical materials. Graham’s career in dance spanned seven decades, and her company, founded in 1926, is in its 94th year — making it the oldest dance company in the United States.

“Martha Graham is a giant in the American cultural landscape,” said Linda Murray, Curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the Library for the Performing Arts, in the press release. “Her codification of the philosophical ideals of modern dance created a new mode of expression that still underpins the training of dancers across the globe today. The Jerome Robbins Dance Division houses the collections of Graham’s teachers, peers and acolytes so we are incredibly excited to add the archive of the Graham Company to our holdings. With this addition the Division’s collections now present an extensive understanding of the history of American modern dance and we look forward to sharing these treasures with dance artists, students and scholars for generations to come.”

Bertram Ross, Gene McDonald, Helen McGehee, and Martha Graham in Clytemnestra. Photograph by Martha Swope.

According to the New York Times, Genevieve Oswald, the founder of the library’s dance division, had talked to Graham about acquiring the archive many times, but the choreographer had “always sort of laughed and demurred,” said Murray. The library will process and catalog the Martha Graham archive over the next two years. It will then be available to users in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center. Highlights of the collection include Isamu Noguchi’s set drawings for Seraphic Dialogue, complete with handwritten notes by the famous sculptor, as well as an extensive photograph collection of Graham’s canon by photographers like Barbara Morgan and Soichi Sunami.

Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, and May O’Donnell in Appalachian Spring. Photograph by Cris Alexander.

The Graham collection is an exciting catch for the library, taken in conversation with the archives of many of those dancers inspired and intertwined with Graham’s legacy, including those of contemporaries Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, dancers in her company including Graham’s mentors and teachers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, contemporaries Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, dancers in her company including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Jean Erdman, and countless others who sought her out as a collaborator, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev.

It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but for a form as fleeting as dance, an archive is worth a thousand chassés. Current fans and future enthusiasts will surely flock to the archive, once it becomes available, to continue to learn about a woman whose contribution to modern dance constitutes an entire movement.

Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins in Appalachian Spring. With (left to right): May O’Donnell, Marjorie Mazia, Yurkio, and Nina Fonaroff. Photograph by Arnold Eagle.