In her 1991 obituary, she was called the “high priestess of the modern dance movement.” In a 1947 review, a Post-Gazette writer called her work “distinctly American.” She created a revolutionary dance technique, generating comparisons to Michelangelo, Picasso and Stravinsky.
But dancer and choreographer Martha Graham was also something else: a native daughter of Pittsburgh.
True, it was Allegheny City when she was born, on May 11, 1894. And the family lived there just 14 years longer; they moved California in 1908.
Even though Graham left her birthplace, her birthplace never quite shook her. Or at least, its papers didn’t.
The first mentions of the dancer appear in 1924, when the Post-Gazette reviewed her performances in New York’s “Greenwich Village Follies.” By the 1930s, papers across the city were tossing out references in passing, suggesting that hers had become a household name. And by the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, the Post-Gazette files overflowed with pictures of Graham and her prestigious dance company.
The photos feature graceful poses set in amber, gilded awards shows frozen in time. Every so often, a protege lingers in a background. But most of the time, it is Graham who takes over the shot. Her consummate dancer’s figure seems impossibly delicate but never brittle. Her face, fastidiously composed, only rarely permits a smile.
Throughout her later years, she stands alongside everyone from Aaron Copland to Liza Minnelli, Betty Ford to Ronald Reagan.
But during her early years the archives go dark. Before the 1970s, coverage is limited to TV listings, show announcements, and passing references. On her Pittsburgh childhood, the papers (and most other sources) fall entirely silent.
So perhaps we’ll never know much about the dancer’s early years. We’ll never be sure if she marveled at the Christmas decoration at Kaufman’s. We can only imagine her hurrying after her mother on grocery trips to the Strip District, or taking in a baseball game underneath the summer sun.
We’re left instead with two yellowing files, a smattering of articles, and, from a 1986 review of a visit to her hometown, one rare glimpse into her personality.
“I was what they called a rebel and revolutionary,” Graham told reporters. “I wasn’t seeking to shatter anything: I was only trying to build something for myself.”