Good morning, it's Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, the day the week when I reprise an instructive or inspirational quotation. Today's comes from Martha Graham, a legendary pioneer of modern dance. Born in western Pennsylvania in the last decade of the 19th century, Martha's family moved to California when she was 14.
Two years later, she and her parents were walking down a Santa Barbara street when Martha noticed an arresting poster in a window depicting a beautiful, bejeweled woman sitting on a raised platform with her eyes cast downward. The woman was Ruth St. Denis, a dancer in the process of creating a new art form. The poster advertised an upcoming performance at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles.
Instantly mesmerized, the girl begged her parents to let her see the show. They did more than that. Dr. George Graham, a psychiatrist, bought his daughter a new dress and a hat, and a bouquet of violets, and made it a special occasion. It turned out to be more than a memorable father-daughter trip to the big city. Although it was the first dance performance she'd ever seen, watching Ruth St. Denis that night changed Martha Graham's life -- and, in turn, American dance -- forever.
Ruth St. Denis performed while dressed as she had appeared in the poster -- as the Hindu deity Radha. "From that moment on, my fate was sealed," Graham said later. "I couldn't wait to learn to dance as the goddess did."
Martha Graham did learn to dance like the "goddess" who inspired her in the spring of 1911. And on this date in 1944, with the United States at war in Europe and the Pacific, she delivered a legendary performance at the Library of Congress in Washington that showcased American art at its best.
The occasion was a festival of chamber music. That may sound rather boring, but the night's last performance was electrifying. It featured "Appalachian Spring," a new composition by Aaron Copland destined to become a classic, along with a ballet choreographed and danced by Martha Graham herself. If you have the time and are so inclined, you can watch it here.
Aaron Copland would be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "Appalachian Spring," and Martha Graham earned raves from art critics. And more: Three decades later, a Navy serviceman who'd been in the Pacific combat zone aboard the USS Monterey when the famed 1944 performance occurred, presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Martha Graham, Gerald Ford said that day, was a "national treasure," one who had inspired many young girls, including his wife, who had been a dancer.
That was in 1976, when Martha Graham was 82. Life had come full circle from that day she was walking on a Santa Barbara street with her parents. "Ballet was a touchstone of the romantics, contrived so that dancers seemed to surpass the limits of physique and gravity," Los Angeles Times dance critic Burt A. Folkart wrote upon her death in 1991. "It was Graham, with her arched eyebrows, vividly painted mouth and omnipresent chignon, who brought dance back to earth."
In her own memoir, Graham wrote that she didn't choose to be a dancer. Instead she "had been chosen." It was not a fate she regretted. She added this: "I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living."
And that is our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.