In Photos: Isamu Noguchi’s Legendary Set Designs For Choreographer Martha Graham

As the Martha Graham Dance Company celebrates its 90th anniversary, a look back on one of the best creative partnerships in history.


In Martha Graham’s 1946 debut of Cave of the Heart, the “mother of modern dance” played the sorceress Medea who, abandoned by her lover for a young princess, murders the other woman and seeks solace in her father, the Sun. Adapted from a Greek myth, Graham’s version is electric, enlivened by a spare, transforming set from Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi. What starts out as a simple bronze, sun-like sculpture balanced on a snake stone at one point becomes Medea’s dress and at another point her weapon.


Cave of the Heart was one of 20 performances Graham and Noguchi collaborated on over the course of three decades. While both artists have passed away–Graham died in 1991 and Noguchi in 1988–Noguchi’s minimalist sets still provide a backdrop for many of the Martha Graham Dance Company’s performances. This year, the renowned dance company celebrates its 90th anniversary with four of Graham’s most beloved works–Appalachian Spring, Chronicle, Cave of the Heart, and Night Journey–all featuring sets designed by Noguchi.

Ethel Winter and Bertram Ross in Night Journey

Graham’s relationship with Noguchi began in 1935 with Frontier, when the sculptor used a simple fence post and two stretched ropes to give the sense of a vast Western plain. Unlike most choreographers of the ’30s and ’40s, Graham rejected the painted backdrops popular at the time, opting instead for a stripped-down aesthetic that would let the dancers’ emotions show through. Noguchi, who shared Graham’s fascination with mythology and iconic historical figures, knew how to design stark sets that still evoke a sense of place and compliment the narratives of Graham’s psychological dance-dramas. From Frontier forward, they became one of the great long-term collaborative partnerships merging the performing arts and design.

For Graham’s iconic 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring, another dance with a pioneer narrative, Noguchi started with the form of a Shaker chair and modified it to create a tactile sculpture that the dancers could feel when they sat or danced on it. Also in 1944, for the dance Hérodiade, Noguchi created a woman’s room by assembling a series of bone-like sculptures meant to represent a mirror, chair, and clothing rack. In Night Journey, an interpretation of Oedipus from his mother Jocasta’s point of view, he uses the same skeletal aesthetic to render a marital bed whose spareness and discomfort foreshadowed the characters’ fate. Many of the sets have had be restored after Hurricane Sandy flooded the West Village basement where they were being stored in 2012.

David Hatch Walker and Chorus in Appalachian Spring

While the legacies of Graham and Noguchi endure, the Martha Graham Dance Company has had to come up with creative ways to finance its performances. It recently launched a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to raise $30,000 to support the 90th season performances (the company has already launched two successful Kickstarter campaigns for previous seasons). As a reward for backers at the $250+ donation level, the company is offering prints of a recently discovered photographs from its archive, many of which foreground the original Noguchi sets. We’ve assembled several of them in the gallery above, as well as some photos of Hérodiade that are not being offered as reward.

All Photos: courtesy Martha Graham Center

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.