The following poems refer to my life as a dancer. Martha Graham’s masterpiece,
PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, a dance in three sections, was the first piece I performed of
Graham’s in 1964 which was a revival. The work debuted in 1931 and is based on an all
female, Native American interpretation of the Crucifixion seen through the Virgin Mary’s
eyes. This was the dance that placed Martha Graham on the innovator’s map with Pablo
Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Frank Lloyd Wright.
PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, I – HYMN TO THE VIRGIN
HELLO step-heel-toe, snap-other-foot-to-ankle in Martha Graham’s Primitive Mysteries,
this solemn, ritual walk, its heel-pounding sound bracketing the entrances and exits in
this three-part masterpiece.
HELLO first section titled Hymn to the Virgin where we, the chorus, frame the Virgin
Mary in primitive, stick figure friezes. Four of us hold Her as She splays against our
string-taut bodies. Another four cradle-rock their arms to herald the Holy One within.
HELLO to each frieze that effects a collective love song.
THANK YOU Martha Graham onstage in twelve devotees following her like we follow
the Virgin, circling our Mary in countless repetitions of step, step, turn, step, step, add a
hiccup jump, accelerating to breakneck speed. Inside this rumpus Mary squats to birth the
little one, her pose mirroring da Vinci’s Pieta.
THANK YOU Mary who, in a billowing white gown, floats between an aisle of four
kneeling dancers on either side. Our hands in prayer, She exchanges blessings with each
acolyte in an arm reach soft as baby’s breath.
THANK YOU Yuriko who plays Mary. When she blesses me, the last girl, our eyes
embrace linking our souls; we are one.
GOODBYE to dancers who starve to look like a long drink of water. We’re not the
wide-hipped women on whom Martha created this dance in 1931 after she came back
from the Southwest where she traveled with composer Louis Horst, to study movement
and sound in Native American tribes on Guggenheim grants.
GOODBYE months of work to bring life to this 1964 revival, months of prayer at the
Temple of Ritual Walk to give step-heel-toe snap-other-foot-to-ankle more weight.
GOODBYE to Martha’s hatred of revivals. Quoting Negro League pitcher, Satchel
Paige, she’d declare, Never look back, they may be gaining on you.
GOODBYE to dreams where I’m performing, wake drenched in anxiety, What’s next?
GOODBYE to being drawn to the impossible; how desperate we are for the petroglyphic
style to become skin; one girl snaps her meniscus.
GOODBYE and THANK YOU for our after-performance satisfaction, a foot-stamping,
PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, II - CRUCIFIXUS
How the movement in Crucifixus purposefully imprisons our bodies.
How we ten acolytes, in two groups of three and one of four dancers, trudge shoulder to
shoulder along the floor as one grieving body.
How our elbows touch each other in a V-shape, which Martha adds because we need to
look more constrained.
How my C-curved, hunched spine is nailed to its own cross.
How I fear this is beyond what I can do.
How during one rehearsal Martha shares, Christ asphyxiated on the cross, then later
mutters, This is the cruelest dance I ever made.
How Louis Horst’s mournful oboe score underlines human suffering.
And how center stage, Mary inches forward, Her face a Noh mask, Her cupped hands
below Her eyes to catch invisible tears.
And how on either side of this tormented Mother, two dancers point to an imaginary
cross; Look, look! their pointers seem to say but Her inward gaze remains.
How Mary breaks through them, Her arms a cross piece, My son is dead.
How we ten women circle our lost Mary in a marathon of fifty-eight leaps before we and
the music stop, walk off stage in our solemn step-heel-toe, snap-other-foot to ankle while
the audience has yet to breathe.
PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, III – HOSANNA
As if we corps of twelve women could not bear it
any longer yet came back for more
as if those blood-letting hours to get the Hosannas right--
leg raised, arms splayed as the cross piece
simulating some barbaric rite to celebrate
the rise of Mary’s dead son--
as our limbs break through to announce His resurrection,
a brutal dance
wrapped in arms in a cross, jumpjump
over and over to convey
a brimming joy in the
while center stage Mary places her hand
over an acolyte’s for support through her loss.
At one point the dancer back bends
into a hungry Mary’s arms
as if She were laying to rest Her boy’s body,
a goodbye for the many last times.
We, the chorus, are the outside world
immersed in His return
while Mary transitions from pain to acceptance
in Hosanna’s last Shiva-like image.
With a dancer hidden behind the Virgin, we see
four arms rising towards heaven
to mark Her Son’s journey
and release the sorrow within.
We all breathe into this silent language of the soul
and rise out of ourselves.