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An Interview with Susan Sentler:

Exploring Martha Graham's "Primitive Mysteries"

by Rosella Simonari

September 2006 -- Laban, London

Teaching and passing on the precious and sometimes precarious knowledge that one has about dance is a fundamental task necessary for dance itself to continue its existence.  Susan Sentler is one of those key figures without whom the world of dance would be far more precarious. She is senior lecturer and technique coordinator at Laban, one of the most important centres for contemporary dance in the UK. She organises and controls all the techniques that are taught at Laban. She studied at the Martha Graham School in the 1980s and was part of the Martha Graham Ensemble when Yuriko Kicuchi was its director. She danced some of the roles of the Graham repertory and, among the beautiful reconstructions she was part of, she best remembers her experience with the Ensemble in recreating “Primitive Mysteries”, one of Graham’s early masterpieces on the Virgin Mary, first performed in 1931 to the music of Graham’s long time collaborator Louis Horst. In that reconstruction two of the dancers who alternated in the title role of the Virgin were Yuriko Kimura and Takako Asakawa. I am very grateful to Susan Sentler for having shared her experiences with me.

How long have you been working at Laban?

I taught here between 1992 and 1995, I left and came back in 1999 and then I became a lecturer. I taught basically the same format I teach now but I was not technique coordinator at that time. I taught two full academic years, and two full terms in that period, then I went back to Italy to teach, went to teach in the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and came back to the UK in 1999. I teach almost everything that is practical on the Bachelor’s course which encompasses a technique, which is Graham technique, choreography, repertoire, which can be the repertory of Graham that is done in the second year historical project, improvisation, coaching and performance.

When did you start studying Graham technique? How did you come across Graham?

I was nineteen at Florida State University in Tallahassee; they have an excellent Dance Department, one of the top in the United States. However, I was studying biology and I wanted to take a dance course to do some physical activity. I had studied ballet, tap and jazz when I was a kid but I decided to try contemporary, and their contemporary was Graham. I will never forget the first class. For some reason the teacher decided to put us in a circle sitting on the floor, and I thought “Oh, this is idiotic!” I was really frustrated the first two weeks and then something clicked and I went “Oh my God”. Then I auditioned to take major classes but at the same time one of my teachers said “Why don’t you audition for a Master’s”. I did and they accepted me. So before I got my BA in biology, I got my Master’s in dance which was a bit confusing. I could not care less for biology at the time. So I prolonged my degree, my mother was frantic and said “get the degree”, but I was too absorbed by dance.

Anyway, as time passed I went to the American Dance Festival where I took some classes. I was divided between Limón and Graham. I chose Graham and when later on I went to New York to manage Peter Sparling’s dance company, I soon decided to stay in Manhattan and focus on Graham. I was immediately in the advanced class, I was very theatrical at the time and I had a good amount of training but I did not get my scholarship until two years down the line. At that time, it was fantastic to be at the Graham school, we continuously had workshops. During my first workshop I did all the solos from ”Seraphic Dialogue”, it was just phenomenal. When I got my scholarship, we were doing ”Clytemnestra” of which I did Cassandra. But we learnt everything, ”Cortege of Eagles”, ”Night Journey”, it was hard and amazing.


What about your experience in the Martha Graham Ensemble? When was it created?

The Ensemble was created, if I am not mistaken, in 1982 or 1983. Martha was not given money that year by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the reason for it was bad management of which we all know what that was about, but not only that -- she never had a hierarchy in the company so they devised the Ensemble as a step in search for the company. Frankly when it was first devised it really did not serve that purpose. The only member of the Ensemble who did make it into the Company was Miki Orihara who was one of my dearest friends in college for years. The rest of the original cast did pretty good but not in the Company.

I stayed with the Ensemble through many passages, and I know that I was a key person to Yuriko, we had a love and hate relationship, sometimes I was a scapegoat, she adored me, she used me, she needed me because I had lots of experience and I was a major group coordinator, in fact I think that is the reason why I do what I do so well now. I did not have the ego you need to be a dancer, I was more respondent to the group, to the needs of the group, and that is a fatal flaw in Graham, you’ve really got to think about yourself. However, everybody trusted me so much and when Diane Gray, who was director of the school at the time, or Yuriko could not be with us on tour, they trusted the Ensemble to my hands, even to give the dialogue to the audience during the lectures, so I would be simultaneously dancing and dialoguing to the audience. For the work I am doing now it was an invaluable experience. As a dancer though, it was very difficult as I could not dedicate enough time to myself.

Do you regret it?  

I think this is what I was meant to be doing. I think I am best at this. I would have liked to have danced a lot more. Unfortunately I lost my ACL, anterior cruciate ligament. I was in Italy teaching and that is when I had the damage. I covered it up with drugs and it kept worsening. I think that I really am better at what I do. I would have liked to experience dancing onstage more because in teaching I think it is invaluable. To my students who want to get into teaching I tell to get as much experience as possible because only with that experience you can really communicate what students need. That does not necessarily mean that an excellent dancer makes a good teacher.

Let’s move to “Primitive Mysteries”, what can you tell me about your experience in the reconstruction of the piece with Yuriko Kikuchi?

It was incredibly exciting for me. Yuriko Kikuchi was in charge of the reconstruction of the “Mysteries”. She was very awkward. If she would see you negatively, it would be very difficult to change her mind. And unfortunately she had cast a negative image on me after I had some classes with her prior to that. Luckily I had a really wonderful friend in the Company called Kim Wisner. She was in the Company for “several years, a lovely woman. Kim helped me to help Yuriko re-look at me again. We were doing “Primitive Mysteries” and Yuriko decided that instead of twelve people to do it [she would use] fourteen because the venue, the New York State Theatre, was massive. One wing is the size of some theatres. So she decided to add two people to magnify the effect.

We started learning the piece, we spent months just doing the walk. And we needed that amount of time because we had to breathe as one. Some members of the company were with us, among them there was Susan Kikuchi, Yuriko’s daughter and Denise Vale, who was a mega principle dancer. The Company did not want to touch the “Mysteries” as they were very busy rehearsing for their season. I mean this is the period when “The Rite of Spring” was presented. So those from the Company who worked with us too were working double the time. It was very hard for them.

What is the difficulty of “Primitive Mysteries”?

It’s that breathing as one, that sense of unification and, I must admit, the use of contraction hinge and hold, hold, hold, we were dying, but we had to do it to pull off the quality, pull off the energy of the work and the suspension and vibration, that dramatic tension that has evolved in the kinetic energy of the movement. And then all of a sudden moving from that piece into something like “The Rite of Spring”, it’s hard, it’s very, very, very difficult, so I really think it was a good choice to focus as we did…and we were hot. I must admit we got outstanding reviews.

But I do remember that we blocked on stage, we went onstage and we panicked, Yuriko helped us to take possession of the stage. Yuriko had always told us “Primitive Mysteries” is a very intimate dance and that we had to ‘suck’ it up onto us. It was a fantastic experience. Speaking for myself I wore contacts and I had never worn that intensity of make-up, but it needed to be a strong make-up so that people in the back could see you. Anyway I lost my contact as soon as I did my first step so I could not see, and I was a leader for a lot of places, like going to a certain mark and such. In the end, I was close but I did not make it quite to the mark, and that pulled me out a bit.

What about the costumes…what was their colour, texture etc.?

The costume was made of wool… It was really comfortable, it felt fantastic on and it was a deep bright coloured blue, really, really beautiful, if I am not mistaken this colour has religious references to the Virgin. Martha was always backstage, Yuriko was our director, but Martha was constantly observing…the Virgin was wearing a white costume made of taffeta. In fact we also did a performance at Riverside Church for Luis Horst’s birthday ceremony, after our New York season. I remember everybody was warming up on the day of the performance and somebody was needed to iron that costume and I did it. It was typical of me, I helped everybody doing what they needed. We also had live music and two conductors, Jonathan, can’t remember his surname, and Stanley Sussman. Stanley was Speedy Gonzales, it was almost like he orchestrated so fast to get to the pub. Jonathan was very slow. So we had to continuously shift between the two, it was very yin and yang.

Can you tell me the difference between the version you danced at Riverside and the other one at New York State Theatre?

Again [it was] the stage. The space was incredibly intimate at Riverside Church; it was a beautiful celebration for Louis. Mega stars were there and different people contributed to his birthday celebration and we performed the “Mysteries”. Everything that this piece was supposed to be was magnified at Riverside Church because of the intimacy of the place. There we were doing a ritual. The choreographic necessity of this piece calls on that because of its use of space. You need a lot of concentration to do it and again you have to be able to move freely and yet, at the same time, be spot on together, as with most of Graham’s pieces.

The piece is divided into three sections: “Hymn to the Virgin”, “Crucifixus” and “Hosanna”. Is there a section which is more difficult than the others?

Different people say different things, Miki thought it was “Crucifixus”, it’s the simplest, but I think it is the most difficult as far as the intensity goes, it is the moment when Mary finally accepts Christ’s doom at the cross. And again it’s so simple but so intense. I teach this section in my historical project and I do it in my second years, they have to learn it very quickly, in a week, which is ridiculous, but it is a taster, it is not supposed to be shown on stage in front of a public. We do show it on stage but it is for the grade, for the assessment. They also learn the last four dances of “Night Journey” and they all say that “Crucifixus” is the most challenging, they love it so much. Nowadays there are very few works that have that kind of unison, that kind of intensity of breathing as one, you may see it in a very technical prowess fashion, but not so much according to this spiritual intensity. It is hard to describe it, you have to take yourself beyond and the positions that you put yourself in are not easy, they are quite excruciating. Furthermore, to breathe and keep going you have to theatrically put yourself in there, and put yourself in living in that moment, at least this is what I did.

Were you counting all together or everybody was counting on one’s own? How did you reach this sense of ‘breathing as one’?

That’s interesting, Yuriko never counted, it depends, you do and you don’t. There is a moment when you get such an understanding of music that you do not need it. When I teach it to kids I have to give them counts because I have to work very fast. Yuriko hated counts and I must admit I do too, because I would rather keep the flow with the music.

What about the reconstruction the Company has done now?

I have heard that it was beautiful, I really wanted to be there, but could not. I would love to see “Primitive Mysteries” again.

What do you think of the issue of reconstructing pieces like “Primitive Mysteries”?

It is so important for them to live and for people to see them. The majority of the British public have not even seen the entire piece. The majority of dance students have not seen it. It was Martha’s first masterpiece, the use of space, the integrity of the musicality, the simplicity, the minimalist choice of the movement, the sense of concept, the honest theatricality that is in it, I would say, is mind blowing. “Primitive Mysteries” is quite special.

And when it is redone, you need to really bring that essence of life that is inside the piece, that is why it is a difficult piece, even if you are an expert in Graham, it takes time to get the group work as one, you cannot walk into any group and do it. Martha also wanted your individual voice, so you do not have to get lost either. It is quite a phenomenal piece and we all felt very special in it, I am so happy that I experienced it.

If you had to describe it, how would you do it? How would you relate to each section?

“Hymn to the Virgin” for me is almost as the presentation of the Virgin, she travels from each one of us, it is some kind of honouring the Virgin. It is quite interesting rhythmically and light in tone. The second section is much lower in tone. There is a big shift in atmosphere. The Virgin stays in her group and the way she travels through space is quite radical. There are two attendants with her, usually interpreted by the two tallest girls. The choir works around Mary, they are moving and shifting in space. It all happens in a magical way. At one point the group swirls around Mary, it is so beautiful…

That recalls me of the final section of “Chronicle”…

Yes, very true, very interesting, that is more uplifting, this is more like the inner side of Mary, it has a different intensity, different conceptual meaning. In the third section there is a major uplift…

Could it be seen as a kind of rebirth?

Absolutely, yes, Mary embraces one of the dancers, and she embraces Mary. For me there are a lot of references to Renaissance art, I know that Graham was mainly inspired by the Indian ceremonies, but I felt that the gestures had a lot of kinetic feeling to Renaissance paintings of [the] Madonna. In this section the gestures are outward directed as if energy is sent out to everyone, it is very joyous.

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