My Journey with Sacred Dance

by Marilyn Green

Trinity Movement Choir rehearsing Book of Job under the direction of Marilyn Green, Photo credit: Kathy Bozzuti-Jones 

It is strange to look back at my journey with sacred dance and see how what seemed to be a random set of circumstances now look like inevitable steps that have taken me where I am now.

My family moved constantly during my childhood, and wherever we went I was able to see tribal dance and community dance. I started with ballet, like most girls, and then discovered Martha Graham, and the formal dance I knew and the tribal dance that appealed so strongly to me came together. 

In college I majored in painting and in graduate school in music, and I leaned toward showing multi-media environments, created worlds people could walk through and experience the unseen or unacknowledged in the world we know. I devoured everything from Jung to Joseph Campbell, from Sufi teaching stories and Jewish midrashim to Biblical parables and Native American wisdom, from Gurdjieff to Yogananda. My mother was Jewish, my father’s religion was Henry David Thoreau, and I was in love with ritual and traditional ceremony, but also with experiences from yoga, Celtic spirituality, etc. as early as I can remember. I had a strong conviction from early days that non-professional artists and professionals together could create beautiful and moving performances that inspire others, and I always opted for communication rather than pure expression.

Although I was showing my work in galleries, I felt strongly that dance, especially dance where the connection with the Divine was central, should be a part of life. When we mastered recording in film, video, records, tapes etc. we professionalized the creative performance process and lost something important in addition to what we gained.

Rehearsal of The Doors with Sacred Dance Guild dancers, Photo credit: John Morrell

I began my college teaching career at what was then Bellarmine College, where Thomas Merton drove up periodically and spoke to us all; there I created courses in 20th century culture that spanned all the arts. At the same time, I discovered Buckminster Fuller’s Dome Kitchen, went to the National Film Board of Canada hoping to work with Norman McLaren, whose film “Pas de Deux” still stands as one of my most beautiful experiences in dance, and collaborated with other artists on created environments that included music, dance, painting, film, sculpture and theater on themes like “The Next-to-Last Mystery” and the “John Loftus/Thomas Merton All Purpose Bicycle Race (usually run on foot)”.

Although I was showing my work in galleries, I felt strongly that dance, especially dance where the connection with the Divine was central, should be a part of life. When we mastered recording in film, video, records, tapes etc. we professionalized the creative performance process and lost something important in addition to what we gained. I saw remnant of this experience in folk dancing in the backyard, square dances in New Mexico, Scottish country dancing in the Highlands, Morris dancing, even waving lighters at rock concerts, and men dancing in Greece. As I moved into years of work as a writer for travel magazines, I was able to meet classical dancers of India and China, dancers at Findhorn and followers of Isadora Duncan.

Eventually I met Fanchon Shur in Cincinnati and danced in her company, where I was introduced to Laban/Bartenieff, both the notation and the body exploration, and a key piece in my development came at a Sankai Juku performance in the 1980s. I found an epiphany in Butoh with the extremely slow, deep continuous movement that I eventually translated into a style based on Laban’s Spell Drive, ongoing, center-initialized extremely slow, intense movement that induced a meditative or trance state in both dancer and audience, and allowed the dancer to reach deep beyond thought to arrive at a universal movement language. 

Marilyn Green, photo credit: Kathy Bozzuti-Jones 

For me, the central passion to create all art is quite simply to form a channel for the “sweet honey in the rock”, the flow between the Divine and the self. It has always been my central spiritual practice. I found Trinity Church at Wall Street in Manhattan with a near perfect home of rich traditional ritual, very open thought and extraordinary love and spiritual aliveness. When the time came to prepare for the 10-year anniversary of the events of 9/11 in which Trinity and its chapel, St. Paul’s, was deeply involved, we tried out a one-time sacred dance workshop that evolved into the Trinity Movement Choir. In the decade that followed, at nearly every rehearsal and performance I have felt Spirit move.

My life’s work dictated the shape of the group – open to the community at all ages, abilities, gender, religions and spirituality, no auditions but a culture where very different people come together around a purpose: transformation, which is the goal of Butoh. We use many of the elements that moved me in tribal and community dance: elaborate makeup and costumes, deep individual movement around a central spiritual theme and purpose, and storytelling.

During the pandemic as we formed the virtual dance company, the Sacred Dance Guild brought us together with international dancers, all able to find a deep connection through space, and we are looking forward to what Spirit brings next.

Marilyn Green directs the Movement Choir of Trinity Church at Wall Street in Manhattan. She is active in multiple sacred arts, with degrees in painting and music, and work in dance, film animation, theater and folklore. As a choreographer and interdisciplinary artist, her technical work in dance centers on Rudolf Laban, both in terms of movement analysis and his philosophy of creating set choreography with considerable room for personal expression.

She has received recognition ranging from a President’s Scholarship and Ford Foundation Fellowship to a Millay Colony Fellowship and grants in arts and humanities.

Marilyn Green

The Movement Choir was formed in August, 2010 from a two-hour workshop that took wings, and the group has performed in the U.S. and Canada at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Performing the World, the Chautauqua Institution, conferences of the international Sacred Dance Guild, at La Guardia College, the Sheen Center, in the Global Water Dance and more, in addition to regular performances at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel. The Trinity Movement Choir is an active member of the Sacred Dance Guild.

The Movement Choir’s slow, dreamlike movement style is based on the Japanese modern dance form Butoh, with Its focus not on dance as a display of what the human body can do, but on producing transformation, both for the dancers and the audience. Green’s content draws on Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and her own spiritual experience., using living masks, costumes based on the stained glass of Trinity Church, Green’s paintings, light designs and projections.

Among the Movement Choir’s works are: “Reconciliation” created for the10th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11; “The Phoenix”; “The Book of Job”; the multimedia ” “For Conduct And Innocents,” about the martyr and 20th century theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer; ”Womb of Advent”, drawn from the book by Mark Bozzuti-Jones; the multimedia “Elaine Massacre”; “Creation I, II and II”, “The Doors” with Green’s four doors to Birth, Death, Love and Fear; ”Gospels and Spirituals, “The Way of the Phoenix” and “Humankind”.

The dances rest on music created by the first woman master of the Shakuhachi, Debbie Danbrook; the Grammy-nominated Trinity Choir; composer/performer Jeff Rapella and jazz figures Reggie Workman and A Bu.

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Posted in Dance, Liturgical dance, Movement Choir, Sacred Dance Guild Journal

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