Contemporary dance portrays Mary at the foot of the Cross

Jessica Lang Dance performed a dance rendition of Stabat Mater at the Debartolo Performing Arts Center on January 26 and 27. Stabat Mater (which means “The Mother Stood”) is a 13th century Catholic hymn that chronicles Mary’s suffering at Jesus’ crucifixion. The choreography was joined by music performed by the Notre Dame Ritornello Orchestra and vocal soloists Victoria Fraser and Joshua Boggs of the Notre Dame Sacred Music Program.

The dance troupe artistically portrayed the suffering of Mary described in the hymn Stabat Mater by utilizing choreography that combined ballet and contemporary techniques. This created a classical yet emotional setting. The dancers illustrated Mary’s agony at the foot of the Cross by piercing themselves with imaginary swords, assuming fetal positions on the ground, and performing agonizingly slow movements. At times, a long gray cloth was draped over female dancers to create a striking image of Mary adoring the cross.

The stage of the Patricia George Decio Theatre was empty except for two gnarled trunks evocative of a cross that shifted throughout the performance. The looming trunks served as a visible reminder of the immensity of Christ’s and Mary’s suffering. The dancers interacted with the trunks throughout the performance, climbing on top of them and spinning around them. In one instance, all the dancers knelt and prayed at the trunk as if it were a communion rail.

Intermixed with the dancers were vocalists Fraser and Boggs, who sang the soprano and countertenor components of the hymn. The hymn, which is both anguished and gut-wrenching, was performed in its original Latin form. An English translation was projected over the stage to assist the audience in understanding such poignant descriptions as, “She beheld her tender child, saw Him hang in desolation, ‘till His spirit forth He sent.”

The vocalists not only sang but were also participants in the dance choreography. In motion throughout the performance, Fraser and Boggs interacted with the dancers and sang in difficult positions. For example, Fraser once sang while lying down. In this way, the musical and dance elements were integrated into one coherent performance. Freshman Rylie Smith commented, “The vocalists’ performance was stunning in clarity and tone, and soulfully portrayed the heart of the beautiful Latin hymn. They did an excellent job seamlessly weaving with the dancers’ movements.”

The second part of the performance of Stabat Mater shifted in tone to reflect the latter part of the hymn. In its second half, Stabat Mater is a prayer petitioning Mary for unity in the suffering of Christ: “Holy Mother! Pierce me through, in my heart each wound renew of my Savior crucified: Let me share with thee His pain, who for all my sins was slain, who for me in torments died.”

In this way, the hymn Stabat Mater is a reminder that because Christ suffered as a man, human suffering is an opportunity to grow in love and unity with God. It echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew when he said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

The performance of Stabat Mater spectacularly combined the mediums of dance and music to convey a Catholic message.  

Ellie Gardey is a freshman political science major living in Lewis Hall. She has a love for sushi and country music. Contact Ellie at