In 1944, a remarkable documentary newsreel wowed the world. It showed the Burmese snake priestess Saya Hnin-Mahla performing a ritual required by her village. When the birth rate of male babies was low, the priestess was sent up the mountain to perform a dangerous dance. At the mouth of a cave, she lures out a King Cobra and must kiss it on the forehead … three times. A black-and-white, four-minute clip from the film still remains—you can see it here. She with her hair in a bun high at the back of her head, the cobra with its hood fully distended, it’s a fencing match without foils, a choreography of weave and duck, lunge and retreat, stillness and calm kiss.
According to the choreographer Agnes de Mille, naturalists, anthropologists, and artists were completely taken with this performance. Martha Graham, de Mille writes in her 1991 biography Martha, “was thunderstruck.” Graham had been working on a dance about Salome’s mother Herodias, a woman terrified of aging and the consequent loss of her seductive power. “Out of this extraordinary newsreel,” says de Mille, “she transfigured material into the deadly dance between Herodias and her mirror.”