Edifice Dance Theatre’s new dance film Salomé uses a hybrid ballroom and contact improvisation vocabulary to explore a wide range of human emotions. The company, in collaboration with director Rogério Silva, take Oscar Wilde’s version of the mythical Salomé, the young seductress who requests and is granted Jokanaan’s head on a silver platter, and offer a haunting dance film adaptation featuring sinuous partnering and Silva’s trademark camera work.
I caught up with artistic directors and performers Harriet Waghorn and Carmine De Amicis to discuss the intricacies and challenges of adapting this piece for both stage and film, before the company embarks on a UK tour of a live production of the work.
The film opens with a voyeuristic shot of De Amicis as Jokanaan, apprehensive about his confrontation with Salomé. The tightly cropped frame immediately places the audience directly inside his experience, as water drops and he methodically repeats his cleansing gesture. From this close up, Waghorn, portraying Salomé, strides towards him, turns him by the hair to lock eyes and then proceeds to beckon him to a dangerous dance.
“Something we really value within our work is the intimacy and connection between the performers. The great thing with the camera (as with intimate live performance) is that you can really get close to the performers to see the subtleties within their physical and emotional connections,” says artistic director Harriet Waghorn.
Tracing the power dynamic between the two characters, the film’s synopsis reveals: “To begin with, both Silva and EDT felt it important to strip away centuries-old interpretations of female subservience that is present within the biblical narrative. The film looks more favorably towards the text of Oscar Wilde, where the once nameless daughter of Herodias becomes a young woman charged with agency and power. Aligned with Wilde, the film embraces Salomé as a complex figure and liberates her desire to consume the world around her.
But unlike previous adaptations of the material, the film focuses on the effect Salomé has upon Jokanaan and his world of orthodoxy. Far from casting Salomé as the poisonous woman that corrupts Jokanaan, [we] chose to highlight both characters strengths and weaknesses, for a thought-provoking portrayal of one of humanity’s most enduring battles—sexuality versus dogma.”
The two performer-choreographers evoke this battle through quick, slivering spins and spirals around each other and evocative lifts, expressing the tug of war between the characters’ beliefs. In their previous work, the ballroom and contact improvisation languages form a fluid synthesis, but here they alternate in a more discordant yet beautiful vein. Waghorn offers a comparison to being bilingual.
“In the studio we may come with ideas that are conceptual, ballroom based, or contemporary based, which we then explore and expand through improvising around [them]. The ballroom connection allows us to generate space and speed between the bodies as we move through compression and tension within the connection. Contact allows us to connect more body surface areas, allowing for the spiraling of bodies but also enabling us to work away from the pedestrian axis of the body, allowing for inversions and lifted feet.”
As the two styles permeate their work, new dynamics inevitably emerge. In contact improvisation the hands are rarely used to initiate movement, resulting in fluid alternating of the roles of supporter and supported. In ballroom, on the other hand, there is an active (usually) heteronormative lead and follow dynamic, in which the male leader sends specific hand signals to the female follower.
The most ravishing moments in the work arise when Waghorn steers De Amicis through unexpected lifts and intertwined floor sequences, and when she jumps on him in a position familiar to those in contact improvisation, but more violently and excruciatingly elongated. Once again, the grazing camera work amplifies the roughness of the moments of aggression as Salomé’s furrowing hands peel Jokanaan’s away from his face so their eyes can lock in a deadly gaze.
The physicality of her dominance subverts the traditional gendered dynamics, questioning the act of seduction. The process of getting there was one of both exploration and intention, says Waghorn:
“Carmine and I are very lucky in that we bring different skills to our partnership. [He] has more experience in ballroom, and I have more experience in contact, but we both know both languages. In contact improv, everything is gender neutral as much as strength allows, so it feels very normal to play with that. When we play with ballroom, we’ll try the opposite way around—I’ll be leading and he’ll be following and that’s a tougher process, but we like to try and push against the gender-specific way of working.
“Ballroom is such a wonderful technique for understanding how to dance in partnership—in the way contemporary dancers borrow from ballet for technique, other dance forms can borrow from ballroom for its understanding of weight, connection and listening to another body.”
It is a piece that rewards repeated viewing, for its beauty and virtuosity of performance, and for choreographic intricacies, and finally for the ways in which it interrogates ideas of abandon and inhibition.
Edifice Dance Theatre is currently touring the UK with a live stage version of Salomé, in collaboration with Hastings Philharmonic, and co-produced by the Cockpit in partnership with St Mary in the Castle, with performances listed on Edifice Dance Theatre’s website.