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Sydney Dance Company's "Salome"
Memorial Auditorium, Stanford Lively Arts, San Francisco
October 14, 2000

by Azlan Ezaddin

Graeme Murphy’s “Salome” must be the most theatrical and intense interpretation of this biblical story that most of the Stanford audience had ever seen. Hint of something spectacular to come was evident even before the curtain rose, when dry ice began floating in above the orchestra section of the house. Then when the theater darkened, sweeping planes of light from the stage pierced the audience as dancers inside black robes marched in procession through the aisles towards the stage. I have never seen an audience so rapt right from the very beginning of a performance; it was in some ways, not unlike a spiritual experience.

This sense of spirituality and intense ritual-like trance was pervasive through the entire work, driven by a pulsating middle-eastern score composed by Michael Askill and partially performed live by the dancers on stage. Askill, a founding member of the Australian contemporary music ensemble Synergy, has successfully created a score that is fresh to the contemporary ears yet evocative of the biblical period. Not surprisingly, unlike most music of this genre, Askill’s score was rich and deep, and would probably stand alone on its own as a composition.

While the music helped in developing the mood of the work, its theatricality was mostly the result of spectacular lighting, designed by John Rayment and reproduced by Alex Budd. Throughout the evening, lighting was ingeniously used to accentuate the drama, in particular in the near final scene when rods of white light form a lattice work in front of dancer Tracey Carrodus while she herself is clouded in a red hue. With the impressive lighting -- and the set too for that matter -- the fact that the company travels with a six-member crew who are assisted by five additional crew members at each theatre should come as no surprise.

Carrodus was definitely the star of the show. Her portrayal of Salome was provocatively child-like in her spoiled selfishness as a child woman unaware of her own sexuality and unable to curb her own lust. Yet, for all her uncanny ability to project these qualities, it was her dancing and her athleticism that impressed the most. In a remarkable sequence of strength and acrobatics, this pixie-ish dancer practically climbed and spun all over the massive Josef Brown, a hulk of a dancer who appropriately danced the role of John the Baptist. As if that were not enough, Carrodus then performed a feat of not only spectacular but also ethereally graceful aerial acrobatics with only one wrist tethered to the cable.

In a narrative work, where the characterization of the leads are important, Murphy has done an excellent job of showcasing Carrodus’ Salome through the other characters; Brown with his brooding John, Bradley Chatfield with his mad but not quite over-the-top Herod, and Janet Vernon with her vindictive Herodias. Vernon, incidentally, is the Associate Director of the company and a long time muse of Murphy.

The rest of the dancers, every single one of them, were a marvel to behold. This must be one of the most athletic companies in the world. In several sequences, there were more frantic leaps, turns, backflips and lifts than I had ever seen before; all done in perfect synchronization, I might add. There is very little that is more exhilarating in dance to me than to see a complicated series of steps executed in perfect harmony.

In addition to its spectacular theatricality and ritual intensity, this work was also theatrical and intense in another way. “Salome” after all is a macabre tale about madness, lust and jealousy. In plays or in the opera, much of these qualities can be expressed through words but not so in dance where every feeling and every action has to be portrayed, and portrayed stylistically. The first death scene -- when Simon Turner as the Soldier sustained a sharp weapon against the throat of the Page and bright red dye flowed out onto the stage -- was so intense that it prompted a mother to escort her little daughter out of the theater. Murphy however doesn’t make excuses for his choreography. When I mentioned this incident to him after the show, he responded with a question, “Did she cover her eyes?” and added later, “They didn’t even get to see the good bits.”

The good bits he referred to were the death of John the Baptist (with his canvassed cage lighting up in red), Salome’s nude scene at the end of the infamous dance, and finally her playing with John’s severed head. All of this of course was done in a stylistic manner with a combination of dramatic lighting and music, making the work very surreal.

While "Salome" may have been too intense for a few, from the sound of the applause, it appeared that most of the audience enjoyed it very much; some were moved to a standing ovation. Murphy at least was very happy with the reception. Stanford Lively Arts who presented this program did very well to bring this company to the Bay Area. Its 1,700-seat Memorial Auditorium needs to see more such high-quality dance companies in it.

 

Please see also "Excuse Me I'm Not A Sausage Machine," an interview with Graeme Murphy, and join a very active discussion of this performance (and Murphy's choreographic style) in our forum.


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