The Young and the Headless


Ballet of the Dolls and Zenon Dance

BEFORE ATTENDING MYRON Johnson's staging of Salomé, the pungently sexual 1892 Oscar Wilde play, I stumbled upon a description of a recent French production of the same work. The pivotal "Dance of the Seven Veils" was performed en l'air, by dancers suspended above the stage in ropes of entwined fabric, while John the Baptist also spent the bulk of his time in midair, trapped in a steel cage above the dancers. In the getup of a leather-clad acrobat, he looked sexier than your average prophet. "Diabolically seductive," cried Le Figaro--a pronouncement far triter than it sounds. "Diabolicism" and "seduction" are what one expects from a spectacle such as Salomé, much in the same way one expects to be intoxicated after a third glass of wine. Which all brings me to the Ballet of the Dolls and their own biblically inspired extravaganza at the Southern Theater.

The Wilde-Johnson marriage is a match made in heaven. The cornerstones of Wilde's play-turned-opera-turned-dance spectacle (raucous eroticism, Freudian mischief, a hint of necrophilia) would daunt even the most tough-skinned of choreographers: But not Johnson, who in the past 10 years has garnered fame by being outrageous, lurid, and silly. Johnson has a knack for staging blowouts, and his Salomé certainly plays to the galleries. With the help of eight excellent dancers from the Zenon Dance Company who mix imperceptibly with the core group of 16 Dolls, the sheer body mass on stage is larger than life.

Set in an undeterminable period--at times it seems early '60s, at other moments like a Mel Brooks faux epic--the show mainly adheres to the original plot of Wilde's play. Princess Salomé (Alyce Finwall), stepdaughter of King Herod and seductress extraordinaire, has set her sights on John the Baptist, a holy man held captive by her stepfather for prophesying the coming of the Messiah and denouncing the decadence of the ruling clan. She hears his voice one night during a banquet in Herod's palace and orders Narraboth, the young captain of the guard who is in love with her, to bring the prophet before her. When John the Baptist is yanked from his cell and brought before the princess, Salomé promptly attempts to seduce him. The prophet rejects her advances, which pushes the borderline-psychopathic Salomé over the edge. Later, when the lustful Herod asks her to dance for him, she agrees only on condition that any wish may be granted. Following the famous "Dance of the Seven Veils," Salomé demands the decapitation of John the Baptist, both as revenge for her ill-fated advances and to test the limits of her stepfather's vulgar desires. Her wish granted, Salomé deliriously clutches her "trophy," slobbering over the decapitated skull and kissing the prophet's lifeless lips.

Johnson adds a few personal touches to the plot: a harem in lieu of Wilde's five Jews; a short homoerotic duet between Narraboth and a harem boy; and a series of engaging Greek chorus-like sextets by dancers dressed as crows. All these add considerable luster to the spectacle. One of the production's most interesting sections, and another Johnson addition, is the scene depicting Salomé's early years. In a Hopper-like living room setting dominated by large cocktail glasses, Salomé's parents--Philip and Herodias (a.k.a. George and Martha)--give us a taste of their marital bliss. Johnson's choreography, set against the overwrought orchestral urgency of a Stan Kenton score, threads the doomed relationship wonderfully. Zhauna Franks and Zenon's Eric Boone are dramatically strong performers, but it is the push-pull of their pathways--the dynamic of their departures, arrivals, and missed connections--that allows the subtext to thrive. With the angelically blond Salomé (played by 6-year-old Haydn Wagner) looking on from behind the dining table, Herodias's adultery with Herod, and Philip's subsequent murder, are the production's eeriest moments.

While the above scenes safely place Salomé within the confines of the diabolical, seduction is conspicuously nonattendant. Don't get me wrong; there is plenty of libidinous drive in Johnson's choreography, plenty to ogle as 14 taut, sweat-slicked bodies (constituting the harem) strut their stuff with unified abandon. There is even a moment of ooh-la-la toplessness for Finwall in the "Dance of the Seven Veils," with a lust-infected Herod reclining on his throne, simulating masturbation. Somehow, it all adds up not to erotic chic but to sexual overkill.

In spite of their technical appeal, Johnson's harem-dance sections amount to little more than a collection of rippling musculature, while Salomé's concluding solo with the decapitated head of John the Baptist (set to the corresponding aria from Richard Strauss's opera) sees an anti-climactic series of high developpés, crotch-flashes, and overwrought facial expressions.

Dancing to the max like this can sometimes turn into treading dangerously close to the preposterous. I only hope Johnson knows where he's going.

Salomé runs through June 29 at the Southern Theater; call 340-1725.

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