Salome: Woman of Valor's mix of spoken word, projections, dance, and music is by turns dizzying and dazzling

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      A Chutzpah Festval presentation in association with the Dance Centre. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Thursday, March 8. Continues until March 10

      Amid Salomé: Woman of Valor’s strange and fascinating swirl of images and sound, the Dance of the Seven Veils—crucially—does not disappoint.

      Much of this wildly ambitious, abstract multimedia show takes its visual cues from the art-nouveau- and art-deco-era craze for Salome—be it in Oscar Wilde’s banned play, with its then-risqué illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, or in clips from the old silent film of the same name by Charles Bryant. So it is fitting that the famous dance of seduction should evoke none other than “La Loïe” Fuller herself—the modern-dance pioneer of the same era.

      Incredibly, with choreography from Jody Sperling (an expert on Loie Fuller who also trained French star Soko for the recent movie The Dancer, about the same icon), Rebecca Margolick spins like a whirling dervish in a long, satiny gown, its arms elongated by the same kind of poles Fuller used. Projections illuminate the fabric as it forms fluttering sculptural patterns. This is no easy physical feat—Fuller suffered for years for her art—but Margolick manages to pull it off with finesse.

      It’s one memorable moment in a show that defies all categorization and yet entrances in the same way a fever dream does. Based on years of research by poet Adeena Karasick and trumpet virtuoso Frank London, it recasts Salome as a powerful Jewish heroine, deeply in love with the man she ultimately sees beheaded. But this is no straight-up retelling.

      Where do you even start to describe it? Karasick has called the show a spoken-word opera. In another way, this Salomé is couched as a sort of live silent movie, with old-cinema intertitles explaining the action on-stage. Scenes from Bryant’s classic black-and-white film also dance on the screen behind everyone.

      Now add the show’s biggest strength: the vivid, atmospheric texture of culture-crossing live music by jazz trumpeter Frank London (of the Klezmatics), tabla and dohl player Deep Singh, and keyboard by Shai Bachar. Throw in the idiosyncratic spoken-word poetry of Karasick, who prowls the stage in a ’20s-style feathered headdress and black-and-white gown that recall both the film and Beardsley’s illustrations. Her rolling, sing-chanting delivery, influenced by cabalism and Midrashic philosophy, with hits of Hebrew and Yiddish, takes some getting-used-to. But her work is a brain-teasing mix of semiotic play, pop-culture references, and erudite historic-religious touchstones. Meanwhile, in the show’s least integrated element, animations of skittering, scrolling letters and words are projected on the big screen at the back of the stage.

      Margolick and dancer Jesse Zaritt, as Iokanan (John the Baptist), express the action physically in the centre of a big circle of ripped paper on the floor. Their first dance is sensual, her hands gently wrapping around his head; his dance of religious devotion, in which he chooses to “bind” himself to God and begs her to martyr him, is muscular and ritualistic. The assertion here is that rather than sadistically seducing him, she’s granting his last request with the beheading.

      The show’s most bizarre element? Actor Tony Torn in arch form as Herod, appearing in black-and-white projection, wearing a flower crown and robes, high on the screen. Made up like a character out of the old silent film, he orders Salome to dance, and watches in exaggerated lip-licking lust, then shock, then disgust.

      It makes for an odd mix of high academia and high camp. And it adds to a dizzying array of information that doesn’t always coalesce, but still entices. Some will leave wanting to Google Bryant’s film and dig into Salome’s history; others might leave scratching their heads. But they’ll all see one of history’s most maligned women in a different light.