Salomé: Woman of Valor will have its world première at the Chutzpah! Festival March 8-10. (image by Anya Ross, graphics by John Greenaway)
There have been many interpretations of Salomé – thought to be the woman whose alluring dance persuaded King Herod to honour her request that he have John the Baptist beheaded – but none quite like that of Salomé: Woman of Valor, which has its world première at Chutzpah! March 8-10.
The creation of this complex, multilayered work that combines poetry, music, dance and film was led by composer and trumpeter Frank London and poet and performer Adeena Karasick. It features live music by London, percussionist Deep Singh and keyboard player Shai Bachar. The poetry is written and performed by Karasick, the dance choreographed and performed by Rebecca Margolick and Jessie Zaritt, and the video analyzing Charles Bryant’s 1923 silent film Salomé was made by Elizabeth Mak. The whole production is directed by Alex Aron.
“Frank was intrigued by the Salomé story due to the visual cornucopia of the Bryant film, and because it is a story where dance was at the centre, motivating the complex chain of events, and thus ripe for reinvention as a contemporary dance-theatre piece incorporating Bryant’s imagery,” Karasick told the Independent about why the work focuses on Salomé and not another Jewish historical or literary woman. “However, he was only aware of the [Oscar] Wilde retelling of the Salomé story and thus not really interested in her narrative. He came to me to see if I could reenvision her story in a more compelling way.”
It has always bothered her, said Karasick, how, within Christian mythology and entrenched in history by writers like Wilde, Gustave Flaubert and Stéphane Mallarmé and artists such as Gustav Klimt, Gustave Moreau and Aubrey Beardsley, “Salomé was seen as yet another Jewish temptress/Christian killer – but, in fact, there isn’t any evidence to substantiate this claim. According to apocrypha and Josephus’s Antiquities, she came from Jewish royalty and there is no evidence she murdered John the Baptist or even danced for Herod,” said Karasick.
“The only historical reference that [Herod’s wife] Herodias’s daughter’s name was Salomé is from Flavius Josephus, who makes no other claims about her – not that she danced for Herod, not that she demanded John’s head, but only that she went on to marry twice and live peacefully. The other apocryphal reference is that a daughter danced for Herod, which caused him to lose his mind and kill John the Baptist. Thus, the conflagrated Salomé that appears in the Wilde play, [Richard] Strauss opera and all subsequent productions, is an amalgamated construct, so we felt it was our duty to set the record straight.”
In fact, added Karasick, there are three women named Salomé in Jewish history: Salomé, daughter of Herodias and Herod II (circa 14-71 CE); Queen Salomé, her great-aunt (65 BCE-10 CE); and Salomé Alexandra (139-67 BCE).
“Her great-aunt, Salomé I, was the powerful sister and force behind Herod the Great, king of Judea and Second Temple rebuilder,” said Karasick, while Salomé Alexandra (also known as Shelomtzion) was one of only two women who reigned over Judea.
“I wanted my Salomé, Salomé of Valor, to carry the weight of both her genetic lineage and the cultural heredity of her name, embodying the legacy and power of the women that came before her,” said Karasick.
Karasick, who was born in Winnipeg, grew up in Vancouver, earning her bachelor’s from the University of British Columbia. She did her master’s at York University and her PhD at Concordia University. Among other things, she teaches literature and critical theory at Pratt Institute in New York, is co-founding artistic director of KlezKanada and performs her work around the world. The author of nine books – with a 10th, Checking In, published by Talonbooks, on the way – she has been awarded for her contributions to feminist thinking and, last year, the Adeena Karasick Archive was established at Special Collections, Simon Fraser University.
London – a member of the Klezmatics and the group Hasidic New Wave, who has performed with countless musicians and made numerous recordings of his own – saw Karasick perform in New York in 2011. He then hired her, she said, “along with Jake Marmer to design and lead the poetry retreat at KlezKanada…. We hadn’t yet collaborated before this, but I was always compelled by his music and the breadth of all he created as a masterful revolutionary himself, not only as a spectacularly fierce trumpet player but virtuosic composer, reinvigorating klezmer music, transcendentally intermixing it with aspects of world music, jazz, Chassidic new wave, punk – and always felt it would be a thrilling and highly symbiotic artistic match.”
When Frank approached her about the Salomé project, said Karasick, they both “fell in love with the Bryant film but were so perplexed” about Salomé’s “reputation in cultural history.”
So, Karasick started researching, “poring through the multiple and conflict[ing] narratives – through Josephus and the apocrypha, locating the many discrepancies between Christian and Jewish mythologies, speaking with specialists in the field, and became fascinated with how there are so many ‘truths,’ stories, misreadings, and how imperative it is to question these grand narratives, problematize traditional cultural, moral and religious perspectives.
“For millennia,” she said, “Jews have been portrayed as the murderers of gods and prophets in other people’s mythologies, so Salomé: Woman of Valor deconstructs this mythology, exposing how she was not a demonic murderess, and opens up the possibilities for infinite retelling and how truth itself is always a construct of veiling and unveiling.”
About the magnitude of the project, Karasick said, “As the author of nine books invested in issues of ethnicity, gender and ways to construct meaning, as professor of poetry and critical theory, gender images in the media, and poetics and performance, Salomé: Woman of Valor is a logical progression in my 30-year career, and has allowed me to integrate my experiences in one work – something that I have never done before.
“Due to the scope of this show,” she said, “I’m able to weave together the multiple styles of writing that I’ve experimented with over the years – sound poetry, homophonic translations, post-language conceptualism, kabbalistic and feminist revisionist practices, all syntactically playful, polyphonic, ironic and rhythmically complex – a fusion of my esthetic passions and expertise; opening a space of female empowerment.”
While London has been involved in many projects, Karasick said Salomé might be the first for him with performance poetry at the centre.
“We created Salomé: Woman of Valor as an integration of performance poetry, dance, music and video exploring the dialectic between narrative and abstraction – it is a quantum leap forward in collaborative artistic development, challenging my conceptual processes of making an artwork,” she said. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
Salomé: Woman of Valor is already being presented in an array of venues and contexts, said Karasick. “Its form and content make it appropriate to be presented at jazz, dance, poetry, new theatre, literary and electronic literature festivals; in performing arts centres, universities, avant garde text-based multimedia events, as well as events focusing on new media and cross arts,” she said.
“With its feminist and mystical kabbalistic take on Jewish historical subject matter and a live score which draws from East European Jewish music (klezmer) with jazz, Arabic and Indian musics, our Salomé is especially attractive to Jewish culture festivals and to presenters of Jewish music, language, dance and art.”
The libretto has been published in Italian and in English, and selections of it have been published in Bengali, Arabic, Yiddish and German. It is “being taught in universities worldwide in departments of global literature, Jewish studies and humanities and media studies,” she said.
The artists bringing Salomé: Woman of Valor to Vancouver are all “at the forefront of their respective fields,” said Karasick, “and so I feel so fortunate to be working with such powerful creators, all revolutionaries in their own ways. Frank works with Shai Bachar and Deep Singh on a number of musical projects – Deep and Frank started the internationally acclaimed bhangra-klezmer fusion band Sharabi; and [Frank] co-developed Night in the Old Marketplace with Alex Aron, so bringing her on board as a director seemed a natural fit.
“Over the five years of envisioning the piece, we tried on a number of dance styles, ranging from tribal belly dance to sword dance/swallowers, and, with the advice of (Merce Cunningham protégé) Gus Solomons, Jr., settled on the avant garde modern dance of Israeli superstar Jesse Zarrit and the stunningly poetic Rebecca Margolick, with a shout-out to the Dadaist Loïe Fuller stylings by Jodi Sperling.”
Mak’s video on Bryant’s silent film, notes the project’s promotional material, is “punctuated with Jim Andrews’ stunning vispo [visual poetry], with special video appearances by … Tony Torn as Herod, lit by Nicole Lang.”
“Together,” said Karasick, “we’re expanding our work in ways only dreamed possible; have created an intellectually provocative, audio-visual sensorium, informed by our (Frank’s and my) ongoing obsession with excess, desire and pushing boundaries.”
And it’s an interest, if not obsession, with many others, as well. The Kickstarter campaign for Salomé surpassed its goal of $20,000, about half of the project’s budget.
“The show has been garnering a lot of love and support from colleagues and patrons,” said Karasick, “perhaps due to ways that it addresses the social and political necessity to speak the unspoken, resist stereotypes, misrepresentation and outdated myths, and fosters a thinking that leads to a hybridized syncretic culture, one that honours the intermixing of blood, belief, rhythm, texture and being. Content-wise, it addresses outdated notions of identity and ethnicity, and carves out a space where difference and otherness can be celebrated. We feel incredibly grateful, and hope that we can keep growing it. Broadway, here we come!”
But, first, the Chutzpah! Festival. They have also been invited to Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival and the Boston Jewish Music Festival, said Karasick, who will continue to tour with the Salomé books. “Frank,” she said, “will record and release the music as a CD. We hope to see it at major festivals and venues worldwide.”
The presentations of Salomé at Chutzpah! are presented in association with the Dance Centre, where the performances will take place. For tickets and the full festival lineup, visit chutzpahfestival.com.