By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Officer
Imagine the choreographer who turns to the libretto of Salome for the first time, looking for insight on the famous Dance of the Seven Veils. They find only the briefest and most general of instructions to guide their work: “Salome dances the Dance of the Seven Veils.” For a pivotal scene, it’s not much to go on.
Yet that brevity opens up the performance to a multitude of possible and legitimate interpretations. By saying next to nothing about how the dance should look, the libretto seems to recognize that an elusive and indefinable quality is woven into the dance… a quality that might resist pre-determined charting precisely because it originates from a mysterious place of self-expression.
Salome by Paul Klee, 1920 and The Dance of Salome by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1462
Salome was adapted from Oscar Wilde’s one-act play, in which the author omits specific choreographic instructions with the very same phrase that the opera’s libretto echoes, unchanged, 13 years later. Things only get more puzzling when we read Wilde’s personal inscription to illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. “For Aubrey,” Wilde wrote, “the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance.”
The Stomach Dance by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894
Treating these remarks seriously for a moment we get Wilde insisting that (a) the dance is not only – or even primarily – a physical happening; and, (b) its main processes aren’t perceivable in the visible realm. This alters our thinking about the dance in a pretty radical way: rather than a set of gyrations to be exhibited in the outer world, it’s now understood as a ritual aimed at Salome’s inner life and the spiritual (read: invisible) world.
Shireen Malik, a choreographer and dance scholar, has recently speculated that Wilde’s ideas about the Dance of the Seven Veils might have been informed by an ancient Mesopotamian myth, in which the goddess Ishtar descends into Hades. As Ishtar journeys deeper into the underworld, she needs to pass through seven gates and leave behind an article of clothing or a piece of jewellery at each of the successive entryways.
That's certainly consistent with Wilde’s suggestion of a dance that functions more like an invisible personal journey than a physical display. And its connection to Mesopotamian mythology underscores the fact that the dance has a vast history that precedes the 19th century’s Orientalist construction of it.
The Apparition by Gustave Moreau, 1876
One of the most popular 19th-century portrayals of Salome
Veils, for example, were not associated with Salome or her performance at Herod’s banquet until 1870, when Arthur O’Shaugnessy introduced the image in his poem “The Daughter of Herodias”:
She freed and floated on the air her arms
Above dim veils that hid her bosom’s charms
Or consider this typical Renaissance portrayal, in which we find a subdued and even somewhat dignified Salome, showing no traces of the vampiric, sexually frenzied attributes that so fascinated the 19th-century artists.
Salome with the head of John the Baptist by Andrea Solario, 1520-1524
Contrast that with the prevailing depictions of Salome during the Middle Ages, in which her dance is realized as a kind of acrobatic heathen act, replete with tumbling and contortions.
Detail of a Rouen Cathedral tympanum. Photo by Will Collin
As rendered in a tympanum of the Rouen Cathedral, Salome’s dance is an act of sinful aberration: walking on her hands
So the teenaged princess Salome had been dancing across the collective imagination of Western Europe for hundreds of years before Richard Strauss ever set her dance to music.
As always – and as never before – Salome dances the Dance of the Seven Veils.
For more on the ideas behind this post, check out the work of scholar Daria Santini; Shireen Malik’s article “‘She freed and floated on the air’: Salome and Her Dance of the Seven Veils” (collected in The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics edited by Jennifer Heath); and, Salome and the Dance of Writing: Portraits of Mimesis in Literature by Françoise Meltzer.
Photo: (top) Dance of the Seven Veils scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper
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Storified by CanadianOperaCompany· Wed, Apr 24 2013 08:53:19
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Meet Jim Lucas, supernumerary-extraordinaire! Supernumeraries, a.k.a. supers, are the extras of the opera world and play a variety of non-singing roles. Jim has been a “super” with the COC in approximately 60 productions, beginning with Der Rosenkavalier in 1990, in which he recalls having to navigate a tricky spiral staircase dressed as a lackey while holding a sword. He remembers his hands trembling with nerves when he shared a scene with the Marschallin, sung by soprano Carol Vaness, but that initial experience got him hooked. Jim had been a COC subscriber prior to trying his luck as a super, but it was a conversation at a house party with a COC staff member that inspired him to audition for Rosenkavalier. He is a visual artist, and already had an interest in both theatre and opera, so he thought to himself, “Why not?”
That first opera led to dozens of appearances in productions spanning 23 years. He considers the highlight of his time with the COC (so far!) an experience in Don Pasquale when the director didn’t like what an onstage actor was doing in his role, and so decided to replace him at the last minute with Jim, who then spent the entire day in rehearsal with the director, and was on stage that evening at the dress rehearsal. Another particularly memorable moment of Jim’s super career occurred in Idomeneo, when Jim had to "play dead" on stage – something he considered a personal challenge because of how exposed he would be, lying absolutely still for several minutes onstage. The experience proved to be tremendously moving for Jim. He had just lost his grandmother, and when the music of Idomeneo began, he was so incredibly moved, but continued to lie still as the tears came and the music washed over him.
During the COC’s 2013 spring run, Jim appears in both Salome and Dialogues des Carmélites, so his spring is absolutely jam-packed with opera excitement!
Whether he is on stage or in the audience, opera is clearly part of Jim’s life blood. Though an avid opera fan before all of this super fun began, Jim’s love for opera has grown with his experiences. “Being part of the COC family, you discover a great understanding about the art form, especially if you’re working with a great director,” he says. “It’s not like you just show up and stand there; you develop your own story and your own character. Opera seems bare and minimal at the beginning, but then you get on stage, in costume, and it all comes together in live performance. Sure, it’s a hobby. But a very rewarding hobby.”
Congratulations, Jim, on your 23 years with us! The COC is proud to have you as part of the family.
Photo: (top) (l – r) Alan Held as Gianni Schicchi and Jim Lucas as the corpse of Buoso Donati in the COC’s production of Gianni Schicchi, 2012. Photo: Michael Cooper; (middle) Jim Lucas. Photo by Douglas J. S. Hamilton; (bottom) Jim Lucas in the COC's production Madama Butterfly, 2009. Photo by Douglas J. S. Hamilton
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001