Oscar Wilde never laid out specific steps for Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils. When the playwright developed the biblical story into one of a scorned femme fatale — in which Salome, stepdaughter of a king, has her former lover, John the Baptist, beheaded — he just sent her to perform the climactic dance before her stepfather and mother, and then to lift John's severed head for a kiss.
The play alone has inspired much discussion since its late 19th-century debut. But it possesses an extra layer of intrigue in that it was published with highly innovative, Art Nouveau illustrations by artist Aubrey Beardsley, who was deeply inspired by Asian artwork.
Kevin Landis, director of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs theater program, has taken the mysterious nature of Salome's dance, and Beardsley's interpretation of Wilde's Salome, and used them as the basis for The Seven Veils, a multi-disciplinary festival that will run through the end of April at UCCS.
"Because [the Dance of the Seven Veils] is so foggy and nebulous, I thought it would be a nice title for this festival, in which we're kind of exploring, in the dark, some of these themes — these grand themes that we've discussed," says Landis.
In researching those dueling themes of fulfilled and unfulfilled desire, love and lust, he was reminded of the Japanese ideas of hade and shibui, or decadence and simplicity. He was even more struck by the combination of those ideas in both the play and Beardsley's drawings.
To get to the root of all this in the UCCS student version of Salome, Landis has the actors engaging in some physical theater techniques, like Japanese Suzuki, "a very intense, physical approach to theater," says Landis. It involves a lot of stomping, chanting and drumming, and putting the actors in physical positions of stress; the idea is to get them to deeply connect with their bodies.
Further upping the emotion, the music department at UCCS will debut a score with the play. Composed by music program director Glen Whitehead and his students, it's intended to "develop dramatically as a scene develops dramatically ... but how that might develop on any given night might be different," Whitehead says. That's why some portions are left open to interpretation and improvisation.
It's more than part of the play, he says: "It's at once both a separate additional element, and an extension of the play itself."
Through the run of Salome, UCCS visual arts student Elizabeth Raitz will present a video installation in the theater lobby. The artist describes her installation, based on Salome's dance, as "wet and squishy": a video focused on an actress' feet, covered in frosting, stomping on pomegranates and other fruits. "It's lots of squirting and it's lots of motion," says Raitz, "but it's very slow and sort of repetitive because it's just supposed to symbolize this sort of internal movement."
The video will be projected on sheets of satin draped across the ceiling, with jars filled with the fluids and fruits featured in the film hanging in the midst of it. "I see Salome as a sort of collector," she says. "[The jars are] this sort of outward projection of what she's collected, of what people have collected about her, and then as a whole, it becomes this sort of homage to her identity." The color palette involves a lot of burgundies and reds: "I think she's a burgundy character," Raitz says.
Allowing for that level of interpretation is what made Landis choose Salome. "Because Salome is part of the Symbolist movement, it leaves a lot open to the practitioners of the art to create," he says. "Because symbolism is what you make of it."