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New Salome: Mediocrity Unveiled

March 12, 2017

San Francisco Ballet

“Salome,” the tale of the woman who cuts off the head of John the Baptist, has a long tradition in the Bible and classical music and opera and, oh, what else. Oscar Wilde, yes, Oscar Wilde. And David Lynch and Gloria Swanson and Sunset Boulevard and stretch limousines and gangsters and drugs and popguns full of fun pink flower petals that rain down on the stage. All right then, forget about the last sentence. It speaks of what was attractive to choreographer Arthur Pita, whose new one-act Salome, which premiered Thursday night at the War Memorial Opera house, is about as wrongheaded as can be.

That it is for San Francisco Ballet is beyond unfortunate. It squanders the gifts of the marvelous dancers, feels remarkably empty, and since it purports to be adult-themed, is laughably misleading. There are Teletubbies episodes far steamier than this Salome. Composer Frank Moon, a frequent Pita collaborator, is responsible for the music, as unfocused as the acrobatic posturing of the dancers.

To our jumble — uh, our story. It begins as a black stretch limo pulls onto the stage in a ground fog. It’s like a clown car. A flotilla of guys in black gangster suits, skinny ties and sunglasses comes out, along with Salome (Dores André, in a gossamer blood-red gown, her stepfather Herod (Val Caniparoli), a gray-haired Godfather figure, and mother Herodias (Anita Paciotti, fetching in a gown of green). They set up camp, sitting on chairs at one side to watch their daughter do the Dance of the Seven Veils. Only the Veils are seven hunky guys in veils, get it? The veils are draped over them, and then they strip down to bare chests and shorts and caress Salome and manipulate her in a mildly threatening way. But first she’s drugged, so she’s stoned while she’s being flipped and dipped by Aaron Robison, in the role of John, the Veil who will become the chosen one and be taken to slaughter.

Every time there’s a lull in the lifting, dipping, or roistering of the other studly guys, there’s another floral explosion (one blue, the countless others pink). Whee! The set was created by Yann Seabra (he also did the costumes) and lit by Jim French, and it’s really the best part of the ballet. Frankly, the petals and the limo have all the best moves, although there is much to be said for the strong and handsome Robison, who joined the company as a principal dancer just last year. Dores André, a recently anointed principal, is a lovely artist, but the choreography gives her little to do that’s declarative. She spends a lot of time being turned upside down, a manipulation that makes her look passive.

After mom chooses John, he’s dragged out by the other Veils, and the next time we see him, the boys have had their way with him and he’s just a Veil-head on a plate; Salome lifts off the veil and eventually takes the head with her into the limo as everyone departs. One supposes that some kids might have a problem with the unveiling, but not if they’ve ever been to Madame Tussaud’s. You wonder whether the dancer gets to keep his head-effigy as a souvenir, perhaps the most rewarding thing that could happen after this disappointing outing.

Watching it reminded me of Thelma Ritter’s final line in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, when she’s informed that detectives have found the head of a neighbor, murdered and dismembered by her husband, buried in the back garden, and the rest of her body buried here and there. “I want no part of it,” she says. Indeed.

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.