Bridge Repertory Theater artistic director Olivia D’Ambrosio says she’s wanted to direct Oscar Wilde’s tale of the provocative and destructive Salome for years, but waited until she found the dancer-actress who could do it justice.
She found her in Shura Baryshnikov, her teaching colleague at the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company MFA program, who, in addition to her experience with modern dance companies, has theater and dance embedded in her DNA. As the daughter of actress Jessica Lange and dance superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov, Shura Baryshnikov says she grew up “deeply entrenched in the theatrical community.”
But the lead role in “Salome,” D’Ambrosio and Baryshnikov agree, is more nuanced than it first appears. The biblical story, in which Salome agrees to dance for lascivious stepfather Herod in exchange for the head of his prisoner John the Baptist, was adapted by Wilde into a potent one-act. It became famous for its dance of the seven veils and was censored for decades in England.
“It’s an epic, iconic story,” says D’Ambrosio during a rehearsal break for the production, which began preview performances Thursday at the First Church in the Back Bay. “But it’s essential that the actress playing Salome be a dancer. She’s not just a femme fatale doing a striptease for her stepdad. Salome needs to move through her world in a physically visceral way.”
Baryshnikov says she was excited to take on the role since it was so dependent on movement. And she says her experience with improvisational dance has helped her find her way into the character.
“Salome’s movement is driven from a very impulsive place,” says Baryshnikov. “Her . . . motivation is not to be sexy, it’s to dance, and that becomes sexy.
“It’s a shocking situation,” she says. “On one moonlit night this young woman encounters love at first sight, is repulsed by her stepfather’s creepy demand that she dance for him, and in her performance she unleashes all her sadness, frustration and rage and exhaustion with the situation she’s found herself in.”
Baryshnikov says she is choreographing her dance but is careful not to make the structure too formal.
“I’m trying to make the dance raw and experimental,” she says, “since this isn’t something Salome has planned. There are a lot of references to nature and the natural world, references to traditional dances and some ’60s-era moves, but it becomes her own vocabulary.”
D’Ambrosio says sound designer and composer Bevin Kelley is using a mix of ancient music, drumbeats, and references to hits of 1970.
“It’s an eclectic mix that I hope speaks to both the biblical tale and our setting in the First Church of Boston,” says D’Ambrosio. “The room we’re performing in is very 1970, and I wanted to take advantage of that. . . . [It] was such a pivotal point in time, after Woodstock and Stonewall, in the midst of the Vietnam War. It’s a moment of change and transformation, just as the arrival of John the Baptist is in the world of Herod and Salome.”
Baryshnikov says she’s excited by the opportunity to perform the title role after years of working in the ensemble, but when asked why it took so long to step center stage, she laughs.
“I guess I initially steered away from a life as a performer,” she says. “I got married young, and have been focused on raising my daughters. I’ve worked as an interior designer, a raw foods chef, and an arts administrator, but I’ve been working in the dance world for a while.”
Baryshnikov landed in Rhode Island when her husband was working on his PhD. Now divorced, she says all of her work has been built around her daughters’ schedules. Now that they are 10 and 12, she has a little more flexibility, although the rehearsal break included a check-in with the baby sitter.
“I was very lucky to grow up in an environment where I got to know some amazing performers, but it was important for me to find my own way,” she says. “This production felt like the right opportunity to combine both acting and dance.”
Play by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater. At First Church, 66 Marlborough St., Boston, through Oct. 18. Tickets $32-$40, www.bridge rep.wordpress.com