Emma Bentley has second thoughts about unwelcome contemporary dance spaces as she talks to Harriet Waghorn of Edifice. They discuss female power, audience connection and how best to use a decapitated head in their take on Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.

Harriet Waghorn and Carmine De Amicis first met in 2015, when their friends set them up on, what Waghorn describes to me, as a kind of “speed date” in a dance studio. At the time, they were both interested in a collaboration with another dancer/choreographer, where they could explore a blend of ballroom and contact improvisation. It was probably the most successful outcome for both of them and as far as speed date goes, not half bad as they went on to create Edifice, a short film that they co-choreographed, and was directed by film maker, Rogerio Silva. This video confirms why Waghorn and De Amicis are such an electric duo and I urge you to watch it and add to the 8 million views world-wide it has already gained.

Since Edifice the film, in 2015, Waghorn and De Amicis have become joint artistic directors of their own company using the same name and make a body of work that flits between live dance theatre and film. Waghorn tells me how film has allowed them to tour their work to Canada, Spain and Italy, giving them a huge boost. “We knew that it was something special to us, but knowing that it was special to so many other people… it was something that really pushed us on to make work.”

Their shows have mainly taken inspiration from well-known stories. In 2016, they used Lorca’s Blood Wedding and in 2018 they took the character of the pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth to create a show called Tenome. It was De Amicis who discovered Oscar Wilde’s Salomé as he “fell in love with the character of Jokanaan,” and once realising the complexities of the relationships, they decided it would become their next project.

I admit to Waghorn over the phone, that I don’t know much about the character of Salomé and that every production I have seen or heard of seems to be shrouded in a layer of nudity and criticism of badly portrayed female characters. Waghorn, who plays the role herself, assures me that their production does not go down any of these rabbit holes. “There’s so many different sides of her to play throughout and also in the end she cuts off a guy’s head to kiss him…!” We both burst into laughter at this point, then she adds: “I get it, a love story right? Whaaat?! So that’s another interesting element to her character … different men have power over her at different times and then she has power over them.” Too right she does.

Waghorn goes onto explain how it is these shifts in power and relationships that are at the centre of the work for herself and De Amicis. “That is one of the other reasons we chose Salomé – we don’t want that normal balance of male/female that literature especially holds, so with Salomé there is chance for us to play with power and balance and also choreographically we challenge the pas de deux.” Throughout our conversation she returns to this idea. “The whole of our company is about the energy between people. Whether it is between the characters on stage, their connection, their partnering, or the connection you have with the audience.”

Salomé continues to develop as a piece with an immersive element – it being in the round, and Waghorn makes it very clear that the audience are not in a sit back and switch off kind of show. “They’re always there and their energy is really present in the space.”

This connection with the audience has given Edifice a unique selling point. “When I was training in contemporary dance,” Waghorn describes, “and my family would come and see me when I was at Laban, they would say well done after the show but they’d also say I didn’t have a clue what was going on. With Edifice, because it’s about relationships and because it’s about storytelling, even though they don’t know the language in which to understand contemporary dance, they know the language of story-telling and relationships, so they can be much more involved in the stories. It’s the first time they really connected to my work.” My own Dad being a classical musician for a ballet orchestra, I am no stranger to contemporary dance performance, but would never really feel comfortable at somewhere like Sadler’s Wells, for example. But the way that Waghorn describes Edifice’s ethos really makes me feel welcome and invited in. It’s clear why they are successful Arts Council England grant recipients.   

The fact that the work is accessible does not mean at all that it is not experimental. I wonder how difficult it is for Waghorn when she dances the male steps of the pas de deux, but she tells me it is not so much those moments that are a challenge. However, she does say, “at the end, to deal with the head severing situation without having this dead head on stage, we play with Carmine’s head as a dead weight and I’m focusing into his head, because at this point he’s just a head, so his whole body weight is completely relaxed. I’ve got this whole duet where I’m just carrying him, but still trying to hold my feminine power, so it’s quite challenging in that way. It’s hard to lift him, he’s a heavy guy!”

I would be there just for that moment, as women holding their feminine power whilst doing things that are unexpected and/or fierce is totally my jam. I’m thinking of Netflix’s Good Girls and Killing Eve. After our conversation I’m also keen tap into a different kind of language on stage, one without words: the language of Edifice.  

Salomé is playing on 10 March. For more information and to book tickets, visit The Place website.