In the latter days of the Renaissance, the daring Italian painter Caravaggio painted a dark and violent canvas, "Judith Beheading Holofernes."
Painted in Caravaggio's characteristic chiaroscuro, veering between extreme shadow and brilliant light, it depicts a brutal killing, with a twist: the murderer is a young woman and the victim is a man. Standing in a beam of light, Judith is slicing off Holofernes's head. Her sword is deep into his neck, and his blood spurts out.
The Caravaggio painting—and the story it tells—has led to a new evening-length dance by Ashley Bowman, co-artistic director of Tucson's Artifact Dance Project. The narrative dance Judith, performed by a dozen dancers and an equal number of musicians, makes its debut Thursday night at Stevie Eller.
"The dance was inspired by the Caravaggio painting," Bowden says. "I saw it many years ago."
Painted around 1600, the audacious work depicts the key scene from The Book of Judith, an ancient tale about a heroic Jewish woman who saves the Israelites from an invading army. The man she kills is a general in the army of the Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar.
"This show is definitely different," Bowman says, marking the first time the troupe has tackled what could be considered a religious topic.
The Book of Judith has an odd history. Written a century or two before the birth of Christ, it's enshrined in the Catholic Bible, and while it was a familiar Jewish tale, it never made it into the accepted Jewish scriptures. The Reformation Protestants considered it apocryphal and deleted it from their Bible.
"In rehearsal I used the word 'God,' telling dancers, 'raise your arms up to God.'" But the tale could also be interpreted as more spiritual than religious, she notes.
"In some ways, the book is written like Aesop's Fables," a book that lays out simple tales of moral behavior. Even Catholic teachings hold that it's not a historical story but a guide for the faithful to trust in God's presence in good times and bad.
New company members Ilaria Guerra stars in the title role of the heroic Judith. An accomplished San Francisco dancer who trained with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Guerra also performs with the Frisco contemporary ballet troupe dawsondancesf. Living part-time in Tucson, she dropped by the Artifact studio to take a class.
Bowman had long been wanting to convert the story of Judith into a dance work. When she saw Guerra, a dark-haired native of Italy, she knew that she had her Judith.
"She's really inspirational to work with," Bowman says.
Guerra in turn has been inspired by the role.
"Dancing the role of Judith is nothing like I have ever done before," she writes in an artist's note. She's versed in contemporary dance that, like Artifact, mixes ballet and modern dance. But she's not accustomed to the kind of story dance that Artifact is known for.
"With Judith, I am being asked to fully immerse myself emotionally into the life of my character," she notes, "and express her experiences in a human way."
In a sense, Guerra and opera soprano Korby Myrick both represent Judith in the concert, Guerra through movement and Myrick through voice.
"Throughout Korby sings the voice of Judith," Bowman says, representing the woman's thoughts through music by the British composer Michael Nyman. "She has a beautiful voice."
Myrick has collaborated with Artifact in several other concerts, including last season's Animal Farm. Her husband, Richard Hereld, accompanies her on piano.
Music for the production also includes work by Sergei Prokofiev, played live by a large chamber ensemble of musicians on violins, viola, flute, cello, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and percussion.
Artifact's Marquez Johnson dances the lead part of the ill-fated general. Becky Belanger is Judith's maidservant and Nathanael Myers plays King Nebuchadnezzar.
Artifact has made a name for itself creating narrative dance pieces drawn from other art forms. For the Judith story, committed to canvas by Caravaggio and many other early Baroque painters, Bowman tapped art historian Kevin Justus to map out a script.
"He was really excited to do it," Bowman says. "He wrote out an adaptation scene by scene. Almost every show we do has a script, scene by scene, even though there's no spoken word."
Focusing on the two lead characters, Judith and Holofernes, "We tell a lot about their history," Bowman says.
"We look at the journey of Judith—she's a widow who goes from a terrible state of mourning to realizing she is meant to do this thing to save her city."
And the narrative tries to untangle why Holofernes is "so messed up," as Bowman puts it. "We have a brutal scene of him losing his brother or a comrade."
Bowman, who created all the choreography for the hour-and-a-half show, doesn't consider the piece to be explicitly feminist. She considers it a timeless story that combines heroism and spirituality.
"It's more a piece relevant to any period—it's about the oppression of people, in this case the Jews, and about genocidal leaders, like Nebuchadnezzar," she says. "In this story it happens to be a woman who rises up."