This evocative ballet adaptation of Arthur Miller’s acclaimed play hits too close to home: when will the “witch hunt” cease?
Ballet is not always tutus and bobby pins. It is not always nutcrackers, swans and beautiful, lyrical dancing. Ballet can be contemporary, dark, and haunting, as seen in this new adaptation of Arthur Miller’s critically acclaimed play, The Crucible. Miller wrote the play during the US McCarthy trials in the 1950s, setting it against the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 as a commentary on their disarming similarities. And now as part of Scottish Ballet’s 50th anniversary season, The Crucible has been transformed into a modern ballet.
The transition from play to ballet is difficult to imagine – a play consists only of words and leaves the movement up to the performers, where ballet consists only of movement and all words must be conveyed through the expressivity of dance. Award-winning choreographer Helen Pickett was able to capture the raw emotion of this story; starting from the passionate pas-de-deux between John Proctor (danced by Nicholas Shoesmith) and Abigail (danced by Constance Devernay), then continuing through the bestial witch dance and controlled chaos of the courtroom scenes, Pickett conveys the gradual unraveling of the Salem community. The dancing was not necessarily beautiful to watch but rather jerky, sharp, and at times almost grotesque, as the whole community becomes caught up in the hysteria of accusation and denial.
The score for the ballet was composed by Peter Salem, known most notably for soundtracking Call the Midwife and Great Expectations. In this instance, his compositions consisted of electronic music compilations, nature noises and occasional singing; live orchestrations played rhythmic and disconcerting harmonies, which were frequently interrupted by the tolling of a bell.
The chaos and tumult of the times was accented perfectly by the minimalist set, frequently featuring imagery of a cross, sometimes in shadow, sometimes blindingly bright. There were no tutus present either; the characters wore drab, faded Puritan clothing and as they danced together in the shadows, they all began to lose their identity, eventually becoming a single mass of accusations and lies.
The one character that stood out was Elizabeth Proctor, danced by Araminta Wraith. In sharp contrast with the dull greys, greens, and blacks worn by the rest of the cast, Wraith was clothed in a pale dress that seemed to shimmer when the light hit it. In addition, her choreography offered a brief respite from the mechanical actions of the others. As she danced with John Proctor, the viola and cello took the melody, becoming lyrical and full of painful longing, telling a kinder tale of love and forgiveness that was beautiful and tender to watch. These moments were all too brief, and there was always a note of dissonance threaded throughout the chord, foreshadowing the devastating end that awaits John Proctor. In the final dance between the couple, all is forgiven and the music lands on a major chord for just a moment with the promise of an optimistic future.
I will say that coming in with previous knowledge of the play, including the overall story, themes, and a general understanding of the characters, provided a firm base on which to view the ballet. Not every moment of the play was represented in the ballet, but even if you have not read the play or know nothing of the Salem Witch Trials, the overall ideas of intolerance, betrayal, love, and truth were portrayed perfectly.
The Crucible is all too relevant to this day. In a world where Donald Trump has tweeted repeatedly about “witch hunts” and everyone is quick to label anyone with differences as “other,” it is important to remember that intolerance and accusation are never the only choices. The ballet adaptation of The Crucible managed to capture the intensity of these overarching themes and used the contemporary choreography and music to provide relevance to modern society in this haunting tale of love, betrayal, forgiveness, and the cost of truth.