What can Scottish Ballet’s production of The Crucible add to a classic of the American stage? Plenty, says choreographer Helen Pickett
Words Lyn Gardner
What would you stand up for, even if it meant losing your life? Would you oppose tyranny and always tell the truth even if you knew that doing so might destroy your family? Or would you betray others if you thought it would save your own skin?
Those are questions that fascinate American choreographer Helen Pickett,
whose full-length narrative ballet The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play and with a haunting new score by the appropriately-named Peter Salem, receives its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival. Created for Scottish Ballet, the production tours Scotland in the autumn before making its US debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington next year.
“I hope it puts audiences in a position where they watch and wonder ‘What would I do in that situation?’” says Pickett about her ballet, which brings the expressive physicality of dance to Miller’s seminal play set in the 17th century village of Salem, Massachusetts.
Where Miller uses words to explore a community suddenly gripped by hysteria and the conviction that its children have been bewitched by the devil, in Pickett’s version the play’s themes of blame, guilt and love are explored using movement and gesture. Great shadows loom over the characters, as repressed teenage emotions explode and cause havoc, and in the dark woods nasty surprises lurk for Salem’s tight-knit God-fearing Puritans.
“What we can do with dance,” says Pickett, “is to amplify. Words often fail to tell us how we feel, and movement can do that.”
Miller’s play was an allegory, written at the height of the Cold War, when the US government’s anti-communist witch-hunts saw reds under every bed. Even Shirley Temple was suspected of communist sympathies by the paranoid investigators of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was intent on rooting out those in public life who might have communist sympathies and demanded that life-long friends snitch on each other.
The historical parallels Miller’s play drew with the real-life events that took place in Salem in 1692 was immediately obvious to his contemporaries. There, too, suspicions went unchecked, fears festered and accusations of witchcraft spread. Just as in 1952, in that climate of paranoia, the investigations led away from, and not towards justice. More than 200 people were accused and 19 were executed.
Picket insists that The Crucible is every bit as relevant in in 2019. “It’s a piece about fabricated threats and also about the othering of people, and that is something that was going on in 1692, in 1952, and which goes on now too,” she says. She warns that we may not always be aware of, “what might be lurking in the shadows waiting to be unleashed,” and used by those – including governments – with their own agendas. As part of her research she visited Salem and talked to historians about how an apparently stable community can suddenly collapse almost overnight because of,“a fear of the unknown and ignorance and superstition.”
Female choreographers working with major companies are still relatively rare, but Pickett’s links with Scottish Ballet are strong. She worked with them before in 2013 on Room, a piece inspired by Sartre’s play Huis Clos. She has a particular gift for narrative ballet, knows that when it comes to choreography that less is always more, and spends lots of time working with dancers on character. No wonder
The Scotsman’s dance critic Kelly Apter proclaimed: “The dance world needs more Helen Picketts. Choreographers who can take the genre of narrative ballet and hurl it into the 21st century.” Which is exactly what she is doing here.
Pickett’s flair for storytelling might well come from the fact that she is as much at ease in the world of the theatre as she is with ballet and dance. Both her parents were actors, and while she trained as a dancer and spent 11 years performing with William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, she also worked as an actor, most notably with the avant-garde Wooster Group and director Elizabeth LeCompte. The Woosters are, of course, no slouches at reinventing classic theatre texts by shaking off the dust and transposing them into new mediums.
Pickett’s approach in The Crucible is to winkle out the drama that exists in the space between Miller’s words.“I am a collaborator by nature,” she says, pointing out that this is a collaboration between different forms, an old text and a new dance piece.
Pickett’s version not only plays on the fears of a community whose fragilities are suddenly exposed, but also investigates the characters’ motivations and relationships. In her version, Abigail, the servant dismissed from the home of John and Elizabeth Proctor, after her affair with John is revealed, is not just a young woman seeking vengeance but also suffering from post-traumatic stress after seeing her parents killed.
While the production is full of “horror and darkness”, she says, the audience can also see “the loyalty that people have towards each other and the courage they show. Like all
great artists, Arthur Miller knew that dark
and light sit side by side. Amidst all
the horror there is love, such love.”
WHERE & WHEN
The Crucible is at the Edinburgh Playhouse 3-5 Aug, 7.30pm, from £7.50