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Scottish Ballet's Gothic 'Crucible' lands at the Kennedy Center

Scottish Ballet's production of Helen Pickett's The Crucible. Photo: Andy Ross

Helen Pickett created her choreographed adaptation of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible for the Edinburgh Festival in 2019. The troupe that premiered it, the Scottish Ballet, is finally touring it in the United States. (The work's planned premiere at the Kennedy Center, in May 2020, was canceled for obvious reasons.) After its run at the Kennedy Center, which opened on Wednesday, the production will go to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. The play's setting, the Salem Witch Trials, and the subtext of its premiere, the Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, are both eras of American history we should not be wanting to repeat but may be doomed to do. Pickett's grim and grimy version, with its techno- and electronica-infused score by Peter Salem, seemed more timely than ever at the second performance, Thursday night, in the Eisenhower Theater.

Pickett's adaptation both telescopes the action of the play and fleshes out some of the characters by examining their motives. Act I opens with Abigail, the orphan girl whom the Proctor family has hired as a servant, dreaming of a happy family life. Elizabeth Proctor, burdened with a baby and perhaps suffering from post-partum depression, learns that her husband, John Proctor, has had an affair with the girl. Discovered dancing naked together in the forest, Abigail and a group of local girls accuse Tituba, an enslaved woman, of leading them into witchcraft. A council of churchmen, determined to root out the devil in their midst, solicit more accusations from the girls, leading to the eventual downfall of the Proctors.
Other Articles:

Kyra Laubacher, Scottish Ballet Tours Helen Pickett’s The Crucible to the U.S., Bringing Miller’s Tale to Its Home Soil (Pointe, May 15)

Elliot Lanes, Interview: Theatre Life with Peter Salem (Broadway World, May 25)

The Crucible is a mixture of theater and ballet, which deprives itself of the greatest strengths of both art forms. The accusing shrieks of the girls and even talking by some characters shatters the idea of a story told exclusively by movement, but the use of ballet like periodic arias partially undermines the potential realism of theater. The set pieces, designed by Emma Kingsbury and David Finn, float and tilt into different shapes, with occasional hanging pieces of fabric, all creating the sense of a drab industrial environment.

The most effective use of dance was in the church scenes, where unified movement became a metaphor for the group-think of religious conformity: the gray-swathed congregants moving in lockstep and imitating faithfully the movements of their pastors. The Men of God, whom the work's creators reportedly thought of "as a menacing flock of birds," leapt and spun with bravado and more than the occasional hint of Merce Cunningham's Preacher in Appalachian Spring. The duet between Kayla-Maree Tarantolo's needy Abigail and Bruno Micchiardi's conflicted John Proctor is striking for its overt sexuality, balanced by the latter's tender scenes with Bethany Kingsley-Garner's Elizabeth Proctor.

Salem's score is austere, with a bass-heavy string ensemble (two violins, one on a part, against three violas, three cellos, and two basses) providing drones and keening melodies, conducted by Daniel Parkinson. The instruments in the pit are all miked, and Salem has added reverb for atmospheric effect at times. In addition to live oboe, flute, bassoon, and trombone, two keyboards and electronic sample pads mix in other sounds. The score leaned most to the electronic side in the forest scene, with over-amplified thudding rhythm giving the nude dancing scene the air of a night club. Salem's next collaboration with Pickett is reportedly a new ballet based on Flaubert's Madame Bovary, planned for this November at the National Ballet of Canada.

The Crucible runs through May 28.

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