The Crucible review – the witch hunt ballet casts a mighty spell
If you’re looking for 21st century ballet characters, women who make false accusations for selfish reasons aren’t the most appealing choice. In a tour de force for Scottish Ballet, however, choreographer Helen Pickett pleads for the translation of Arthur Miller’s Salem-inspired play the crucible in the dance – fake witches, Puritan paranoia et al.
Narrative tension, an elusive holy grail for narrative ballets, never lets up during this economical two-act ballet, which made its London debut at Sadler’s Wells this week. Pickett wisely chooses to recount the events of the crucible chronologically, bringing to life episodes that are only hinted at retrospectively in the play. John Proctor’s intoxicating affair with his servant Abigail opens the ballet, setting the stage for Abigail’s dismissal and his witch hunt against Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, when mass hysteria grips the community.
This central triangle works wonderfully. Constance Devernay is both hurt and calculating as Abigail, while the overseers’ reconciliation arc gives the ballet much of its heart. After John’s betrayal, Pickett crafts a delicate dance dialogue in which Elizabeth (the bewitching Sophie Martin) cannot bring herself to touch her husband (Nicholas Shoesmith, an excellent patriarchal figure touched by remorse). The choreography slowly brings them closer, and just when John decides not to falsely confess to witchcraft, Elizabeth’s final visit – in which she tenderly turns her head towards the light above – strikes a chord in seconds.
The suffocating story unfolds against a simple, dark setting, but Peter Salem’s highly evocative score keeps it from feeling monotonous. The Scottish Ballet Orchestra provided haunting strings from the Sadler’s Wells pit, layered with the sound of church bells, bird wings and interrupted breathing. When Abigail and the girls dance naked in the forest – a ballet-ready episode that could have used more distinctive steps – Salem launches into electronic music, an ominous change of pace.
There is no anonymous corps de ballet in the crucible. The Scottish Ballet is a company of real dance actors, and no less than 22 named characters bring the Salem community and the trials to life. Pickett has achieved this rare feat: a new ballet in which the classical steps are fluidly shaped by dramatic intent and recurring motifs, such as a raised hand to the heart as a nod to religion, repeated with variations of increasingly wild. Other ballet companies need to take this into account: it Crucible belongs to the international repertoire.
As of June 18, sadlerswells.com