Modern-day Salem is a strange place. A beautiful coastal city that has turned witchcraft into a tourist industry, which is even more surprising when the events so bizarrely celebrated occurred over a two-year period at the end of the 17th century. In 1953, Arthur Miller used the Salem witch trials to write The Crucible as an allegory to warn about the “reds under the bed” mania then preoccupying America, not least through the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  

Constance Devernay (Abigail)
© Jane Hobson (2019)

Miller’s long and laborious play has four acts but Helen Pickett’s choreography for Scottish Ballet cuts the action into two brief sections lasting just eighty minutes in total, concentrating on the malicious envy of a woman scorned and the fortitude that is provoked in the marriage of John and Elizabeth Proctor, the emotions of which are poured into three pas de deux, strategically placed within the ballet. These lead roles were danced at the London premiere by Nicholas Shoesmith and Sophie Martin who essayed a strong feeling for their characters without the need for text and their three duets were danced with great emotion, representing these different phases in their relationship. The final pas de deux, just before John’s execution – he goes to the hangman rather than dishonour his wife and family with a confession to adultery and witchcraft – was beautifully composed and memorably performed.     

Sophie Martin (Elizabeth Proctor)
© Andy Ross (2018)

As the woman scorned, Constance Devernay encapsulated the complications, ambitions and sadness of Abigail, whose parents had been brutally killed in the war and who had once had an affair with John Proctor when she was a servant in his farmstead (something that happens before the action in Miller’s play but which is shown as an early episode in the ballet to aid a linear understanding of the narrative). It is Abigail’s accusations that set in train the witch-hunt hysteria that consumed the community. 

There is no anonymous corps de ballet since every one of the 22 performers is a named character. Among these Jerome Anthony Barnes gave an imposing and charismatic performance as the Deputy Governor Danforth, in charge of the witch trials; Kayla-Maree Tarantolo was the epitome of vulnerability as the preacher’s daughter, Betty (with some artistic licence since she is ten in the play) who becomes ill following a naked, pagan dance in the forest, which sets off the slew of witchcraft accusations; and Bruno Micchiardi amply demonstrated why he was recently nominated for the Emerging Artist Award in the 2021 National Dance Awards with a strong performance as the vengeance-seeking, witchcraft investigator, Reverend Hale.  

Scottish Ballet in The Crucible
© Andy Ross (2018)

It seems fanciful to the point of incredulity for the composer of the score for this ballet set in Salem to have that same name and the close working arrangement between Pickett and Peter Salem has resulted in a score that not only provides memorable music to dance to but also helps to drive the story along with many changes of musical style. The use of electronic music for the pivotal scene where a group of young women embark on that naked dance in the forest is both surprising and apt. Emma Kingsbury’s costumes for this scene gave the necessary context of the women’s abandonment and vulnerability without compromising the dancers’ dignity. The simplicity and starkness of the ballet is underlined in Kingsbury’s set and costume designs that provide a stylised image of Salem in 1692.

Constance Devernay (Abigail) and company
© Jane Hobosn (2019)

There were some technical issues on the opening night at Sadler’s Wells, particularly in relation to the lighting cues, which were more than a tad out of kilter. It’s a ballet that has a generally dark atmosphere but some of the key action took place unilluminated while some performers were obscured by the shadows of others.

Given that Miller is one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, it seems strange that this appears to be the first attempt to turn one of his plays into dance theatre (Death of a Salesman, anyone?). In doing so, Pickett has succeeded in creating a ballet that is relatively easy to follow – the programme synopsis is admirably succinct, which is a marvel considering the complexities of Miller’s play – with lyrical and expressive choreography, well designed and performed to a revealing and moving score. Every creative contribution in this ballet plays a part in achieving that modern day balletic alchemy of a straightforward and descriptive narrative.