The Scottish Ballet’s “The Crucible” takes the play up a few notches.
Story ballets from the last couple centuries often pulled from fairytales and folk legends. In “Giselle,” a village maiden falls in love with a prince in disguise. “The Rite of Spring” finds a group of young girls honoring spring. In “The Firebird,” a prince rescues a mythical creature.
In the 21st century, ballet companies around the world appear to be mining another source: classic literature. Last year, London’s Royal Ballet adapted the Mexican love story “Like Water for Chocolate” for the stage; the Charlotte Ballet presented “Wuthering Heights” in 2017; and our own Washington Ballet premiered “Dracula” at the Kennedy Center back in 2012, to name a few.
Today, the Scottish Ballet is touring the United States with its own literary ballet, “The Crucible,” based on Arthur Miller’s classic play, which will be performed at The Kennedy Center from May 24-28.
Miller published “The Crucible” in 1953, lobbing a grenade at McCarthyism and the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). The committee was investigating many artists — actors, filmmakers, choreographers and more — for suspected Communist ties. (HUAC later subpoenaed Miller himself in 1956, ironically when applying to renew his passport to see “The Crucible” open in Brussels. The playwright refused to name names, and the committee convicted him of contempt of Congress in 1957.)
For Miller, the hysterical Salem witch trials — when the Massachusetts Bay Colony accused hundreds of people of witchcraft and executed 19 of them — made the perfect allegory. Set from 1692 to 1693, the narrative centers on two women: Elizabeth Proctor, the respected wife of a local farmer, and Abigail Williams, who previously worked in the Proctors’ home and had an affair with Elizabeth’s husband John. The play alone is tense and horrifying; the Scottish Ballet’s production intensifies it with Helen Pickett’s wild choreography and Peter Salam’s orchestral score, accented by screams, fist-banging and blasts of electronic music.
To help the dancers prepare, Pickett had them write a character analysis for their roles.
“The process of bringing Elizabeth alive happens from the moment you are cast in the role,” says Bethany Kingsly-Garner, principal dancer with the Scottish Ballet. “You become curious about her character and want to learn about her life and the story she has to tell.”
This background work was critical as well for Constance Devernay-Laurence, the principal portraying Abigail in the upcoming Kennedy Center performance. For example, Abigail is just 17 in the play, which Devernay-Laurence says can feel “awkward and unnatural” to portray as a 32-year-old woman herself.
“I portray her young age by focusing on the fact that Abigail is doing everything for the first time (the affair with John, her first kiss, her first rejection by a man) rather than just playing a young, naughty girl, which felt artificial to me,” she says.
Given the subject matter, the company recommends the performance to viewers ages 12 and up. But those who attend will almost enter into the drama — the emotional tension, but also the physical tension.
“The first few rows in the auditorium might actually hear us use our breath throughout the ballet,” Devernay-Laurence says.
As of this writing, there are just a few front seats left.
“The Crucible” will be at the Kennedy Center from May 24-28. You can purchase tickets here.
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