Interview: choreographer Helen Pickett and dancer Nicholas Shoesmith on Scottish Ballet's The Crucible
The company is pairing Arthur Miller's classic with Christopher Bruce's Ten Poems
Scottish Ballet’s reputation for adapting literary classics will grow even stronger this autumn, finds Lucy Ribchester
In 2012, Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire came sweltering onto our stages, wowing critics and proving that dance can bring just as much to complex plays as it always has to fairytales. Now, the company’s autumn season has them turning once again to 20th century American drama, this time with a 40-minute version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible forming part of a double bill.
‘I think we’re in a time where we‘re accepting all these cross-breeds into the art world,’ says The Crucible’s choreographer Helen Pickett, on the phone from New York where she is working, coincidentally, on adapting Tennessee Williams’ play Camino Real for Atlanta Ballet. ‘We’re letting all these things correlate, and I think this is important in the dance world, because in the end it’s about people connecting. If people can connect to what’s on stage in dance, they will come.’
Pickett – who describes The Crucible as having ‘everything a great story needs’ – was approached to create the piece by Scottish Ballet artistic director, Christopher Hampson, following the success of 2013’s The Room, a piece she created for the company based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Far from being restricted by the stories she adapts, Pickett finds them to be direct inspirations when creating movement.
‘Music is always an anchor to me,’ she says. ‘I see the steps while music tells me how I feel and what to make. But then there’s narrative – that’s the second anchor – and that is like a freedom. I equate these two anchors to the idea of technique. If you know how to build, that’s when you can start falling into imagination. Whenever I’m stuck, I go back to those words and listen to the music.’
Making sense onstage was always Pickett’s first priority with The Crucible, and with this in mind she has chosen to deviate from Miller in order to present more back-story and draw those less familiar with the play into the action. She travelled to Salem Village (renamed Danvers) in Massachusetts to learn about the 1692 witch trials, and talks passionately about the people involved. Abigail Williams ‘is acting out of physical and mental stress, but is still an absolute villain’, while Elizabeth Proctor is ‘a hero. She gives her husband the benediction, owns up to her own passive-aggressive torture that she’s put him though, and lets him go. Which must be an incredibly hard act.’
For the dancers, harnessing these strong characters is key to communicating the story. Nicholas Shoesmith, playing the role of Reverend Parris, says that the hardest thing is balancing Miller’s creation with his own ideas. ‘Obviously there are written characteristics that we need to draw on,’ he says. ‘But for me the biggest challenge is being able to interpret the character in a way that is still your own. If you don’t make it your own, it’s not going to be an honest performance.’
The Crucible will be paired with Christopher Bruce’s 2009 piece, Ten Poems, based on a recording of Dylan Thomas’ poetry read by Richard Burton. ‘Ten Poems is an existing piece already, so it was really about us getting a handle on the material,’ says Shoesmith. ‘Each character’s movement is very, very different. We had to try all of them before being cast.’
Scottish Ballet: The Crucible with Ten Poems, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Thu 25–Sat 27 Sep; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Fri 3 & Sat 4 Oct.