by Margaret Chrystall
AMERICAN choreographer Helen Pickett mashes up cutting-edge electro sounds and Hitchcock movie soundtracks in her Crucible – a dance revamp of the classic American play of evil and paranoia for Scottish Ballet.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was written as the McCarthy "Witch Trials" – targeting communists in 50s America – was at its height.
It tells the story of early American settlers from England in 17th century Salem, Massachussetts, torn apart by accusations of witchcraft that led to a hanging.
But making the play into a ballet first came up on a Highland road trip of lochs last year.
Scottish Ballet’s artistic director Christopher Hampson discussed the idea with Helen after Scottish Ballet presented two of her pieces – Trace and The Room – at the Edinburgh Festival.
"Christopher just asked me if I had ever thought of The Crucible and I said I thought it would be cool then we parted ways.
"But he had planted the seed!" she laughed.
So when Christopher got in touch later in the year, the idea had gelled and Helen was keen to do it.
The play is wordy with many twists and turns and Helen took a long hard look at the issues surrounding the story as well as the play itself.
Helen explained: "For most ninth graders in America the play is required reading.
"Written in 1953 during the McCarthy era, the original events were a huge defining moment in American history. For 15-year-olds it’s a subject, with all the intrigue, that drags them in."
Helen has visited the Massachussetts homestead of Rebecca Nurse – one of the women accused of witchcraft.
"I’ve also looked at the latest research. So now one of the characters Tituba, the African-Caribbean servant, is now thought to have been in real life a Native American. They also think that Abagail – who accused so many of witchcraft – was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing Native Americans slaughter her parents. So you have a severely unbalanced girl and ringleader who says to the others ‘Let’s go dance in the forest’ and sets her sights on married John Proctor."
Abagail is the one who starts flinging around accusations of witchcraft.
"But we seem not to learn through history the havoc that this kind of finger-pointing can wreak," said Helen.
Her ballet centres on two pivotal moments in the story – and dance is one.
"I grappled with it in the beginning and I couldn’t find my way in. I talked to my parents who are both actors.
"But then I remembered a scene from the film Sunset Boulevard with William Holden. At the start you see him lying dead in a swimming pool – the whole film is backstory.
"So since the words from The Crucible can’t be there, I have to show the events and the repercussions of what comes after."
The two crucial moments Helen picked out are the affair between Abagail and John Proctor and the dancing in the forest – or rave in the ballet – that Helen makes of the play’s scene of the girls dancing in the forest.
"Those are the two juggernaut moments," said Helen.
"I’ve used film music before because it’s made to tell stories. Though my years as a choreographer, I’ve really hooked into that.
"My main goal is to tell a story, and usually music is my anchor.
"I’d read the play umpteen times. I’d heard and ‘banked’ some of the music from Hitchcock films earleier and always knew I wanted to use it at some point, but realised that with this piece ‘Wow, it could work!’.
"I took lesser-known moments. There is a track from Rear Window, but I haven’t taken the most known tracks – on purpose. I didn’t want the association too clear and I also took from The Twilight Zone. But again, it’s more hazy memory music, as is the music from The Devil And Daniel Webster which isn’t a very well-known Hitchcock movie – it isn’t that kind of seminal dagger music of Psycho. But somewhere the music I’ve chosen is a memory."
As well as the music of Hitchcock’s chosen composer Bernard Herrmann, music also comes from two other movie soundtracks – Enemy At The Gates composed by Titanic and Avatar composer James Horner plus Passacaglia by Krzysztof Penderecki, used in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.
A track from UK electronic musician and producer Jon Hopkins soundtracks the rave.
"As a choreographer in general I did my masters degree on the idea that if we do not connect with the audience, we have lost the game anyhow.
Helen said: "I chose the music for the rave on purpose, I wanted something that was going to rip you out of what you thought was going to happen – and that other classical-sounding music.
"To say ‘This is different!’ even within the piece.
"So I really use dance."
Helen laughed: "I’m doing a play with dance about a world where dance was absolutely forbidden."
Scottish Ballet’s The Crucible With Ten Poems is at Eden Court on Tuesday and Wednesday.