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A girl's love for a married man gone bad saw evil consume Salem in 1692, but Scottish Ballet makes The Crucible at Eden Court edge-of-the-seat stuff for our times

By Margaret Chrystall

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Scottish Ballet: The Crucible

Eden Court, Inverness

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WHEN it comes to worries about how you can tell a story like The Crucible without words, I've had to eat mine.

Choreographer Helen Pickett's full-length production for Scottish Ballet conveys all the fear, paranoia, hysteria and evil that gave Arthur Miller's original play about the 1692 Salem witch trials in America its sense of menace and power.

At Eden Court on Wednesday the drama became edge-of-the-seat stuff, as Helen Pickett's production ran the story back from the play's beginning point to start the action a little earlier, when servant Abigail worked for John and Elizabeth Proctor.

Danced in front of us was the loving relationship between the Proctors, disrupted by the attraction that built between Abigail (Kayla-Maree Tarantolo) and John (Andrew Peasgood) in fluid, abandoned moves that led to their urgent lovemaking on the floor, witnessed in horror by exhausted new mother Elizabeth Proctor (Grace Paulley).

Abigail is fired. And through a raw, beautifully-conceived duet we witness the painful transformation of Elizabeth's anger and sense of betrayal to her forgiveness of her straying husband. The two dancers excelled at allowing us to witness the change from edgy, awkward staccato moves on Elizabeth's part to the evolution of her feelings towards forgiveness, signalled in their emerging, tender, classically-beautiful ballet holds and lifts. In the after show talk – always worth staying on for as you discover so much when the dancers come out to answer questions – Andrew Peasgood revealed we had seen his first performance in the role of John Proctor. that night. Even so, he excelled at the two different kinds of love he was asked to convey in his partnerships with both women, and acted as a foil battling for goodness throughout the ballet to the damaging evil Kayla-Maree Tarantolo ignites as the troubled Abigail.

The production's first hint that all is not well in the claustrophobic Salem community came before the curtain even opened on the show. A soundscape helped us tune into the place as everyday sounds – a dog barking, a female voice singing, a slightly sinister panting breath mixed with less identifiable fragments were heard before finally the sound of fluttering wings came, as if something unsettling were landing on the Proctors' house and the village itself.

The Crucible with dancers - Constance Devernay (as Abigail), Araminta Wraith (as Elizabeth Proctor), Nicholas Shoesmith (as John Proctor), Christopher Harrison (Danforth), Cira Robinson (as Tituba), Thomas Edwards (as Reverend Parris), Bruno Micchiardi (as Reverend Hale), and the company. Picture: Jane Hobson.
The Crucible with dancers - Constance Devernay (as Abigail), Araminta Wraith (as Elizabeth Proctor), Nicholas Shoesmith (as John Proctor), Christopher Harrison (Danforth), Cira Robinson (as Tituba), Thomas Edwards (as Reverend Parris), Bruno Micchiardi (as Reverend Hale), and the company. Picture: Jane Hobson.

A key, giant piece of scenery that swivelled to suggest an attic roof, a bright window or a prison wall, brought a lowering, sinister quality to the starkly-furnished stage set designed by Emma Kingsbury and David Finn.

Shadows were vividly used – as when Abigail and her young friends play with puppets in the attic.

And a sense of uneasiness in that scene was ramped up to blossom into an atmosphere of full-blown evil creating goosebumps and the hair rising on your arms in the ballet's pivotal scene in the forest. The girls throw off their clothes with slave Tituba and dance in a jerky, abandoned way as if possessed with ring leader Abigail leading them astray with her own malicious desire to curse Elizabeth Proctor.

But when the minister discovers the girls dancing there, his daughter Betty collapses and he takes her to his meeting house, where the first paranoid accusations of witchcraft are unleashed on the community – and the witchfinder Hale arrives.

With no words to clarify, there are lots of clues given in the movement itself that tell the story and tap into the emotions and thoughts we need to understand.

The threatening dance of the all-controlling religious judges is almost as bold and free as the girls’ possessed dance in the woods. The men in black moved across the stage in big circular moves, almost threatening strides forward, then a quick step back, before striding on again as if taking control of the very space in the courtroom.

In contrast, in the court, Abigail and her accusing friends betrayed their emotional tension in the constant tremble of the tiny bourrée steps they took, up on their pointe shoes. They also gave voice to the hysteria in the court with their unison, piercing screams. It's unusual enough to hear a dancer make a sound, let alone a scream, so it made the sound seem super-shocking.

Like every element of the creative package, the music played an important role in making the storytelling as transparent as possible. Composer Peter Salem’s music embraces a range of music worlds which transported the audience’s emotions too.

The pure psalm-like sound of a young female singing a short song “Touch thou my lips…” captured the mood of innocent lust that introduced Abigail and John Proctor's steamy passion. But that music totally contrasted with the girls’ wild dancing in the woods and its soundtrack, an epic juddering dance track that used accelerating electronic beats, synths and chimes to bring a sense of danger.

The Crucible is the first of the five new ballets Scottish Ballet has vowed to commission and stage over five years to mark its 50th anniversary. Ambitious, powerful and a creatively-challenging dance incarnation of an iconic story, The Crucible is an impressive start that makes you hungry to see the other four.

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