Scottish Ballet set for Dylan Thomas production

Helen Pickett works with Scottish Ballet dancers for her world premiere, The Crucible. Picture: Scottish Ballet
Helen Pickett works with Scottish Ballet dancers for her world premiere, The Crucible. Picture: Scottish Ballet
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IT ALL began with Richard Burton’s face. Standing in his local record shop in Somerset, choreographer Christopher Bruce saw a CD sitting on the counter.

The Welshman’s piercing gaze caught his eye on the cover of the 1954 album Richard Burton Reads Dylan Thomas, a collection of poems recorded a year after the poet’s death.

“I was just so moved to see his picture,” says Bruce. “I had always loved watching him, even in films that weren’t that good. He was such a wonderful actor.”

Bruce was already familiar with the recording, but hearing it again he immediately saw its potential for dance. The combination of Thomas’s hugely evocative words and Burton’s powerful voice rendered music entirely unnecessary – the poetry was lyrical enough to carry his choreography along.

“What struck me was the wonderful rhythm,” he recalls. “And my first thought was that I would make a fairly abstract dance. But as I began to work on the material, and listen to the poems over and over again, I couldn’t help but be moved and react to the meaning of the poetry itself.”

Watching Scottish Ballet rehearse the piece in their Glasgow studios, it’s impossible to disagree. Within a few seconds of Burton’s dulcet tones filling the room, and the dancers’ bodies responding to the flow of his voice, any desire for a musical score disappears. Key words have been assigned a particular move to give them extra resonance, but mostly Bruce just captures the feeling – not only of Thomas’s poetry, but Burton’s delivery.

Ten Poems was originally created by Bruce in 2009 for Ballet Kiel in Germany, and he was understandably nervous about how an audience for whom English is not their first language would respond.

“Even for an English speaking person, these poems are not always easy to comprehend,” says Bruce. “There are allusions that you almost have to be a scholar to really appreciate, and you also need to hear them again and again. But for a German-speaking person it’s even more difficult, so I had to try harder to make sure the choreography could be read.”

Bruce’s fears were unfounded, and the piece was a great success. Audience members he spoke to afterwards confirmed that while they might not have grasped every word of the poetry, the intention was clear.

“They told me they understood the meaning of the poems from the quality of Burton’s voice, but also from the images and nature of the choreography,” says Bruce. “I thought I must have done something right.”

As one of Britain’s most popular choreographers, Bruce regularly gets “something right”, not just for audiences but for those performing his work. Even in rehearsal, it’s clear that the poems have found their way beneath the dancers’ skin.

“He’s such a clever guy,” says dancer Andrew Peasgood, whose portrayal of the Poet in Ten Poems perfectly captures the rhythm and flow of the text. “His knowledge of the poetry is just so vast, and he can describe the emotion in the piece in a second – he doesn’t have to give a lecture. He’s also been very open to adapting and changing things.”

Peasgood is also enthusiastic about Helen Pickett’s new adaptation of The Crucible, which completes Scottish Ballet’s autumn double-bill.

Based on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, which in turn was inspired by the 17th century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, the piece is ripe with history and human emotions. All of which has to be understood and absorbed by the dancers, if they are to convey it to an audience.

“The choreographers sharing their knowledge with us is so important,” says Peasgood. “Especially with The Crucible, where we’re telling quite a complicated story. But because of the amount of research Helen has done, a movement isn’t just a movement – it has an intention. Which makes more sense to the audience and helps us put the story across in a far more powerful way.”

For Pickett, that has meant encouraging the dancers to put themselves in the shoes of those Salem residents. No mean feat, when the subject matter is so alien to 21st century life. But, as the American choreographer points out, the feelings are not.

“I said to them, ‘I know you can’t equate this to anything in your lives, thank goodness – but you have to find something in your imagination,’” says Pickett. “‘We need to find a way to show that you’re horrified by this injustice, you wouldn’t just stand and watch.’ So I asked them to show me how they would react to something horrible – and we might have to scale that back, but at least I know they’re coming from an honest place.”

Miller’s play pulls no punches when it comes to human frailties. Neighbours betray neighbours, spouses are unfaithful and the desire to save oneself at the cost of others runs deep. Pickett was reminded of the play by Scottish Ballet’s artistic director, Christopher Hampson last summer, when Pickett was in Glasgow working on the company’s Dance Odysseys programme.

“We went for a drive in the Highlands,” Pickett recalls, “and Chris said, ‘Have you ever thought of The Crucible – I think that might be an interesting play for you.’ So I went back home and re-read it. A few months later, Chris offered me a commission and said, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ I said, ‘Yeah, The Crucible!’”

A dancer with William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt for over a decade, Pickett also spent a number of years acting with New York theatre company, The Wooster Group. Add to that her highly classical training at San Francisco Ballet School, and you can appreciate how Pickett walked into the Scottish Ballet studios armed with a barrel-load of skills to impart.

Hearing her enthuse about The Crucible and her research trip to Salem, it’s easy to see why the dancers respond to Pickett so well.

“I started to see that it’s really a play about all the facets of a human being,’ she says. “It’s obsession, insanity, hysteria, rage, deep injustice, redemption, social comment – it’s humans at their best and their worst. And I thought, that’s a ballet.”

Pickett has had a copy of the play with her at all times during rehearsals, regularly referring to words and stage directions. But she is well aware that those buying a ticket for Scottish Ballet this autumn may have little or no knowledge of it. So, like Bruce, she’s made sure her choreography does the talking.

“I can’t assume people have read this play,” she says, “that would be a big mistake. We’ve got to tell the story.”

Twitter: @KellyApter

• Scottish Ballet: The Crucible with Ten Poems, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Thursday to Saturday; Eden Court, Inverness, 30 September to 1 October; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 3-4 October; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 7-8 October