Edinburgh International Festival preview: Scottish Ballet’s The Crucible

The real trick of telling the story of The Crucible through dance is not to overexplain everything, choreographer Helen Pickett tells Kelly Apter

Scottish Ballet's The Crucible PIC: Nicola Selby
Scottish Ballet's The Crucible PIC: Nicola Selby

“No.” It’s one of the first words we hear as children – usually to stop us doing something we really want to, but know we shouldn’t. When American choreographer Helen Pickett heard the word during the rehearsal process for The Crucible, however – and she heard it often – she was happy to comply.

The person responsible for this seemingly negative but ultimately helpful instruction was British theatre director James Bonas. Brought in by Scottish Ballet to be Pickett’s artistic collaborator, the pair worked closely on the company’s adaptation of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, due to receive its world première at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“James had this uncanny way of being more outside of things, so it was like having an extremely skilled editor by your side,” says Pickett. “We’d be in the studio together and I’d be creating something and he’d lean over and whisper, ‘No.’ Or I’d be up and bouncing around and I’d hear a ‘No’ from behind me – so I’d turn to the dancers and say ‘OK, we’ve gotten another no, let me confer with James.’ It became a joke, but it was also an extremely wonderful and humbling experience.”

When I mention this to Bonas in a later interview, he laughs and says, “Well, I like to think I said yes as much as I said no.” Both he and Pickett speak of the genuine openness they felt during the collaboration, turning Miller’s beautifully crafted but complex tale of 17th century witch trials into a performance without words. But what was Bonas actually saying ‘no’ to?

“Sometimes in the storytelling, Helen would feel a need to put in a movement that might explain something and I would say no, you don’t need to – just trust that the audience will get it.” says Bonas. “Because if you engage an audience by giving them problems to solve, they sit forwards in their seats. But if you just present them with the facts, then they sit back.

“If the dancers on stage are really alive and present, then we will absolutely know who that person is, what they want and where they’re going – that’s what good acting is. For us to understand a character, the dancer has to inhabit the part fully, rather than feeling a need to show it. So I’d often say to Helen ‘what you’re doing is great, but you don’t need to signpost it – we’ll get it’.”

Pickett’s relationship with The Crucible started long before Bonas arrived on the scene. Back in 2013, Scottish Ballet’s artistic director, Christopher Hampson commissioned her to create a 45-minute version for an autumn double-bill. It was a work ripe with drama but squeezed into a small framework, or – to quote Hampson, when he invited Pickett back five years later – “There’s a full-length ballet just bursting to get out of the confines of 45 minutes.”

To say Pickett was thrilled at the opportunity to revisit and expand the piece is an understatement. Just one solo from the original show remains, along with the atmosphere of intensity Pickett created so effectively in 2013. Other than that, it’s a brand new full-length work with a brand new score. Pickett’s immersion in Miller’s play some years earlier, however, stood her in good stead.

“I did a whole lot of research in 2013,” recalls Pickett. “I went to Massachusetts and stood on the site in Danvers, formerly Salem, where the hangings took place, and looked at the architecture there. I’m very tactile, so to be in those physical places was important as far as feeling the physicality of the wood and seeing the headstones in the cemetery.”

Arriving back in Glasgow in 2018, to “work from the ground up,” Pickett spent two weeks in the studio with dancers generating movement before Bonas arrived.

“I told James I needed time before he came in, because the way I work is to get ideas out very quickly and not edit,” says Pickett. “Because if you edit as you go, the artistic expression hasn’t even had a chance to come out.

“Miller’s play is a behemoth of a piece but the basis is quite subtle – you have superstition, ignorance, depravity, courage, love, kindness, sacrifice, loyalty – all the facets of what human beings can do, at both ends of the scale. So James came in and honed that.”

Setting his tale in a village consumed by fear and accusation, Miller used the 17th century witch trials as an allegory for the political climate in which he was writing: an America gripped by McCarthyism. But written over 60 years ago about an event that took place over 300 years ago, The Crucible could easily be viewed purely period piece whose importance lies completely in the past. What does Bonas think it has to say about life in 2019?

“You could have asked me that in the 1960s and I’d have found a parallel, whether it was the Vietnam war or something else,” he says. “Because one of the strengths of Miller’s play is that it’s always going to feel like it resonates with anything to do with divisiveness, power, fear of the other and ideas about what the truth is.

“But I do think just at the minute, in the current political climate both globally and nationally, it’s so relevant. Which is one of the things I like about the show’s design – the costumes are period because the story doesn’t need to be yanked into the present day, as the things it speaks to are so present.”

Pickett and Bonas clearly worked well together, and enjoyed the process – but what about the people they were creating the piece on? Scottish Ballet dancer Nicholas Shoesmith, who plays John Proctor in the ballet, found the two-headed approach enormously helpful.

“It was fantastic, I thought it worked really well,” he says. “It was a very rigorous period of time when we were creating it with Helen, because she likes to see it performed full-out from the early stages of rehearsal, to build trust that we’re able to do it and go through that emotional journey. But although it was challenging, it was also great fun and it really did produce great results in the end.

“So Helen had her ideas for how it was all going to be laid out and set, and then James came in and filled in the blanks. Filling in the scenes where it wasn’t going to be so dancey, moments that needed stillness and just very simple acting and clear voicing of the text.”

Those moments of stillness Shoesmith speaks of are crucial in building the tension that underpins both Miller’s play and Pickett’s adaptation. Creating a perpetual desire in the audience to find out what happens next has been a task for all concerned, from creative team to performers.

“It’s about anticipation,” says Pickett. “This is an extremely dramatic play, so before I went into it again I was keenly aware of the show’s heartbeat, the highs and lows you have to create in the theatre to keep people wanting to sit through the story you’re building. Because it’s not a given, it’s an honour to tell a story and have people agree to come in and be a part of that.”

The Crucible, Edinburgh Playhouse, 3-5 August, 0131-473 2000/www.eif.co.uk