A balletic 'Crucible' in a more modern age

Civic Ballet adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play is ­set in the 1950s

Special to The TribuneApril 3, 2014 

The Civic Ballet of SLO’s adaptation of "The Crucible" retains the essential characters and plot of the Arthur Miller play.


"The Crucible” is a brand-new ballet created by Drew Silvaggio, artistic director of the Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo. Adapted from Arthur Miller’s play of the same name about the Salem witch trials in 1692-93, Silvaggio explained that the production is a ballet in only one definition of the term.

“A ballet is a story told through dance,” he said. 

And although ballet is also defined as a style of dance, this one does not fit into the category of classical ballet.

“This is danced in bare feet, not ballet slippers, and the movement is aggressive; it’s contemporary dance.”

The story, too, has been updated and set in the 1950s. Although Miller’s play was set in the 1690s, he designed “The Crucible” in 1953 as an allegory for the anti-Communist hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. When I spoke to Miller in a telephone interview about 25 years ago, he called the hearings a modern “witch hunt.” Three years after he wrote “The Crucible,” he was called to testify at those hearings and was convicted of contempt because he refused to name people he had seen at a Communist writers’ meeting. He later won an appeal.

Silvaggio has blended the Salem witch hunt story told in Miller’s play into the 20th century. The story told in dance retains the playwright’s essential characters and plot, which involves adultery, suspicion and punishment, but in a different era. 

“I am referring to the McCarthy trials. It was a contemporary witch hunt that I thought would be more accessible to an audience today,” Silvaggio said. “Also, by updating it to the ’50s, it gave me a place to start as far as finding music. I knew I wanted to use video footage to help further the story. There is a lot more footage of the ’50s out there than Salem a couple of hundred years ago.” 

Film and video are used in different parts of the ballet, Silvaggio explained.

“In a couple of sections I use film clips to simply help put us in the ’50s, with icons of ’50s events, the typical ’50s lifestyle, and such. I also use it to parallel the McCarthy hearings with the witch trials, presenting video clips of the actual trials before moments of trial in ‘The Crucible.’ Other projections are used for special effects to help create the idea of paranoia and fear.”

The music has a few surprises. When Betty is found unresponsive in the forest, she dances with her father to the song, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” because she is supposedly bewitched. When the Rev. Parris comes to the conclusion that it is witchcraft that has gripped his community, he does a desperate dance to “Witchcraft,” by Frank Sinatra.

“Though ‘The Crucible’ is a drama, I was always taught that you can’t have drama without comedy,” Silvaggio explained. “You need to show the dynamic between them. I use the music choices in some sections purposely to make the audience chuckle a little bit. Maybe they know the song, but in this context of the ballet it takes on new meaning.” 

Silvaggio said that he is fitting witchcraft into the modern era “through a broad scope.”

“The idea of a witch hunt is something that has repeated itself throughout history. This ballet captures a moment of great frenzy and paranoia, the power struggle between the haves and the have-nots. I wanted to show how this ‘crucible’ created by some young ladies in the forest led to the unraveling of a community.”

The dance in the forest, as well as other pivotal moments in the play, have become dance sequences, the director explained.

“The thing about ‘The Crucible’ (play) is that the characters constantly refer to things and people that have happened — things they talk about but never show. As a choreographer, I saw this as an opportunity to maybe show these moments to people who know the play. I expanded them into full dance pieces that tell the story.”

With its woman-centered story, the play was ideal for the Civic Ballet company, which is currently all women. In the cast of 30 dancers, Silvaggio’s male dancers are guests Ryan Beck and Josh Ekblom, dancers with backgrounds in Los Angeles and New York,who now dance and teach on the Central Coast. Beck plays John Proctor, the play’s tragic hero, and Ekblom plays the Rev. Parris and “a whole bunch of other guys,” Silvaggio said.

The director said he is collaborating with photographer and video artist Barry Goyette on a film that will play near the end of the ballet.

“I will leave it at that, as it should be a surprise for the audience.” 


"The Crucible"
7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday 
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly 
$18 to $30
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

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