Arts & Culture

Civic Ballet of SLO casts a spell in 'The Crucible'

Several women, including Ann Putnam (Jackie Lee) and Bridget Bishop (Jennifer Niggle), are accused of witchcraft in the Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo production of "The Crucible."
Several women, including Ann Putnam (Jackie Lee) and Bridget Bishop (Jennifer Niggle), are accused of witchcraft in the Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo production of "The Crucible."

A white banner flaps above the stage, bearing the image of a black W in a red crossed-out circle.

Suddenly, the banner is whisked away to reveal rows of militaristic figures in black uniforms and caps, interspersed with girls in white blouses, red neckerchiefs and red-and-black plaid skirts. Their stances are stiff, their expressions stern.

That’s the iconic image at the center of the Civil Ballet of San Luis Obispo production “The Crucible,” playing this weekend in San Luis Obispo.

“It captures the frenzy and the paranoia of the time,” said company Artistic Director Drew Silvaggio, who directs “The Crucible.” “(And) it captures the style in which the show is presented.”

Silvaggio is restaging his original ballet, which premiered last spring, with new cast members and a new dance number.

“I just wanted more people to see it,” he said. “I wanted to give everybody another chance to take a gander at it.”

“The Crucible” takes its name and its inspiration from Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials held in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693. Like the play, Silvaggio’s ballet draws direct parallels between the frenzied atmosphere surrounding those earlier trials, which resulted in the execution of 20 people, and the anti-communist furor, led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, that swept the nation in the 1950s. “The overwhelming arc is this insanity and paranoia that took over this town,” Silvaggio said, describing his ballet as a broad interpretation of the story in dance.

In the Civic Ballet production, young Betty Parris (Molly Moore) falls sick after dancing with Abigail Williams (Dana Lossing), and Tituba (Faith Brown) in the forest. Her concerned father, Reverend Parris (Josh Ekblom), performs an exorcism.

Tituba later confesses that she bewitched Betty, and accuses several other women of being witches.

Paranoia and panic ensue as allegations fly. On one side are Betty and her friends; on the other, the wives, widows and outcasts of the community— including Elizabeth Proctor (Helen Dismoor), whose husband John (Ryan Beck) once had an affair with Abigail.

Silvaggio remembers seeing a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” during his freshman year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

“It was totally unexpected, totally fresh, totally new,” he recalled.

The experience stuck with him for years. Then, in May 2013, as he lounged on a beach in Thailand, he hit upon the idea of turning “The Crucible” into a new ballet specially crafted for his mostly-female company.

“I went back to my little bungalow and downloaded the e-book version,” Silvaggio said. “I read and I read and I thought, ‘This could really be done.’ ”

His ballet blends a timeless story of paranoia and persecution with modern choreography and a 20th-century pop and rock soundtrack that includes Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell On You,” Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” and Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning.” (Although some musical selections, such as Big Mama Thornton’s “Wade in the Water,” are more subtle, others are unapologetically on the nose.)

Visually, “The Crucible” features a basic palette of red, black and white.

Costume designer Rosemary Canfield dresses the accused women in grey, utilitarian shirt-dresses and head scarfs, and their young accusers in cream-colored vintage slips and Hitler Youth-inspired uniforms.

Sean True’s sets are minimalist with an industrial edge. In the forest scene, he evokes towering trees with shimmering lengths of fabric.

Silvaggio said he wanted “everything scaled down, bare.” “Nothing should be on stage that’s superfluous,” he explained.

“The Crucible” embellishes the action onstage with videos created by John Kert. Some clips recall the Red Scare directly, such as a government propaganda film instructing viewers on how to identify a communist, and footage of Hollywood players testifying at the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities hearings.

“There’s just not a lot of dance like this being created around here,” Silvaggio said. “It’s not classical ballet with point shoes and it’s not a kids’ show.”

“This is a performance for adults who want to see art,” he added.

“The Crucible”

7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly

$18 to $32

756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

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