The Crucible

Playhouse, Edinburgh

Four stars

Run ended

Touring until October 18

Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Five stars

Run ended

Playing Southbank Centre, London,

October 11

The Chosen

Dancebase, Edinburgh

Three stars

Run ended

Touring until September 28


Playing at the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) ahead of a Scottish national tour, Scottish Ballet’s latest show, The Crucible, is an audacious dance adaptation of Arthur Miller’s great, allegorical witch hunt drama. Miller’s opus reimagines the fateful events in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century, in which the Puritan authorities killed 20 people.

Miller’s play (which was first staged in 1953) was a brave and unambiguous attack on McCarthyism (the anti-communist “witch hunt” being conducted at the time by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee); which, given the current incumbent of the White House, makes the visit of Scottish Ballet’s show to Washington DC next spring a very interesting prospect.

The first challenge for any ballet based upon a well known narrative is to capture, in visual terms, the atmosphere of the piece. Between them, choreographer Helen Pickett, set and costume designer Emma Kingsbury and set and lighting designer David Finn succeed brilliantly in evoking the play’s sense of moral panic and theocratic power.

From the outset, in which we see the fateful discovery of girls dancing in the forest at night, the piece achieves a tremendous sense of contrast. The wild, chaotic movements of the terrified children are juxtaposed memorably with the regimented dance of a clergy that is trying, desperately, to project an image of order.

All of this is enhanced excellently by the hyper-realistic costumes and impressively attuned lighting. The original musical score (by, I kid you not, Peter Salem) is a fascinatingly diverse offering, including electronic, jazzy music (appropriate in its tumultuousness) for the opening forest scene, and, elsewhere, grand, sweeping, filmic compositions that evoke the momentousness of Miller’s story.

As so often with dance interpretations of complex narratives, there are points at which Pickett’s piece struggles to convey the details of the tale; ticket holders would be well-advised to, at least, familiarise themselves with a synopsis of Miller’s play before attending a performance. That said, there is no question that this beautifully conceived, superbly danced show is an absolute success.

If Scottish Ballet’s new work wowed EIF audiences, Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer by young, Northern Ireland-based choreographer and dancer Oona Doherty, was arguably the dance highlight of last month’s Edinburgh Festivals (be it the EIF or the Fringe). The show’s soundtrack interweaves audio fragments of working-class Belfast (moments of violence, jeering mockery, memories of terror, expressions of tenderness and solidarity) with heart-breakingly beautiful, contemplative choral music.

The movement itself is, likewise, a stunning, unlikely combination of grace and brokenness. Doherty, who dances parts I and IV of this four-part choreography, embodies the inevitable, tortoiseshell toughness of working-class Belfast (be it Catholic, Protestant or, indeed, neither of the two).

Yet her remarkable performance is also vulnerable, sensitive and elegant. It humanises its subjects, without ever patronising them or romanticising the harsh material, political and historical circumstances in which they find themselves.

In an unforgettable section, we see two large, heavy-set men, the very image of hard-drinking, gender-certain, working-class masculinity. Stripped to the waist, they come together in an extraordinary combination of sumo wrestling and an almost balletic, skin-on-skin pas de deux.

The piece is performed on a set constructed, seemingly, of metal bars (as if in a modern wall of partition or a prison fortress). As dancers run around the stage, the set appears to move with them (the bars are spaced unequally to create optical effects similar to those of the paintings of Bridget Riley).

Clever, powerful and political (but never polemical), Hard to Be Soft is an absolutely unique and utterly undeniable work. Rightly lauded in Edinburgh, it cries out to be performed in Glasgow, a city which (for better and worse) has so much in common with Belfast.

Most dance productions would suffer by being compared with Doherty’s exceptional piece. The Chosen, Kally Lloyd-Jones’s latest work for Glasgow-based Company Chordelia, certainly seems a little flimsy by comparison.

Self-defined as a piece “about dying and embracing the art of living”, it is painting on the broadest, some might say the most ill-defined, of canvases. A company of six young dancers, three female, three male, come to us (and, at the end, go from us) from a metaphorical shore (which is evoked in sound).

In between, we see them in various human conditions, from collective and individual joy, to anxiety, precariousness, self-assuredness, desperate co-dependence, terrible distress and absolute equanimity. At its best, the work does succeed in evoking emotional states through movement.

In its weaker moments, however, it reduces the dancers to second-rate mime artists. The invocation of the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem feels like a failed attempt by Lloyd-Jones’s to give her choreography an emotional gravitas that it hasn’t managed to achieve on its own terms.

For tour dates for The Crucible, visit:

For tour dates for The Chosen, visit: