(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Spera.)
The women wear long skirts with aprons and bonnets, covered head to toe. Their gesticulations fluctuate between jagged containment and distressed abandon. Their clothing betrays hardship: Sweat stains discolor the dirt-soiled, worn fabric.
This is ballet master and choreographer Nick Kepley’s “Season of Innocence,” a retelling of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible.” Set on Ballet Austin II (Ballet Austin’s apprentice program and second company), Kepley’s 45-minute piece brims with accusation, judgment and agony — in all the best ways possible.
Even for those unfamiliar with “The Crucible” — that staple of high school English classes that centers on allegations of witchcraft in the late 17th century Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts — Kepley’s “Season of Innocence” leaves a powerful lasting impression.
His choreography for seven women (Salem villagers) and two men (a husband and a judge) is so different from the type of dance ballet companies typically do that it’s impossible to forget. Banished are ballet’s pointe shoes; the women dance barefoot. Every ounce of fluidity is gone; the Puritans’ angular bodies are filled with tension, hesitation and, ultimately, aggression.
Refreshingly devoid of repetition, the choreography allows for ample character development. Bailey Anglin, who played the accuser who incites the witch-hunt hysteria, was a sight to see. Her conniving facial expressions, stiff gait and twisted postures (which included literal finger pointing) pulled us into her mania. Rosie Grady Sayvetz appropriately aged herself about 30 years purely through movement for the role of the wife to Brian Heil’s husband; her hunched shoulders gave her a distinctly worn appearance.
What was clear was the dancers wholly embraced Kepley’s steely, barbed vision of 17th century Puritan life with attack to great effect.
The scenic design consisted solely of wooden chairs and benches that the dancers dragged around into different configurations. They often took a seat to gaze upon their peers, casting silent judgment.
In this regard, Kepley’s interpretation of a play from the 1950s about life in the 1690s proved surprisingly relevant to 2015: The themes of discrimination and exclusion in both Miller’s “The Crucible” and Kepley’s “Season of Innocence” are, indeed, timeless.
Then there was Austin-based composer Steve Parker’s music, commissioned specially for the ballet. The abstract soundtrack for the most part lacked any countable rhythm. It played with themes of the sacred (church bells) and the secular, and the guttural noise of inhalations and exhalations bookended the score.
I certainly hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Kepley’s choreography. He brings dynamism to Ballet Austin II both in terms of story concept and movement vocabulary that Austin should see more of.