***Disclosure: The director of Eight Abigails, Kaitlin McCarthy, is a staff member of SeattleDances. Kaitlin was not the editor assigned to this review and the opinions presented are entirely that of the writer***
Coinciding fortuitously with ACT Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, choreographer Kaitlin McCarthy’s Eight Abigails wove the emblematic tale about mass hysteria into an evening length movement study on the work’s antagonist. With use of physical imagery and vocalization alongside Marnie Cumings’ complex lighting design and live music composition by Michael Hamm, McCarthy’s latest was dark, psychological, and searingly relevant, offering an alternate throughline in which the clandestine subconscious of Miller’s original antihero was boundless and illuminated.
For those unfamiliar with Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible hones in on the historic events surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692, dramatizing public ramifications after several Salem Village girls are caught performing what appears to be a satanic ritual which has coincided suspiciously with the ill-falling of two township youngsters. Accused of “trafficking with the devil,” Abigail comes to her own defense by way of self-induced fits of hysteria on trial and subsequent accusations of witchcraft against fellow community members. After months of hysteric denunciations and imputations of blame, the play culminates in the unjustified hanging of farmer John Proctor who has been forced to choose between an admission of witchcraft or adultery, redemption or guilt.
Arthur Miller’s work serves as a public advisory against the dangers of isolationism, McCarthyism, and theocracy; so too was Kaitlin McCarthy’s work a seeming cautionary tale envisioning the hazardousness of oppression, binary structures, and psychosomatic repression. But unlike Miller, who left the character Abigail enigmatic (as was pointed out in Eight Abigails’ program notes), McCarthy’s work emboldened her with psychological three-dimensionality, using eight dancers to simultaneously reimagine her with multifaceted humanness.
If the choreographic nature of Eight Abigails were to be unfairly condensed into a single phrase, it might be: a constant interplay between emotive dualities—defensiveness, suspicion, cruelty, empathy, secrecy, love, and animosity to name a few. Contrasting empathetic touch with harsh, physical partnering and the chaos of herd mentality with nurturing ritualism, performers ran from brightening lights and screamed desperately as they illuminated and dimmed. They morphed into animalistic creatures, chased one another on hands and feet, enacted sexual pleasure, and shook with cold, primping, pursing their lips, and baring their teeth with primal vanity—all the while transitioning seamlessly in and out of structured movement sequences. They danced, giggled like schoolgirls, smacked their lips, and kissed the air; feral and authentically bizzare, McCarthy’s dancers became the very image of Abigail and her friends on the outskirts of Salem Village—maenads of the seventeenth century, enveloped in their Dionysian frenzy, and drunk with sexual freedom.
The emotive morphology of McCarthy’s work was made effective not just contextually or by the movement which led up to it, but by the work’s research methodology into psychosomatic induction, executed in performance. McCarthy has articulated that part of the process of her work involved “trying to induce the psychosomatic states of mass hysteria” relevant to the story. This clearly paid off. Dancers Hannah Rae, Jenny Peterson, Danica Bito, Alexandra Spencer, Erin Johnson, Tayler Tucker, Anna Krupp, and Britt Karhoff appeared—for the most part—to be existing authentically within the loose parameters of a world created for them (as opposed to imagining that world theoretically and “putting it on”). When they screamed, there was little question that it was out of genuine fear; when they giggled, out of humor; scanned the audience suspiciously, out of authentic distrust. If critiqued for nothing more, Eight Abigails was beautiful for its genuineness, a quality not easily choreographed, and far from easily performed.
And yet that very genuineness, that full body of emotional experiences so beautifully danced by the performers, was not a reality for Abigail Williams… which seemed an anecdotal moral for McCarthy’s dance: that this oppression of a natural emotional ride is actually the major tragedy of Miller’s play—and perhaps even a catalyst for the outcome. It suggested that repression of the girl self is actually the most dangerous act of all, that in Salem’s seventeenth century patriarchy, female-embodied movement was not the true impetus for communal collapse, but the patriarchy itself.
Thus, while Miller’s work illustrated a theocratic male hierarchy at its most fragile, McCarthy illuminated womanhood at its most feared and, coincidentally, it’s most powerful: vulnerable, sensually embodied, carnal, and unrestrained. Qualities that always been and always will be the greatest threat to theocracy and patriarchy–for by nature, they threaten those very ideological foundations which allow such structures to persist.
In this way, Eight Abigails was an arguable commentary on the exigent necessity of embracing an “alternate reality” – not just for the eight abigails, but for ourselves as a nation in which political demagoguery and public finger-pointing have become social norm. Where the qualitative strengths that so often define ‘womanhood’ have been reduced to “hormonal” or “irrational” or “over-sensitive” or “weak.” Where we are all Abigails acting simultaneously out of power as individuals and out of fallibility as humans, seeking boundless expression and caught up in our own best interests, inherently defiant of those hegemonic powers which restrict us. Embedded in the pagan ritualism of a seventeenth century theocracy and a contemporary environment rooted in an archaically analogous conflict with oppression, fear, and accusation, Eight Abigails served as a much needed reminder of what it means to be a dancer, what it can mean to be a woman, and it should mean to be human.
Kaitlin McCarthy’s evening length dance work Eight Abigails ran November 10-12, 2017 at Velocity Dance Center’s Founders Theater. For more information on Kaitlin, click here. For continued reading as recommended in the Eight Abigails program, review the following list:
“Who is it that Afflicts You?” By Rachel of Autostraddle.
“Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba, the Star Witness of the Salem Witch Trials” by Stacy Schiff.
“Feral Theory” by Kelly Struthers Montford and Chloe Taylor.
“The Trauma of Facing Deportation” by Rachel Aviv.