Inspired by the infamous witch trials, Ballet Des Moines’ ‘Salem’ stages a raging fire of fear

Ballet Des Moines presents: 'Salem'

Stoner Theater, Des Moines -- Opens Oct. 20, $40.50-50.50

Courtesy of Ballet Des Moines

Ballet Des Moines pulls from a moment in history this fall to show that different doesn’t mean dangerous. Taking a history lesson from the Salem witch trials, choreographer and Ballet Des Moines Artistic Director Tom Mattingly was certain that people need to be reminded to not judge a book by its cover.

“I thought it was so interesting that the fear of demonic possession and witchcraft was being really pushed by the church, ‘we have to resist all of this evil,’” Mattingly said. “Whereas, they were some of the biggest impacts in creating the evil within the community because of how it spread.”

Salem, the first offering in the company’s 2022-23 season, encourages audiences to confront these fears and judgments. The new work is set to compositions by Igor Stravinsky (Rite of Spring) and Evan Ziporyn (Qi).

The Salem witch trials were held 1692-1693 in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), Massachusetts. More than 200 people were accused of witchcraft; 30 were found guilty and 19 were executed. The local justice system was overwhelmed with trials, which pushed the governor at that time to order a special court.

Fears of witchcraft peaked in the American colonies after the British war with France there in 1689. Accusations in Salem Village originated from a group of young girls who, encouraged by superstitious adults, claimed to be under the influence of local witches, performing spasms, contortions and screaming.

“And there were things, like, all of a sudden, they would twist and writhe and say, ‘She’s pinching me, she’s pinching me!’ But you can’t prove that any of that is true,” Mattingly said. “And that spectral evidence was allowed in the court as evidence for so long until towards the very end of the trials, it was finally taken out.”

Some of those who were accused admitted guilt in hopes to save themselves, often throwing friends and family members under the bus as well.

“I think as soon as it became clear that if you are accused … you participate and you help to find the other witches, then you’re spared — that temptation just to keep your own life, I completely understand why so many of them then accused others,” Mattingly said.

But many of the accused, he said, began accusing those who were already exposed or already executed. Mattingly thinks this roundabout strategy made perfect sense.

“So many of the accused were trying to stop the madness by not accusing new people,” he said.

The Ballet Des Moines production will start in the middle of the history of the Salem trials, which will be portrayed with costumes evocative of the time (a modern-dress reimagining of harsh Puritan styles) and showcased through the villagers’ behaviors towards the unpopular, minority community of Salem. The characters include a Preacher, a Girl, the First and Second Accused and a personification of Fear.

“It starts, it’s a fire,” Mattingly said. “There’s these little sparks that then catch on to the tinder. Then enough of that happens, and there’s this whoosh to this raging fire. Then eventually, it takes so much time to stamp it out … And it took so long for people in power to step in and help.”

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Mattingly looks at the Salem witch trials to be an awful moment in time and doesn’t understand how something so monstrous could have happened.

“It’s sad and really disappointing that it didn’t get squashed immediately, that there weren’t people in higher positions of power to recognize that this is awful and wrong,” he said. “And there’s literally no proof that any of these accusations are true. Nothing demonstrative. And it’s like, why? Why did these people have to suffer? The entire community? It’s ridiculous. It makes me mad. It’s surprising that it was able to run so rampant.”

Courtesy of Ballet Des Moines

One historical figure included in the piece is Giles Corey. He was pressed to death after his wife was accused and put to death. Corey refused to enter a plea resulting in him demanding more weight as stones were stacked on his chest.

Mattingly learned about the history of Salem from Erin Wegleitner, a Salem descendant and assistant professor of theater arts at Drake University, and from Lisa West, a Drake English professor who is teaching the Salem witch trials. Mattingly also has done a lot of reading and listening to podcasts.

He believes Des Moines needs to experience the emotions around Salem because, although this tragedy occurred more than 300 years ago, the effects are recognizable.

“I think we see people today who get swept up by fear and panic and power, and horrible things come out of it if it’s not checked in some kind of a way,” Mattingly said.

He says it all comes down to people feeling the need to be 100 percent correct.

“I feel like there’s a lot of fear right now. And a lot of panic. And power is such a commodity,” Mattingly said. “And there’s so much power given to so few people, that there are so many other people that are just in survival mode, like the accused witches in Salem.”

Ballet Des Moines chose to stage Salem at Des Moines Performing Arts’ Stoner Theater because of the way its intimacy complements the show. Salem opens Oct. 20; tickets are available now.

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 006.