Ballet Tells a Haunting Tale

Kansas City Ballet tapped company dancer Elysa Hotchkiss for this publicity shot promoting its upcoming performance of “The Lottery,” based on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Photo by Kenny Johnson

Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” has haunted readers for almost seven decades. Its narrative is simple: In a fictional town, an annual rite is held in which one of the citizens is murdered — by stoning. The townspeople approach the lottery with a chilling nonchalance. Betraying one of their own — in this case, a wife and mother named Tessie Hutchinson — is merely something that must be done to maintain the social order.

The story ends as the woman is targeted and besieged:

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

When “The Lottery” was published in “The New Yorker” in 1948, readers were shocked. Some cancelled their subscriptions. Others demanded to know the location of the nonexistent community that Jackson (1916 – 1965) described.

The cautionary tale about the dangers of conformity, which has overshadowed Jackson’s other works of fiction, is the inspiration for a dance piece that Kansas City Ballet will perform this month at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Its inclusion in the program has taken on an unanticipated relevance. As the recent presidential election suggested, some Americans are nostalgic for an era in which conformity — rather than multiculturalism — was the norm.

Choreographer Val Caniparoli said that he has long been fascinated by “The Lottery.”

Jackson’s much-anthologized story “was very edgy for its time,” Caniparoli said. “People reacted very strongly to it.

“What was in her head, and why did she write it? I think that’s still a big question,” he said. “I also think that’s why the story is so intriguing still, to this day. It sticks with people.”

Caniparoli said that basing a ballet on “The Lottery” was a longtime goal. His version of the tale of ritual violence debuted five years ago in a Ballet West production. But for many years before that, he couldn’t figure out how to transform Jackson’s searingly memorable exploration of American darkness into a dance.

Val Caniparoli (Photo courtesy of Val Caniparoli)

Certainly, Caniparoli said, the premise was dramatic enough. The problem was deciding on the right music, which would be required to do two seemingly irreconcilable things: conjure a mood of pastoral tranquility while also subtly foreshadowing the fatal malevolence.

Caniparoli’s musical concerns were allayed when the Salt Lake City-based company Ballet West commissioned a score by Robert Moran.

“That’s what really pushed this forward,” the choreographer said, noting that the score captures the “innocence” of the small town but also the “underlying terror” of the stoning.

“It becomes ritualistic at the very end,” he said. “Very barbaric.”

“The Lottery” premiered in 2012 at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City. In a review, the “Deseret News” called the Ballet West production “a wild ride, bouncing among American optimism, Hitchcockian suspense and Stravinsky-like abandon.”

Much of the power of Jackson’s story lies in her language, which lends to the proceedings an everyday banality that renders the horrific conclusion all the more shocking. With reportorial detachment, she notes that “the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

In translating the story into dance language, Caniparoli said, he faced much the same challenge as he would with a work by Shakespeare.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” he said. But the meaning of a literary work can be expressed through movement in any number of ways.

“A look, sometimes, can tell you who a character is,” Caniparoli said. “Or gestures — how you hold your body. And I Iet the dancers give the characters’ backstories — who they are, who their children are, what their work is.”

Best known for her tales of the supernatural, Jackson has sparked renewed interest in recent years. “Let Me Tell You,” a collection of early work, was released in 2015. “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,” a biography by Ruth Franklin, was published last fall.

Jackson might have appreciated the fact that Caniparoli has come up with a twist that makes each performance of “The Lottery” an exercise in suspense: An onstage lottery, in which each of the dancers selects a paper slip, determines which of them is to portray the doomed villager.

Indeed, it was the twist that helped him secure the rights to the story from Jackson’s estate.

“They’ve said ‘no’ to people many times,” Caniparoli said. “What got me in the door is my rendition of the ending — just the thought of doing it that way.”

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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