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Ballet Des Moines – Salem

An interview with Ballet Des Moines' Tom Mattingly and Jami Milne about their new ballet Salem, which tells an original story based upon the Salem Witch Trials and, using the medium of dance, shares a powerful message about how fear can turn us against each other.Links:Salem – Ballet Des MoinesTicketsSupport the show

Show Notes:

We interview Ballet Des Moines artistic director Tom Mattingly and creative director Jami Milne about their new ballet, Salem, which will be performed October 20-22 and October 27-29, 2022 at Stoner Studio Theatre in Des Moines, IA. The ballet tells an original story, based upon the Salem Witch Trials, with attention to historical details.


Ballet Des Moines


Josh Hutchinson: [00:00:00] Ballet Des Moines has created a ballet based on the Salem Witch trials. The ballet, titled Salem, Premieres October 20th.
Sarah Jack: And now we speak with Ballet Des Moines, artistic director Tom Mattingly and creative director Jami Milne.
Josh Hutchinson: We appreciate you taking this time to talk to us.
Tom Mattingly: Of course. I appreciate the invite.
Josh Hutchinson: When and where is the ballet being performed, and how can people purchase tickets?
Tom Mattingly: Salem will be performed at the Stoner Studio Theater in downtown Des Moines, October 20th through the 29th.
Tickets can be purchased at
Josh Hutchinson: Thank you.
Sarah Jack: Tell us about how you were inspired and how you gained your understanding of the Salem Witch Trials.
Tom Mattingly: I think that the Salem Witch Trials has always been a captivating subject. When you learn about it in school, you get a very condensed version that doesn't really go into detail. And during the pandemic, I found an [00:01:00] incredible podcast that went deep into detail. It was probably, 12 or 14 episodes long. So many things that I had no idea really transpired. As a kid, I always thought that the witches were burned at the stake. And so it was interesting to hear that didn't really happen in the U. S.. I didn't know that there had been men that had been accused and executed for practicing witchcraft or being possessed by a demon.
I have always loved ballet as a vehicle for storytelling, and I think that there can be so much left to interpretation with the subject of witchcraft and that interpretation lends itself really well to ballet. So what I've done with Salem is I've taken inspiration from the historical events to create a fictional story, one that could have happened during the time, but isn't necessary a recreation [00:02:00] of actual events.
Sarah Jack: And what is it that you're saying through the fiction story that you're telling?
Tom Mattingly: Fear itself is very powerful. And when we are led by fear rather than reason, there are horrific consequences.
Sarah Jack: One of your quotes in the article that I read said that different doesn't mean dangerous. People need to be reminded not to judge a book by its cover. And it sounds like you are capturing that with this story. Is there anything else you want to expound on?
Tom Mattingly: With this story, there is one particular woman in the cast who is accused, and she and her husband have relocated to Salem from another colony that had been attacked by the native tribes.
So they were essentially a poor family seeking refuge, and because they dressed slightly differently than the townspeople in Salem, [00:03:00] because they were lower on the social and economic ladder, they became targets for accusation and violence.
Sarah Jack: One of the characters that I read about was fear personified. What kind of hint can you give us or insight into the fear personified?
Tom Mattingly: The character of Fear is very important to this ballet. Fear is played by one of the male dancers in our company, and he is not a townsperson of Salem, but he is a constant presence and influence on the entire cast, so he really interacts a lot with The Girl. The Girl is the one who is making the accusations of witchcraft. She feels fearful from the pressures of the people around her, and especially her father, The Preacher, to continue accusing and testifying against the people of Salem.
Josh Hutchinson: Why choose to make this particular ballet?
Tom Mattingly: One of the main reasons I chose the witch trials [00:04:00] for a ballet is because I knew it was something that would capture people's attention. Anytime that I have mentioned this ballet to people, they get really excited. Their posture straightens up, and they become very focused on what it is that I'm saying.
I knew that the subject had great potential to reach audiences, and that's really what we're doing right now with Ballet Des Moines. We're very much a young company in its audience building phase, and having something like this that has such appeal, I think is really helpful to us as an organization, and it's perfect for an October performance date.
It gives you that richy spooky vibes without being a Dracula. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm so tired of vampires. I would much rather see something about witches.
Sarah Jack: One of the things that I love about this historical topic and then having the art to express it is you are, as you said, able to fictionalize a little bit, [00:05:00] interpret pieces of that history, you're also engaging people in a creative way, and they're gonna walk out of the theater, changed a little, thinking a little different, pondering, maybe they don't even know what they think.
What do you think will be next for people? Or what kind of positive reactions or. Energy do you think this could do? So it's great timing, I think for the history, for the season, for the direction your company is growing with its audience.
Tom Mattingly: I'm super excited for them to see it. And what I hope they take away from these performances is just a spark of inspiration. I hope that people are moved by what they see and think about how they view others, if they're viewing others with kindness, with the benefit of the doubt, if they're giving a chance to these people that they don't know. I hope that they [00:06:00] are inspired to learn more about the Salem Witch Trials themselves.
And I, I think that if they do, they will see where these points of inspiration came from in the ballet, because it is a fictional story that I'm creating, but every element is based on historical fact. A lot of it is different people from the past kind of combined into become one character.
Like the Mathers with our preacher. There is one character who attempts to defend his wife, who has been accused, and he himself gets accused of witchcraft and demonic possession, even down to the costuming. It's going to be a modern reinterpretation but based on the strict puritan dress codes of the time with the muted colors, being covered up, those natural fibers, no lace, no ribbons, very much bare bones, utilitarian in a lot of ways.
Same thing with the set design, too, of these furniture pieces that can be used in many different [00:07:00] configurations so that our meeting house can serve as a place of worship. It can serve as the home for the trials themselves in the courthouse. Our set even has a different modular design to become the gallows when one of the characters is hanged.
So all of these things really came from actuality, and we get to reimagine them in a new direction and create something that is itself, I think, very unique and hopefully enjoyable. ,
Jami Milne: I was gonna add one thing that really excites me about Tom's work and his interpretation of all of this, and I think it goes along with your question in terms of what do you want people to feel or how do you think they will be changed? But I, as Tom and I were talking just this last week, and he said, "everyone knows the end of the story here. There's not a surprise, because we all know the Salem Witch Trials and what happened." And so I think for [00:08:00] audiences who oftentimes this time of year, anytime perhaps, they're witnessing this type of art form, there's the assumption of the happy ending, and you leave feeling resolved and you go get a drink and that's the end of a great night out.
But I don't want anyone to forget the power of a somber ending and this idea that great change can come, feeling so emotionally disrupted that you have no choice but to think differently upon leaving. And I think that will really be the power of audiences walking in the doors and then leaving with very different emotional state.
And I just think I'm really excited for the power that can result in.
Sarah Jack: Yeah, I think it's remarkable what you have created. I think that you are gonna have a remarkable outcome, and it's really relevant, and people are gonna realize it's not just relevant in non witch trial situations. It [00:09:00] brings awareness that witch hunting mentality has been here and it's still here, but change can happen, and art,, your work here, your ballet, all of the facets of what you've put into this are very powerful.
And I do know that it's gonna be a beautiful production, and it's going to create positive change.
Tom Mattingly: I really hope so. And our goal, One of our goals with Ballet Des Moines is to create a really inclusive environment, both as a dancer, a creator, all the people who work for us behind the scenes, our administrative staff, and for our audiences as well.
And one of the things that we're doing in this ballet is actually incorporating American Sign Language into the ballet. There's a absolutely wonderful ASL interpreter here in Des Moines who has done a workshop with the dancers, has taught me a number [00:10:00] of signs and phrases to incorporate in the ballet, including a translation of the Lord's Prayer into ASL that the dancers will be able to perform on stage.
Other key phrases like sometimes Fear itself is powerful, is another one that'll be used during the show. You can see like she is a witch. All of these different things that really create or I should say, I often talk about ballet as being a movement vocabulary, and my choreography is a certain movement vocabulary.
So incorporating something like ASL, which is literally a movement vocabulary, really seemed like it would be a great fit, and I'm so happy that it's worked out the way that it has. I think that it adds a richness to the ballet that otherwise would not have existed, and I think it also is reaching out to a community that maybe doesn't get that kind of representation as much as they could or should.
[00:11:00] And I hope that people in the deaf and hard of hearing community feel like they also have a space with Ballet Des Moines.
Sarah Jack: That is really excellent. Is there anything else that either one of you would like an opportunity to share or tell us?
Tom Mattingly: The music for Salem will primarily be Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Rite of Spring is typically the story of ritual sacrifice, and in a way, I feel like that's what happened with the Salem Witch Trials. It became this ritual of accusations, trials, and hangings that just continued over and over until it was finally put to an end. And it's an amazing score. It's difficult as a dancer, because it's difficult to count and the melodies are so surprising, but the overall effect, I think, is incredible, and it takes this kind of animalistic quality. And the dancers are really able to embody it, especially in these group scenes [00:12:00] at the church or at the gallows. It's really moving.
Sarah Jack: That's such a inspired way to make the selection. The executions and finding out, searching out and finding the witch really was an act of purification, looking for purification for what was wrong in their community.
Jami Milne: I was so impressed when Tom was sharing with me even just the characters themselves within the ballet because there were names like The Girl, which to me signaled innocence, but that is not how this necessarily twists and turns and things like fear, which to me had softness a scaredness to it. But what happens when fear takes over and it goes from being this passive thing to this very negative acting verb. And then even something like The Skeptic, which in my mind is a negative, pessimistic type thing, but in this case, The Skeptic is the one who's actually trying to prove [00:13:00] everyone wrong, because they are. And so I think even that interplay of just the thoughtfulness that Tom had in naming is just one more layer for audiences to try and think they know what's going on, and then be, persuaded or just disrupted as they're watching it unfold.
Sarah Jack: I hope you do get to take this far. I hope it evolves into something that's a message for the world. So congratulations on that.
Tom Mattingly: Salem will be performed at the Stoner Studio Theater in downtown Des Moines, October 20th through the 29th.
Tickets can be purchased at
Josh Hutchinson: Thank you, Tom and Jami for taking the time to speak with us.
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