There are many ways that Alberta Ballet’s presentation of Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s The Handmaid’s Tale is unlike the book. Margaret Atwood’s writing is a slow burn. It’s mostly all exposition, set up and development for two thirds of the novel, then all the action takes place in the last third. This is not the case with the ballet. The plot is illuminated through characterization, movement and musical composition by James MacMillan, Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt and others.
The ballet tells the story of Atwood’s 1985 novel, where the USA experienced an unnamed crisis and a religious cult stages a coup and takes power. They rename the country Gilead and all women are divided in classes and women who have committed some sort of crime according to the new laws are forced to be surrogates to the ruling upper-class. Abortion is illegal and being unable to bear a healthy child is subject to punishment. It is a state where there are no rights or freedoms and all the men were executed and the children were kidnapped.
With the politics brewing in the States, the recent reversal of Roe vs Wade, Atwood’s dystopian novel and its themes have been referenced in the wake of this political turbulence. Offred, the central Handmaid of the story, navigates her world which links her to her rebel friend Moira, her Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, and Nick, the house chauffeur.
This telling of The Handmaid’s Tale is dark and it’s an accurate depiction, as the original tale is dark. It’s an illustration of the world we would live in if we treated women like vessels, if we stripped them of their humanity. Would the human drive to fight and resist survive?
Lila York’s choreography is complex and vivid. It adds a third dimension to the production, creating drama, tension along with beautiful lines. The intricate movement between Offred and the Commander and his wife is mesmerizing as is the complex lifts and spins that they perform. The scene of possession between the Commander and Offred is riveting. Elizabeth Lamont’s Offred is graceful and powerless in her movement, but has that little spark. Jami Deleau as Serena Joy and Liam Caines as the Commander move so well together, it’s like they were built for each other.
York’s choreography pushes the boundary between ballet and contemporary dance. It blends the two and it’s mesmerizing to watch. The musical composition also blends with the movement and rises and falls along with the dancers, The Handmaid’s Tale captures the injustice, darkness, despair and the hope of the unknown in one amazing production.
This production is made better by Clifton Taylor and Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting design, as it adds to the tension in the production, highlighting expressions of violence. Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projection design is beautiful, especially in the final scene. Liz Vandal’s costume design helps to illustrate the story with simple, elegant outfits.
Alberta Ballet’s presentation of Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s The Handmaid’s Tale performs in Edmonton September 22-24. More information is available online.
Photo Credit: David Cooper