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Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet

January 23, 2015

The Handmaid’s Tale

Reviewed January 22, 2015

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Repeat performances through to January 24, 8 p.m.)

Margaret Atwood’s 30-year-old dystopian “speculative fiction” tale of handmaid Offred, who lives in a theocratic military dictatorship called the Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States of America), is a complicated story.

Beginning with a terrorist attack, blamed on Islamic extremists, the story is one of religious ultra-conservatism defined by strict class and gender lines. Women have no rights. Men’s roles are clearly defined and policed.

It’s not really the kind of story that can be imagined as a ballet, intriguing as it is. It’s dark, political and sexist.

Amanda Green with company dancers, Photograph by Vince Pahkala

Amanda Green with company dancers, Photograph by Vince Pahkala

Nevertheless, New York choreographer Lila York spent nearly 10 years contemplating how to create Gilead in ballet-speak. Apparently, she spoke to Atwood about the story.

Clifton Taylor, a New York-based set and lighting designer, has created an industrial prison-like setting for the only ever dance version of The Handmaid’s Tale — a set which captures the oppressive theme well. Large sliding doors become useful props for scene changes and also act as projection screens for opening film “coverage” of the revolution as well as for lyrical memories of the protagonist Offred and her husband Luke before the fall, performing dreamy pas de deux in a long-ago sunlit world.

Attractive costumes, designed by self-taught French-Canadian fashion designer Liz Vandal, tell the story the way Atwood does – in strict colour codes: red shifts for the handmaids, black leather for the secret police (The Eyes), blue frocks for the privileged wives, grey uniforms for the aunts, black and red fringed costumes for the Jezabels: hey, if you can’t make babies, you can always become a whore.

Unfortunately, Atwood’s story doesn’t work so well in dance, at least not this particular creation. It does, however, have its moments – wonderful moments – so I’ll focus on them.

The music, performed live by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, is superb and an ideal accompaniment for the chaotic and poignant story (Islam extremists, loss of rights, classicism, sexism, I shudder to imagine such a world): from the discordant percussive piano concerto of James McMillan (The Berserking) to illustrate the opening scene where we are introduced to The Eyes, the Handmaids and the chaotic world of entrapment and hangings, to the nostalgic strings of McMillan’s After The Tryst that accompanies the graceful and playful duet of Offred and Wife Serena Joy (beautiful lyrical performance by Elizabeth Lamont and Sarah Davey). Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina and his Spiegel im Spiegel (not the first time this musical number has been used to accompany dance) take us through the projected film images of Offred and Luke (the latter danced by Eric Nipp) in “The Time Before” vignettes and the final performance by Offred (Lamont), which is the highlight of the evening.

Elizabeth Lamont rehearsing for final solo

Elizabeth Lamont rehearses final solo

Lamont’s interpretation of the ending of the story (which Atwood leaves somewhat obscure) is appropriately ambiguous. Swinging prettily from two noosed ropes (is this indeed her finale?), Lamont, clad in a hopeful spring-coloured frock, performs a soulful solo on pointe, standing in the loops so that she floats gracefully above the stage.

The occasional tender moments during the two-act ballet are a wonderful juxtaposition to the brutality and danger dictated by the storyline. Offred and her lover Nick (a wonderful portrayal by the powerful Dmitri Dovgoselets) dance an intimate and gentle pas de deux.

And then, just before curtain fall on Act 1, Offred and The Commander (Liang Xing) partner in a peculiarly effective staccato waltz, to Alfred Schnittke’s The Waltz, Xing’s moves bold and frightening and Lamont’s like a captured marionette. Strong and persistent, Xing virtually dances for both of them. Beautiful indeed, except for the fact that I couldn’t see the end of this duet because it was too far stage left and out of my sight line at the left side of the auditorium.

The athletic, muscular Royal Winnipeg male dancers are believable soldiers in their black leather and bare bulging arms, and as resistance fighters (we know when they’re rebels because they wear telltale red arm bands). In contrast, the ballerinas’ choreography is a veritable lightness of being, reflecting their lack of power in this story. This contrast, and the other-worldly screen projections of a time gone by, really works in this ballet. It suggests hope in the midst of oppression.

And that’s why I like the ending. We may not know Offred’s future, but she brought the audience to their feet Thursday evening and that leaves us hoping.

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From → Ballet

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