The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s new production of The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly ambitious, but while Lila York’s choreography has its moments, the ballet fails to deliver the wow factor.
In truth, the work is short of conflict, drama, passion and tension. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian story should have provided New York-based York with a cornucopia of gritty plot details that lie at the dark heart of the 1985 novel. What York delivers is a superficial treatment: The Handmaid’s Tale is attractive to watch, but it is bland and anemic in terms of substance, despite the company’s great talent.
To set the stage: In the near future, the United States is called the Republic of Gilead and is run by a military theocracy. The handmaid in question is Offred (Amanda Green) who, because she is fertile, is the concubine of the Commander (Alexander Gamayunov). Her main objective is to provide the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy (Serena Sandford), with a child. The couple is barren because life has been compromised by radiation poisoning.
The other female lead is Moira (Sophia Lee), a runaway handmaid who ends up as a prostitute. There is also the dual role of Aunt Lydia/Lead Wife (Yayoi Ban): The aunt guards the handmaids, while the wife supervises the birthing circle when a pregnant handmaid (Elizabeth Lamont) delivers her baby. The Commander’s chauffeur and Offred’s lover Nick are danced by Dmitri Dovgoselets; Luke, Offred’s lost husband, is portrayed by Jaime Vargas on stage and Eric Nipp in the projected films; and Yosuke Mino is the leader of the May Day resistance. In other words, there is no shortage of juicy roles for the RWB dancers, but York has failed to give them punchy choreography. She has structured the work around 16 short scenes that capture incidents in the novel: The Red Centre, for example, shows Aunt Lydia disciplining the handmaids; and Jezebel’s takes place in the brothel, where the prostitutes are the playthings of high-ranking officers.
So York does cover the waterfront in terms of Atwood’s storyline, but the blackouts following each scene were deadly in their silence. Music to cover the scene changes might have helped. Speaking of music, the effective score is a pastiche of edgy modernist composers such as Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Part.
As a choreographer, York strings together established ballet steps for her movement patterns, but there is nothing original about her dance vocabulary. She is, however, better with small numbers than ensembles.
For example, her movement for The Eyes, about the state police, looks like an exercise for ballet boys. These guys should be terrifying. She does give the resistance fighters a bit more vinegar. Her best ensemble moments are her rigid, staccato handmaids dances, and particularly the vulgar sexuality for the Jezebels that is bump-and-grind Broadway.
The highlight of the piece is Ceremony, a trio for the Commander, Serena Joy and Offred, in which the wife watches the husband couple with the handmaid. York has given them a stately pattern of circles within circles, of bodies entwining with constant shifts of control.
What really works in the ballet are the theatrical values. Liz Vandal’s wonderful costumes capture Gilead to perfection. The stylish red tunics for the handmaids are a sharp contrast to the 1950s shirtwaists of the wives. Clifton Taylor’s set evokes the starkness of Gilead society with its towering steel gallery and staircase.
The use of projections is effective and presumably York’s idea. When the audience enters, two screens are showing news clips from Gilead, reporting, for example, skirmishes between the military and the resistance. On the romantic side, Offred’s memory of her husband is rendered in film as a lyrical pas de deux.
Because The Handmaid’s Tale is eminently watchable, the ballet will find a home in the RWB repertoire. The sad part is conjuring up what could have been in the hands of a stronger dancesmith.