When Margaret Atwood first heard about the idea to adapt her MaddAddam trilogy of postapocalyptic novels into a ballet, her reaction was: I’d like to see that.
“I want to see what they’re going to do. Because it’s not obvious,” Atwood says. “It would be impossible to do in a linear way.”
More obvious source material, perhaps, would be The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s only other book to be made into a ballet (for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2013). That narrative is more linear, and is told from just one point of view. And unlike with MaddAddam, even those audience members who have not read the text would likely have a fairly well-established sense of the story.
MaddAddam, on the other hand, is a sprawling tale with multiple narrators, overlapping timelines and chimeric, gene-spliced creatures, set in landscapes that include surveillance-state compounds, a high-end sex club and the ruins of human society after a catastrophic plague.
But it was, in fact, this weird, layered richness that attracted British star choreographer Wayne McGregor to the material. In 2016, as the National Ballet of Canada was preparing to perform Genus (another instance of his attraction to complex material; it was inspired by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species), McGregor asked then-artistic director Karen Kain if she would introduce him to Atwood to discuss the idea.
“One of the beautiful things about Margaret’s writing in these novels, is almost an impressionistic collage,” McGregor says. “You see stories or events or objects from lots of different points of view at different times. … It’s definitely not a literal translation of the whole thing. Who would want to do that, anyway?”
The novels that constitute the MaddAddam trilogy – Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and the eponymous MaddAddam – are set in a world where genetic engineering has produced a variety of new creatures: raccoon-skunk hybrid pets; guard dogs who look sweetly domestic but are as ferocious as wolves; and supersized pigs that grow organs to be harvested for human transplant. A scientist who goes by the avian-inspired name Crake goes further, engineering a new species and then designing a plague to wipe out humanity and make room for a new world populated by his “Crakers.” The relatively few humans who survive – including Jimmy, who becomes a reluctant guardian of that neophyte species – must reckon with the chaotic aftermath of this “waterless flood.”
So, where to start? At one point, McGregor considered opening the ballet with a “complete catastrophe,” a slow-motion sequence conveying the disaster that reshapes the world. But just weeks away from opening night, this changes. Like much of McGregor’s work, MADDADDAM – the ballet transposes the title into all-caps – is taking shape through the choreographer’s collaboration with dancers live in-studio. He resists pinning down the details as long as possible. “I like being lost,” he says.
Some of the structure has emerged, however. While he is resistant to making a conventional “story ballet,” the first act will have a narrative feel, McGregor says, depicting both flashbacks and episodes from before and after the plague. Characters from the books will populate the stage, including the Stormtrooper-esque “CorpSeCorps” police force and slum-dwelling “pleebrats” in shiny outfits of purple-and-green reflective fabric that cover their faces. The transgenic “pigoons” (the supersized pigs) will also be part of the production: Fashion designer Gareth Pugh, who is creating the costumes, has designed them with bulbous heads and low-rise medical crutches that dancers will lean on to transform into a four-legged shape.
But in the second act, McGregor wants to deconstruct the narrative, with characters becoming more slippery – taking on each other’s movements, or possibly exchanging costumes. The idea is to explore larger themes of the work, such as inequality in societies and groups, the mistreatment of women and humanity’s devastating impact on the environment. McGregor envisions the final act as even more abstract, taking place in an ethereal space where the Crakers tell the story.
“One of the positive things about alternative realities is they can, at their best, help you sense in a different way. They activate things in you that you have not experienced before,” McGregor says. “But that demands of an audience that they’re not waiting to be told exactly what the thing is. It demands of them to come openly, to also want to engage in the building of that imaginative journey.”
Audiences will have a different relationship to the story than anyone could have predicted when the project began: MADDADDAM was originally set for a 2020 debut. The ballet, which centres on a global pandemic, is now taking shape in the wake of a real one.
“It has an even deeper resonance,” McGregor says. “Rereading the books after the pandemic, preparing again for here … we’ve tried to build the images now in relationship to what we’ve all been through.”
Other symbols from the trilogy are also taking on a new meaning. For example, in the books, Jimmy’s red baseball cap takes on a kind of talismanic importance in the postdiluvian world; for the ballet, Pugh has designed it as a beaten-up “Make America Great Again” trucker hat.
“I thought it was quite apt to reference the present day, a world in which we currently live,” Pugh says, “in order to suggest what a very realistic near-future dystopia could look like.”
The project represents a new challenge for the National Ballet. While it has performed McGregor’s work before – including Genus and Chroma, which shook up the ballet world in 2006 and led to his invitation to become resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet in London – the company has never been part of creating a work with him from scratch.
The same goes for past co-productions with the Royal Ballet: Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale both premiered at Covent Garden before coming here. MADDADDAM is their first co-production to have its genesis in Toronto.
“I felt with a Canadian writer, it was a really Canadian project. And I thought it would be really lovely to make it here,” McGregor says.
McGregor’s approach to ballet is informed by his background in experimental and contemporary dance.
“He came from an unorthodox origin story, which I think gives him a more expanded view of what you can do – what is permitted, what is forbidden,” says Atwood, who went to see Genus in 2017 as she was considering the MADDADDAM project. “A lot of things that other people just wouldn’t think of, they’re not out of bounds for him.”
McGregor’s creative process involves generating a significant amount of material and establishing a movement vocabulary in dialogue with the dancers.
“He will then go in and filter, and reimagine, put together, splice in different ways, and then that will become the structure,” says National Ballet artistic director Hope Muir, who also worked with McGregor during her career as a dancer. “He works superfast. … It’s amazing to watch. I don’t think they’ve worked like that before.”
It’s not just the choreography that is still being finalized. Composer Max Richter – who has also scored films such as Ad Astra and television series including HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, as well as previous McGregor works – continually sends pieces of music to McGregor from the U.K., inspired by footage of what is taking shape in-studio.
“There are sounds from the natural world, and sounds from the human world, as well as all kinds of imagined worlds,” Richter says. “I’ll stop composing when the curtain goes up.”
Atwood herself will be seeing the ballet for the first time on opening night. While the author is listed as a creative consultant, she has taken a hands-off approach.
“Let it rip,” she says of her approach to adaptations. “You can’t control them. You have a choice to make: Do I give this person permission or not? I look at their work. I talk to them. And then I take a wild gamble.”
In his temporary office at the National Ballet headquarters in Toronto, McGregor has taped to a wall images of the set designs. In one act, a stylized model of Toronto’s skyline in rectangular columns hangs upside-down from the ceiling; in another, a spherical screen will make video projections appear three-dimensional. As he did with Genus, McGregor is working with filmmaker Ravi Deepres on incorporating documentary footage – of natural disasters, for example, that speaks to the themes of the ballet.
“I personally think all dance is narrative,” McGregor says. “The job of the brain is to construct meaning from things, and what you’re doing is looking for human experience. … Even if you’re watching something seemingly abstract, you’re telling yourself a story. That’s how we live.”
MADDADDAM runs at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto from November 23-30.