Contemporary literature meets modern ballet in a Handmaid’s Tale

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet adapts Margaret Atwood’s novel for dance

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is known for bringing us revamped versions of tried-and-true classics, such as last season’s portrayal of The Sleeping Beauty, but the RWB’s bold adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale – a 1985 novel written by award-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood – promises to be something that regular ballet audiences have never seen before.

The book to ballet adaptation started more than a decade ago when New York choreographer Lila York reached out to RWB Artistic Director André Lewis with the idea of adapting the novel into a full-length ballet.

“It’s a very controversial and innovative idea for a ballet,” York says. “It was around for quite awhile before they decided it was a good idea.”

The Handmaid’s Tale has already been adapted into opera, theatre and a 1990 film starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, but never a ballet. York says adapting a full-length work of fiction into a ballet “Just isn’t done in the ballet world.”

Set in a dystopian society where women are denied basic human rights and are used solely for reproductive purposes, The Handmaid’s Tale deals with themes from repressed sexuality, forbidden romance and dictatorship. The novel is far from G-rated; it openly depicts sex, birth and warfare.

“This [story] reflects the literature of our time,” York says. “It has the potential to rejuvenate the idea of the ‘story ballet’”.

Told from the perspective of handmaid Offred, played by RWB principal dancer Amanda Green, the story is set in The Republic of Gilead, a theocratic and authoritarian country ruled by the military. RWB soloist Alexander Gamayunov plays the Commander.

“Certainly, you want to reach audiences and touch them. You don’t want to just impress them with techniques and steps,” Lewis says of the performers. “It’s a dark story and Lila handles all of it in a very abstract and metaphorical way.”

York worked directly with Atwood to ensure the essence and the intent of the novel translated seamlessly into the piece.

“She was very positive. It wasn’t a battle at all,” says Lewis. “Ms. Atwood felt it worked well and expanded on the message of the story.”

Coinciding with the world premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale is the launch of RWB’s new Access Pointe program, which allows individuals between the ages of 15 and 29 to purchase tickets for just $30. Go to for more information.

“We are hoping The Handmaid’s Tale will capture the hearts of the younger audiences,” concludes Lewis. “Any artistic organization is in a constant process of reaching out and trying to capture different audiences.”

Published in Volume 68, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 10, 2013)

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