When dystopia becomes reality

RWB brings The Handmaid’s Tale to Winnipeg

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is another example of how Margaret Atwood’s novel has touched every part of popular culture.

A modern classic with increasingly relevant dystopian themes will soon return to the Centennial Concert Hall.

From Oct. 12 to 16, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) will showcase their latest rendition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, known for its compelling critique of totalitarianism.

“Democracies are inherently fragile. It only takes a few disturbed people with a few followers to change things,” André Lewis, RWB’s artistic director and CEO, says. “

The subject matter is relevant, as much as we may think of it as a dystopian world. It’s reality for some places,” Lewis says. “It’s scary when people’s lives are so controlled (that it results in) such little freedom for them.”

Several years ago, Lewis was approached by Lila York, now choreographer of RWB’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with a proposal to base a ballet on the novel. Lewis was enthusiastically on board.

“I would say, from beginning to end, it may have taken Lila about two years ... She read the book several times (to ensure) she was thoroughly prepared to come to Winnipeg,” Lewis says.

Lewis believes the concept of The Handmaid’s Tale, at the time, made sense. However, he says it makes even more sense today, considering the political divergence in the United States and theocracy in places like Afghanistan and Iran.

“Whichever dystopian bend that Atwood had done on the book, it was a reality back then and still is today,” Lewis says.

He says there are a number of autocratic and theocratic governments that reduce women to a lower status. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is also an environmental aspect to consider, as women are forced to help assuage a reproductive crisis in Gilead.

According to Lewis, creating a performance based on a novel requires identifying which characters and parts of the story are important enough to showcase on stage. Lewis says tough decisions always have to be made in order to ensure a ballet highlights the most important aspects of any story.

“Some of the primary characters of the book are represented in the show. You have Moira, Serena Joy, Nick, Commander Fred, Offred, of course,” Lewis says. “Lila determined (each character’s) significance in the story. Moira is important. Nick is important. Their relationship with Offred is important. Offred’s relationship with Serena and Commander Fred is also important.”

While many people are familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, Lewis says some may not know the story’s political and cultural significance.

“What The Handmaid’s Tale shows us is the consequences of living in a highly controlled society,” Lewis says. “We take for granted our freedoms (and) our abilities to make choices for ourselves.”

For more information about the performances and to purchase tickets, visit rwb.org.

Published in Volume 77, Number 04 of The Uniter (September 29, 2022)

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