The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s story about a punishing theocracy in which selected women are turned into surrogate breeding machines, has rightly earned its place, along with George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as one of the three indispensable dystopic novels of the 20th century.

First published in 1985, it has remained in print ever since and has sold over 10 million copies. It is a superb, chilling book.

The story has gone through a number of successful transformations into other art forms, initially as a movie in 1990, directed by Volker Schlondorff, and featuring a stellar cast that included Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Elizabeth McGovern and Aidan Quinn.

Then in 2000 it was reconfigured as an opera by Poul Ruders and mounted by the Danish Royal Opera before being performed in London, UK, Minneapolis and Toronto. (Apparently the book’s re-imaginings are not over; it is now being turned into a graphic novel).

During a pre-performance interview with André Lewis, the RWB’s artistic director, Atwood was asked how she felt about the changes her novel has undergone as it moved from book to film to opera. “It’s a different language, so you are using different elements to tell the story. Some things that work quite well in one language, don’t work in another. To a certain extent you’re translating, but you’re always looking for a maximum mode of expression in that language.”

RWB The Handmaid's Tale Alexander Gamayunov and Amanda Green

Alexander Gamayunov and Amanda Green in The Handmaid's Tale (Réjean Brandt Photography)

Now the language in her book has found new legs as a full-length story ballet, choreographed by Lila York and mounted by Winnipeg’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The major problem that York faced was orchestrating this translation from word to movement, from the page to the stage. There are occasions when she manages the transition, and many when she doesn’t.

The most compelling set pieces in the ballet occur when the movement conveys a sense of the emotional complexity the characters are experiencing. It is evident in the poignant pas de deux danced on the apron of the stage by Offred and Moira with the sleazy goings-on at Jezebel’s in the background; and in the Commander’s study at the end of the first act.

As Offred dances, the Commander keeps grasping at her legs, and the interruption of her movement becomes a kind of assault. It is an extremely unsettling gesture; his hand makes a tail of brutal violation. In contrast, Nick’s unpinning Offred’s hair in his bedroom after they have danced the Respite section, and before they make love, is a gesture of the hand that is all the more effective for its simplicity. 

York has said that the story has been in her mind for over a decade and it may be that its being lodged there has created a variation of Hamlet’s malaise; she has thought too precisely on the events. In one sense, the ballet is disadvantaged by her awareness of the story’s previous incarnations. There are moments when only those audience members who are thoroughly familiar with the novel and the film will have a clear idea what’s occurring on stage and why. Too little information is given, as if it has been filtered through an earlier version of the story.

As early as the second scene in the Red Centre where the handmaids are prodded and indoctrinated, Moira, the most rebellious of the handmaids assaults Aunt Lydia, the nasty matron, and attempts an escape. It is an episode that gets considerable attention in the movie, but here it seems premature and inexplicable. We don’t see Moira again until the beginning of Act II, at Jezebel’s, the club where the military elites go to visit the women forced into prostitution by the system. Her early rebellion gets her into harm’s and out of narrative’s way.

The other dilemma caused by familiarity with early versions of the tale is a structural one. Even though York has left out much of the detail that gives texture to the novel, she still retains more than she needs.

The brief interlude in which a clutch of handmaids go shopping seems pointless, (except as a kind of comic relief, which in itself is ill-conceived); and the repetition of the scenes in which the Eyes – the military personnel who enforce the brutal laws of the governing class – run about the stage to the music of the Berkshire Piano Concerto, is an irritation. (No less irritating was the rag-tag ensemble work of the male dancers; at one point they exited the stage bobbing like buoys on an agitated sea).

The Resistance Fighters engage in similar time-consuming actions that do nothing to advance the narrative. Consistently, scenes in the ballet were longer than they needed to be. As in architecture, less would be more.

But the ballet’s most significant problem is that it aspires to be too pretty. Atwood’s novel is decidedly not so. Its brilliance is a product of never allowing the reader to be unaware of the intolerable circumstances in which Offred and the other handmaids find themselves. York seems to forget that their situation is unforgiving and grotesque.

The Ceremony is the first time Offred is forced to engage in the perverse zoo of three-backed beasts demanded by the leaders of Gilead; in the novel these sexual couplings are unbearable; in the ballet the ritualized rape turns lyric and almost sculptural. The ménage-a-trois contains some of York’s most elegant choreography, but it betrays the life in which the handmaids labour.

Tellingly, at the end of her solo at Jezebel’s, Moira (danced excellently by Sophia Lee), is sexually assaulted by a group of Eyes, and the contortions of her head, neck and shoulders as she writhes on the ground are disturbingly believable. It is the embodiment of movement operating at maximum power; it is its own language, and no translation is necessary. 

The Handmaid's Tale has its world premiere Wednesday night in Winnipeg and will continue with evening performances through Saturday and a matinee for students on Sunday.