Telling The Handmaid's Tale at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is preparing to debut its latest world premiere: a ballet based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian bestselling classic, The Handmaid's Tale.

RWB executive director Jeff Herd takes us behind the scenes

RWB principal dancer Amanda Green and RWB soloist Alexander Gamayunov as Offred and the Commander. (Réjean Brandt Photography)

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is preparing to debut its latest world premiere: a ballet based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian bestselling classic, The Handmaid's Tale

It's quite a coup for the RWB and artistic director André Lewis to persuade one of the world's most successful writers to allow acclaimed New York-based choreographer Lila York to adapt her novel for ballet.

All of the elements come together on stage this week.

"It's actually one of the most fun times," says executive director Jeff Herd, who has been shepherding this ballet along since the beginning. "I think this will be an iconic piece."

Herd said Lewis and York have been discussing this work for around 10 years.

"Lila, as the creative vision behind the ballet itself, gave a wonderful explanation of what she'd like to achieve and it seems to fit what we want to be doing. To create a new work to resonate with a large audience is something exciting," he said.

"But the fact that it's Margaret, it's Canadian, it's a story that's relevant still today … Lila's interpretation, moving a book from that incredible narration into three-dimensional movement which has emotional impact — she convinced us really easily. She's a brilliant thinker and a brilliant creator."

Herd said unlike with film, where imagery is constantly changing, ballet is able to go to the emotional core of the story.

"This is what dance does very well," he said.

The RWB has been on a literary bent in recent years with balletic adaptations of Wonderland, Svengali and Princess and the Goblin.

"The world of dance can transform any story, and we do like the contemporary stories," Herd said.

"I think to actually handle new stories, to handle current stories, to handle awareness of the environment we currently live in is something that we can do very well in ballet."

Herd agrees that the ideas in The Handmaid's Tale are still very current in contemporary life in North America. 

"Both happily and sadly, it's a time of intense change throughout the world," he said.

"We can see that. But some of the issues that we have been facing certainly in my lifetime are still relevant and still valuable. I think we're not necessarily making any kind of political statement, but we are reflecting the reality that we all see on a day-to-day basis."

The Handmaid's Tale makes its world premiere in Winnipeg on Oct. 16 with Margaret Atwood in attendance. Terry MacLeod, host of CBC Radio's Weekend Morning Show, will interview Atwood at McNally Robinson on Oct. 16 at 2:00 p.m.


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