The Commander’s Study; review of Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Tonight I was fortunate enough to see the Royal Winnipeg Ballet perform Lila York’s interpretation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I went with my lovelies Jocelyn & Jo, and we were all very curious as to how such a plot-driven, largely-internal narrative would translate to ballet. We were all at least vaguely familiar with the plot (I ended up being incredibly grateful for my Sparks skim on the bus on the way there, as I’d last read it in high school).

We’ll start first with the high notes: on the whole, I really enjoyed the production. It was interesting and entertaining, both on its own merit and as a – largely faithful – adaptation of the book. Sophie Lee’s Moira was wicked and drew the eye every time she was in a scene, and her spurn of Offred at the end of ‘Jezebels’ was absolutely cutting. (Everyone agrees with me on this, as they should; she’s fantastic.) The overall atmosphere very much fit the book’s dystopian society, and the scene just before intermission (“The Commander’s Study”) was by far the best of the play, a stuttering waltz that was marvellously choreographed and impeccably danced. The Commander’s exertion of control was total, from his offer of the book to his revocation of it. The scene was a touchstone for how easily the rights of Gilead’s women were plucked away from them, and just how much of their lives and happiness is held in the sway of men’s (often one man’s) emotions.



However, the ballet struggled technically in its execution, particularly in the corps. I don’t know if that’s a symptom of a road show, or what looked to be an exceptionally young cast, or whether I’m just a snob who’s too used to the discipline of the National Ballet, but the corps was wildly out of sync at many points. There was a distinct lack of polish to the end of their movements, and a few moments of definite carelessness. The Eye’s costumes were akin to flimsy $10 Halloween pants, and several scenes were far too long. ‘The Time Before’ dragged, both due to its length and its form (a video projection on a small area of the stage). TGAM’s Paula Citron summed up my feelings on the choreography quite well:

[York] is, however, better with small numbers than ensembles.

For example, her movement for The Eyes, about the state police, looks like an exercise for ballet boys. These guys should be terrifying. She does give the resistance fighters a bit more vinegar. Her best ensemble moments are her rigid, staccato handmaids dances, and particularly the vulgar sexuality for the Jezebels that is bump-and-grind Broadway. (x)

In stunning contrast to the exquisite ‘The Commander’s Study,’ ‘Birth’ was outright laughable. The use of a plastic toy baby so mockingly handled felt overwhelmingly fake, and I heard a ripple of laughter when it was finally discarded with an audible plastic “thwack” against the stage. The choreography of the receiving line was well used to illustrate the mechanization of the process, but ended up having an incredibly comedic effect, and the whole scene felt more like a caricature.

I seemed to be the only one of our group who liked the ending; it felt abrupt, and conveyed entirely more freedom than my interpretation of the books’ ending allowed for, but it was stylistically interesting and well performed. The apparatus used for Offred’s last dance bore a strong resemblance to a noose, and the use of the dress from the flashbacks definitely indicated more of a release (or perhaps death) than I think may have been intended.

Photo by Amanda Green

One of the biggest themes of the book that I remember having such an impact on me are the incentives for women like Serena and Aunt Lydia to oppress other women. Reading it in high school, I was outraged and stunned that some women would be so willing to do so when the clear oppressor was the men, but the systems that reward them with a small amount of power (Serena over her household, Aunt Lydia over the Handmaids) and afford them that tiny freedom are enough to keep them blind to own helplessness and desperate to retain that power at the expense of other women. Almost all of the interactions between women in the ballet were cruel ones, or violent ones.

I, like other reviewers, thought that the ‘Ceremony’ felt more egalitarian than it had a right to, although York’s intention may have been to make clear how present all three of them were. Implicating all three of them and using mirrored choreography was a choice that pared down Serena’s character in an interesting way, but sacrificed some of the scene’s integrity, given what is actually happening. Jo and Jocelyn both liked the ‘Ceremony’ more than I did, although the graphic ending (“I’m NOT going to use the word ‘climax,’ I’m NOT,” she muttered to herself) was very visceral.

I would absolutely recommend that anyone interested go see it, especially if you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale; the medley of music in particular is incredibly well-chosen, and I think that it’s likely the corps will improve over the show’s run.


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