The Handmaid’s Tale, by acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood, was adapted for both film and opera before choreographer Lila York and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet reworked it into a ballet. On tour at the National Arts Center in Ottawa last week, it did not disappoint.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is known to put on great classical performances while also pushing the boundaries with more contemporary ballet works. The Handmaid’s Tale definitely falls into the latter category with an overall Broadway-esque atmosphere and a dramatic story set in a dystopian futuristic United States.

Dmitri Dovgoselets and Amanda Green © Vince Pahkala
Dmitri Dovgoselets and Amanda Green
© Vince Pahkala
I, for one, was not familiar with Margaret Atwood’s original story but had no trouble following the storyline of this ballet. Each scene focuses on one character or relationship, the combination of all of these resulting in the image of a world run by an unfair dictatorship that represses women and caters only to the social elite. We all know how well despair translates into ballet, making evident why The Handmaid’s Tale has been an obvious choice for a danced adaptation.

The first act is a little awkward. Whether because stiff military men and the gracefulness of ballet simply don’t mix very well or because of trouble on the choreographer’s end, the fierceness of the dictatorship is a bit lacking. On the other hand, the dancers' technique, regardless of the choreography, is impeccable. Every single one performed flawlessly, not a single port de bras or pointed toe was out of place. Even when a rip in the floor threatened to trip Elizabeth Lamont ( as the lead Offred) she caught herself with ease and I doubt many people noticed there was any trouble at all... Professionalism at its best.

But great technique alone doesn't make a show, and overall the dancers were too cautious with their jumps, too perfect in their turns and lacked the human touch that comes when one dances with more abandon. It was too bad that the music too lacked passion though, and maybe this is what was affecting the dancing most. Though beautiful at times, the music the score lacked body and a life of its own. It’s definitely not one you would listen to without the visual elements.

Two high points of this production are the costumes and clever use of video. The Handmaids wear interesting bright red tunics with pointed white hats. The Eyes and Officers are slick in black leather which, amazingly, didn’t limit their range of motion at all. The Jezebels in short flapper dresses contrast nicely against the conservative look of the rest of the show. Far from conservative is the use of recorded video as part of the choreography. Projected on two large sliding doors, Elizabeth Lamont and Eric Nipp (as Luke) are there shown dancing in a park in the summertime. Used to show Offred’s memories and regret at the state of her life, this modern tool blends easily with the live elements and adds an interesting layer to the performance.

Amanda Green and dancers of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet © Vince Pahkala
Amanda Green and dancers of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet
© Vince Pahkala
The women of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet stood out in The Handmaid’s Tale, though I’ll admit that I think the choreography favored this. Sophia Lee as Moira was the best performer of the night, receiving the greatest applause at the start of Act 2 in the Jezabels scene. Her dancing was sharp, while the dead look in her eyes showed the misery of Moira. She would snap from strong woman to exhausted slave with a jerk of her wrist or the roll of her head, details which really brought her character to life. A pas de deux between Offred and Nick finally showed some more inspired choreography, with an especially beautiful moment when Dmitri Dovgoselets pulled Lamont from her knees twice in a row into a perfect arch rested against his chest. Their chemistry heated up throughout the pas de deux granting them some hoots from the audiences as the lights went out on them lying amorously in bed.

The Handmaid’s Tale definitely doesn’t make my list of favourite ballets, but the Royal Winnipeg Ballet impressed me. Overall the production was too tame, too safe, especially given all the opportunities within the story to develop a really creative ballet. The dancers did a great job though with it and demonstrated their fantastic technique and potential to wow in a better suited show. I could see this Handmaid’s Tale a better fit for Broadway, whereas the Royal Winnipeg Ballet would be divine in Gisele or Manon. Nonetheless this was a great night out and a ballet I’m glad to have seen.