A new ballet based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale will launch the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's 74th season next October.
At a press conference held at the RWB's Graham Avenue headquarters on Tuesday morning, artistic director André Lewis announced the world première of New York choreographer Lila York's adaptation of Atwood's Governor General's Award winner about a dismal future America where women are reproductive slaves.
"I think it is a powerful story that lends itself to being portrayed through ballet," says Lewis, in his 18th season at the helm of the RWB. "We are connecting with a great writer but it's not about finding a big name. You do it because of the artistic possibilities."
The esteemed 73-year-old Atwood was not at the gathering in the RWB's Founders Studio but she spoke from Toronto via a Skype hookup with Lewis, who asked her questions about her reaction to her sixth novel now being turned into a ballet after serving as the source of a 1990 film, starring Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall, as well as a Poul Ruders opera that debuted at the Danish Royal Opera in 2000.
"I didn't think it would be a film and certainly not an opera and most certainly not a ballet," said Atwood. "I've yet to visualize it so therefore I look forward to being at the premiere in October."
York, best known for her signature work Rapture, brought the $400,000-plus budgeted project to Lewis eight years ago. She and the creative team visited Winnipeg in March to familiarize themselves with the RWB dancers and the Centennial Concert Hall stage.
Atwood will play a minimal role in The Handmaid's Tale development into a ballet.
"It's a different art form and the people who are experts in that art form are making something new and we should just let them do their thing," says Atwood.
Lewis says he was impressed with York's passion for The Handmaid's Tale and her belief that it had continuing contemporary resonance, given the constant danger of patriarchal oppression around the world. He also thought the timing was right, owing to next year's opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
"What I want to do is push the envelope," he says. "I don't want them to do a classical ballet again. I want them to do something of today that respects that we are a ballet company."
York, a dancer of 12 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, approached the RWB because she knew it was adventuresome and not afraid to take risks with difficult subject matters. Lewis points to the 2011 performance of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe as a painful story that was transposed into a successful ballet by the RWB.
Lewis said the coup of programming a new ballet based on a famous novel that has sold millions of copies worldwide is not an answer to the attention-getting collaborations being developed in recent years by Alberta Ballet with music stars like Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Sarah McLachlan and k.d. lang.
"We've been doing this long before Alberta Ballet ever did it," says Lewis, who is just back from New York City, where he attended a showcase of young dancing talent. "We did Dracula, Moulin Rouge, Peter Pan and Wonderland, but you won't see me doing all the writers of Canada. For me, it has to have an artistic impetus."
The rest of the RWB season is highlighted by Rudi Van Dantzig's Romeo + Juliet, being revived next February for the first time since 2009, and the annual holiday treat Nutcracker next December. Peter Quanz's Q Dance troupe will perform in November at the Gas Station Theatre before Montreal's Les Grands Ballets Canadiens comes to town in March to stage Rodin/Claudel, with choreography also by Quanz. The 2013-14 schedule wraps with a mixed program involving James Kudelka's pivotal work The Four Seasons, William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, a scene of which was performed live at the press conference, and Défilé by Jorden Morris.
"We couldn't do all new works in a season; it would be suicide," says Lewis. "This season allows you to take some risk without betting the farm."
The troupe will also be busy outside Winnipeg, as Romeo + Juliet will tour to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon next January. The cast of Moulin Rouge will also hit the road in February for a month-long trip south of the border.