“You want it darker,” Leonard Cohen rumbled on his final album, released shortly before his death two years ago. Well, yes, actually we did, back in 2013 when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented the world première of Lila York’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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This article was published 11/10/2018 (1024 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

"You want it darker," Leonard Cohen rumbled on his final album, released shortly before his death two years ago. Well, yes, actually we did, back in 2013 when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented the world première of Lila York’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Fast-forward five years, and the company has delivered a rougher, rawer incarnation, less balletically prim and proper, and even more bone-chilling in the long shadows of today’s #MeToo movement and head-spinning political climate.

Welcome to Gilead.

The company opened its 79th season Wednesday night with the acclaimed New York-based choreographer’s adaptation of Canadian literary giant Margaret Atwood’s dystopian, prescient 1985 novel.

Billed as a "dance-drama," the nearly two-hour (including intermission) production, staged by York and assisted by RWB ballet masters, takes its own bold leap of faith in translating Atwood’s textual tale to a non-verbal ballet idiom, performed en pointe and structured as 16 episodic scenes that form a narrative arc.

It’s the first instalment of the RWB’s year-long celebration of fearless female protagonists, which will also highlight Dorothy in The Wizard Oz, Clara in The Nutcracker and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.

We follow Offred — literally "of Fred" — living in the futuristic society of Gilead after a military coup staged by fundamentalist religious zealots has overthrown the U.S. government. Women are indoctrinated in the "Red Centre" as red-habited handmaids to bear children for commanders in lieu of their wives, who have been made sterile by radiation poisoning.

Second soloist Elizabeth Lamont (with alternating casts) creates a wonderfully guileless Offred, who embarks on her emotional trajectory during opening scene Gilead, and longs for The Time Before, represented by a video projection of retired RWB principal dancer Amanda Green, who debuted this role in 2013, performing a lyrical pas de deux al fresco with Eric Nipp.

Offred's first duet with Moira, a role reprised by principal dancer Sophia Lee, ripples with dramatic tension cast against the pulsing handmaids, who flex their feet in lockstep under the steely countenance of Aunt Lydia (soloist Yayoi Ban, doubling as Lead Wife).

The Handmaid's Tale takes its own bold leap of faith in translating Margaret Atwood’s textual tale to a non-verbal ballet idiom. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Handmaid's Tale takes its own bold leap of faith in translating Margaret Atwood’s textual tale to a non-verbal ballet idiom. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Lee has only deepened her portrayal of this indomitable heroine, who bolts for her life from the Red Centre before winding up at Jezebels, a bawdy bar filled with flapper-style prostitutes where leering commanders pay for play. Her white-hot solo, teeming with vulgar sex and angular, slashing movement vocabulary, is even more harrowing thanks to her soulless facial expression, a testament to this dancer’s superb acting skills and pristine technique.

Principal dancer Dmitri Dovgoselets, celebrating his 20th anniversary this year, reprises his role of chauffeur Nick. One of the ballet’s reworkings is Act II’s Respite, in which this company treasure performs a rapturous pas de deux with Lamont, including artful lifts and an entwining of their limbs before Offred gently leads him to bed.

Soloist Josh Reynolds crafts a larger-than-life Commander, who wields power over Offred by first seducing and then raping her to a grotesquely distorted Tales of the Viennese Woods, skilfully taking viewers into the darkest corners of sexual assault in a way that's almost unbearable to watch.

His stony-faced, barren wife Serena Joy (second soloist Sarah Davey) also pines for her former glory days as a gospel singer, bullying Offred and proving harassment is an equal opportunity venture for both sexes.

However, the ballet is not without flaw; the series of scenes (several still including awkward, silent set changes) that highlight pivotal moments of Atwood’s novel leave narrative gaps.

Moira virtually disappears early in Act I, until reappearing as a hardened harlot after intermission. The Shopping scene, in which the cookie-cutter handmaids go to town, is presumably intended to provide levity, but feels like filler.

Nevertheless, the (mostly) corps de ballet dancers that double as handmaids and blue-garbed military wives prove their mettle as a tightly knit, cohesive ensemble, as do their male counterparts, the Guardians and secret police the Eyes, along with the Resistance Fighters who eventually restore order during the May Day rebellion led by Dovgoselets and powerhouse soloist Yosuke Mino.

The ending — no spoiler here — still feels anticlimactic, with too many loose ends neatly clipped away to squeeze this show under the two-hour mark.

The production features a driving contemporary pastiche score that ranges from John Corigliano to Alfred Schnittke, with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra brilliantly led by resident conductor Julian Pellicano.

Designer Clifton Taylor’s multi-level set of exposed scaffolding and lighting grid provides a starkly cold canvas for Liz Vandal’s effective, colour-coded costumes, dramatically lit by Taylor with Anshuman Bhatia.

It is now impossible to watch this ballet oblivious to the current, evolving world order threatening to choke intrinsic human rights around the globe. You want it darker? Sure, we still do, but also with a wish and a prayer that life might imitate art, and that our own rising Gileads, as with Atwood’s ever-potent, literary example, will be extinguished once and for all.

holly.harris@shaw.ca