Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS -

“I did that in­ten­tion­ally,” she says of her plot­based ap­proach. “The is­sues that sur­round it are cer­tainly po­lit­i­cal, and most peo­ple are aware of what’s cur­rently go­ing on in the world. It’s not my job to preach. It’s my job to make a mov­ing, poignant story bal­let. It’s about these char­ac­ters and how they func­tion within this so­ci­ety.”

Still, she rec­og­nizes the story she’s telling has in­her­ent pol­i­tics. When it comes to The Hand­maid’s Tale, the per­sonal is po­lit­i­cal.

“It’s very much a woman’s story,” she says. “There are four re­ally meaty fe­male roles (Of­fred, Of­glen, Moira and Ser­ena Joy). It’s about women fight­ing for their free­dom and fig­ur­ing out how to deal with these as­saults on their lib­er­ties. The way Of­fred ex­pe­ri­ences it and the way Moira ex­pe­ri­ences it are dif­fer­ent. Then you have the Com­man­der’s wife, Ser­ena Joy, who is sup­pos­edly part of the coup but is be­trayed by them. They took her ca­reer from her.”

York first read The Hand­maid’s Tale in col­lege. “Then I read it many more times once I started work­ing on this project,” she says with a laugh. While At­wood’s pre­cise, evoca­tive lan­guage lends well to bal­letic in­ter­pre­ta­tion, the book is dense, which posed chal­lenges. Each read re­vealed new de­tails.

“She cre­ated this whole strata,” York mar­vels. “There are the Marthas, the Aunts, the Wives. But this is a com­pany of 26 dancers, so there are no Marthas, for ex­am­ple. There are a lot of de­tails I just couldn’t deal with.”

She toyed with the idea of do­ing a voice-over or us­ing text. “I had to stop and ask my­self, ‘Do I want to use lan­guage?’ It’s a big de­ci­sion. I de­cided I should trans­late the lan­guage into move­ment. Watch­ing move­ment, it’s a right-brain ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s vis­ceral. Bring­ing lan­guage brings the left brain into it, which is why I de­cided not to use lan­guage.

“I’ll let you know af­ter it pre­mieres if that was the right de­ci­sion.”

York says the book’s ac­tion-driven plot made it eas­ier to trans­late into move­ment. “Most nov­els take place in the mind of the nar­ra­tor and they’re about psy­cho­log­i­cal growth and changes that hap­pen within. This is a novel in which things hap­pen.”

Still, for her adap­ta­tion to work, York had to make one cru­cial change. While At­wood’s text is writ­ten in the past tense, York’s bal­let is firmly in the present.

“I wanted the au­di­ence to ex­pe­ri­ence it as Of­fred ex­pe­ri­ences it. I con­sulted Mar­garet At­wood about that be­cause it was such a big change, and she was fine with it. She was ab­so­lutely great to work with.” At­wood will be in at­ten­dance on Wed­nes­day night for a pre-show talk.

An­other de­par­ture is York’s han­dling of the book’s ex­plicit sex scenes. “I tried to re­main faith­ful to the novel while strip­ping away the sex­ual con­tent. I’ve ab­stracted it. It’s a safe work to bring chil­dren to.”

The chore­og­ra­phy boasts a mix of clas­si­cal and con­tem­po­rary vo­cab­u­lary (the women wear pointe shoes, but the men do not). “All chore­og­ra­phers do the same thing — we all use clas­si­cal lan­guage and try to make it look new,” York says, laugh­ing.

York’s dancers have ap­pre­ci­ated her ap­proach. Out­go­ing soloist Alexan­der Ga­mayunov, who will be re­tir­ing from the com­pany af­ter this run of shows, is danc­ing in the role of the Com­man­der. “What I love about Lila’s vo­cab­u­lary is that her lan­guage is very un­der­stand­able for the au­di­ence, even when it’s ab­stract,” he says.

Newly minted soloist Sophia Lee, who makes her solo de­but as Moira, a re­bel­lious Hand­maid and friend of Of­fred, has been pleas­antly chal­lenged by the ath­leti­cism of York’s chore­og­ra­phy.

“The solo I do is pretty pow­er­ful; it’s al­most like it should be for a man,” she says. “I al­most don’t want to wear pointe shoes for it. To be hon­est, (the big­gest chal­lenge) is stamina. The solo is very, very hard.”

For York’s part, work­ing with the RWB on this project has been noth­ing short of a dream.

“It’s been sub­lime. I’ve been work­ing with bal­let com­pa­nies for 25 years and this has been, with­out a doubt, the best ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve ever had.”

RWB artis­tic di­rec­tor An­dré Lewis.

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