Celebrated American choreographer Lila York arrived in Winnipeg this fall to stage The Handmaid’s Tale for Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel penned in 1985, the full-length contemporary/classical ballet marks the first time that York’s choreography has been seen in Canada. Writer Holly Harris chatted with the New York City-based dance artist about women’s rights, the challenges of transforming words into movement and what she learned during her twelve-year tenure with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Holly Harris: Why did you choose this particular novel?
Lila York: Hmm. It’s interesting. There’s a lot going on in the United States right now with women’s rights and especially women’s reproductive rights. We have many, many states that are moving to outlaw abortion in various ways and trying to get around the Supreme Court decision even though, federally, abortion has been declared legal. They’ve been implementing a lot of restrictions to shut down clinics and have been waging a war against Planned Parenthood, which is the affordable clinic for most women in most states. This has been going on for a while but, in the last two years, a number of state legislatures that turned Republican in the last election have been catapulting ahead with these new laws and they’re trying to not only outlaw abortion and shut down the clinics, but essentially outlaw birth control. It’s become a major issue for women. The interesting thing is that you hear pundits all the time referencing The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a widely read novel, and is Atwood’s most famous novel. It created a good thing, which is a sense of caution. People read it and think ‘I guess we’d better pay attention to what’s going on’. There’s a movement toward reactionary policies not just in the United States but really all over as well. So the novel is not only about women’s reproductive rights, it’s about human rights in general, with those issues cropping up all over Europe and North America. Timing wise, it’s become more relevant over time rather than less relevant.
Just recently we had this guy Snowden tell us that everybody on the planet is being spied on. So it’s this real kind of George Orwell stuff. The audience is going to come into the theatre with all this information and all of these headlines from the news in their minds as they watch the show. Atwood was very prescient. She saw these movements taking shape and gaining power. She saw things that were happening and just projected into an imaginary future.
HH: How often do you speak with Margaret Atwood?
LY: I don’t. I’ve never spoken with her. We communicate by email. She’s incredibly busy. She has a new book out right now and is doing a lot of promotional tours and press readings for that. She speaks quite a bit but she’s always writing, always working on a new book. She’s thrilled that this is going to be a ballet. She’s very happy about it. But you know this is not a new baby for her. Her new book is a new baby; this is an old baby.
HH: A thirty-year-old baby.
LY: This one’s a thirty-year-old baby, a grown child (York laughs).
HH: Why did you choose the Royal Winnipeg Ballet?
LY: I proposed this work to several companies in Canada. I didn’t feel this was a work for an American company — it was really a work for a Canadian company. For many reasons — but primarily because Margaret Atwood is distinctly Canadian and this is a Canadian work of art — I thought it should be done in Canada. There was an interest in it from other companies but, as you know, it’s a very controversial work. First of all, it’s very rare that a full-evening ballet is made based on a contemporary work of fiction. The only one that I know of is Septime Webre’s The Sun Also Rises for The Washington Ballet and it was not controversial.
I’m not really going into the violent aspects of the story. I’m suggesting those without showing them, because I don’t think it’s really appropriate for a ballet to go that way. This project was something I proposed back during the Bush/Cheney administration and I think it was maybe too much of a hot potato at that time. Once Obama came into office and things quieted down here and there was less fear in general, it became possible to think about doing this without feeling like we were going to be stepping on too many toes.
HH: So, is this a “political” ballet?
LY: No, not at all. It’s really a story ballet and it’s about these characters. It’s political just by being inherent in the story — the United States has a coup and there’s this military government installed — so it is in its essence political, but I am not making a political ballet whatsoever. It’s a story about what happens to these characters — Offred, her friend Moira, the Commander and his wife, and Nick the chauffeur. In fact, I have tried to make it less political. I think it’s a novel that worked for me as a ballet because it’s an action story and not something that takes place inside someone’s mind, which a lot of fiction is. It’s an action story and has action elements — a plot, a climax — but it’s really about the characters. I have tried very hard to not make it political.
HH: What about feminist?
LY: I wouldn’t even call it feminist. When you’re talking about human rights it really doesn’t really fit into an “ism.” It’s not about an “ism.” People have a right to live and be free. That’s the essence of human rights. I don’t consider that a political concept, that’s just a universal concept.
HH: What are the challenges of adapting a literary classic to the stage?
LY: There are a lot of challenges. I had to really focus the choreography on the action elements of the story. I will do my best to help the dancers who are playing a principal role communicate through their acting what’s going on inside their minds, but that’s not really what dance can do. You know ballet can tell a story through action but in the twenty-first century we don’t do mime anymore, so we’re not going there (laughs). There’s this whole complex hierarchy of Gilead as Atwood defines it, with so many elements. That’s not an area that I could really delve into with the ballet. A lot of that information people would really have to read the novel [to get] because it’s so detailed…it’s just not material for dance. When I wrote a synopsis for the program notes, I just touched on it in the briefest way because it’s so involved.
HH: I imagine your creative team will also help in establishing the mood and very dark flavour of this work.
LY: It is very dark and, as a choreographer who’s putting this in front of an audience that’s going to pay to come and see it, I’m very aware of that. I’ve injected quite a bit of humour into the first act.
HH: For example?
LY: There were lots of places for humour. Because Offred herself, in her own mind, regards a lot of the rituals and regulations as ridiculous. They’re just the most comical. She describes it very cynically. That left it for me to make the military wives ridiculous. The wives all have to wear the same blue dress and the handmaids all wear the same red habit. Everybody’s colour-coded. You get the feeling that Offred’s just rolling her eyes at how stupid all this is. I was able to find some humour to put into this. I don’t want to put an audience through two hours of really torturous, dark stuff. I’ve balanced it very carefully with some romantic pas de deux and with some humorous sections so that it doesn’t weigh itself down.
HH: Are you using classical or contemporary movement?
LY: It’s a mix. The women are en pointe. As you know, pointe shoes have their own restrictions. Some of it is divided into sections. Each scene of the story has a section and some sections are more neo-classical than others. The women’s movement will all be identifiable classical material; there’s a lot of petit allegro for the women.
HH: Would you refer to this as a classical ballet, then?
LY: It’s definitely a classical ballet, but it’s a contemporary classical ballet. I’ve stretched the men’s material a little more, so that will be more contemporary. Again, my work hasn’t been seen in Canada, but this is really what I do. I’m one of those crossover choreographers that came from modern dance, but my choreographic career has been almost exclusively with classical ballet companies.
With men, you’re not dealing with pointe shoes and the material that men master in class — certain kinds of jumps, turns, beats — are easily adaptable into more contemporary shapes. Everything that I’m doing in this work has a basis in classical training, in that vocabulary, but it just looks different.
Some dancers say what I do is quirky ballet, but a lot of contemporary choreographers you could describe that way. Every choreographer is very different from every other choreographer because we’re all filtering through our own life experiences and training so we all look different from one another. But this work is definitely based in the classical canon.
HH: You’ve been called Paul Taylor’s muse. What did you learn working with him?
LY: I learned a lot about how to put a dance together from Paul Taylor. In my last years there as a dancer, I was staging a number of his works and, in the process of staging them, I had to analyze them in great detail. It was like having a primer in choreography or getting a course in how to structure a dance, how to make a dance. I think all told, my work doesn’t really look like Paul’s at all (which I think is good). He really made some brilliant dances. In the same way that a young composer would analyze a Bartók string quartet to understand how you use theme and variations, it was similar. I was in this privileged position to be able to study these works from the inside out and really get an education.
HH: Thinking back again to Atwood’s novel, what lessons do you think we can learn today from her cautionary tale?
LY: Well, it’s what I said right at the beginning, which is ‘wow’. Look at what’s going on right now and how long ago she was able to see this coming. She saw a movement taking shape that was determined to put women back barefoot in the kitchen — worse than that — and wrote about it. That’s the reaction people have now when they read the novel – ‘wow’. She could see this coming. I went to hear her speak back in the early 2000s in New York and her agent mentioned that people ask her all the time “how did you know?”
HH: The Handmaid’s Tale has also been adapted for film and opera. Why do you think a contemporary classical ballet will succeed?
LY: I hope it will. I knock on wood as I say that. I’ve certainly given this project my last ounce of blood. I can’t promise that it will succeed but I’m doing my best. I have two goals: to make a successful work for the company and to make the dancers look fabulous dancing it. If I can achieve those two things, I will feel very satisfied.
HH: Would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist for the future?
LY: It’s such a complex time and I’d say what is going on right now is crosscurrents. It’s certainly possible that the United States will descend into some horrible state like this, but it’s almost like a yin-yang thing. At the same time that there are these dark forces brewing to take us backward, there’s an equal force propelling us into a better future. I certainly hope that the forward-looking forces will dominate, but we may be in this dynamic for quite a while where we have opposing forces tugging, pushing us and pulling us in different directions. It’s interesting — at the same time fifteen states have outlawed abortion, most states have legalized gay marriage. So you see these forward-looking and backward-looking forces simultaneously. It’s a very complex time, and the hope that I have is that the younger generations are much more tolerant and better educated.
Ultimately, I’m an optimist. I’m optimistic in the long run.
HH: What inspires you as an artist?
LY: So many different things. That’s a difficult question. It’s hard to pin it down. In any given moment, I’m inspired by something different — it can be a painting, it can be a book. It could be a life experience with a friend. It can really be anything. I’m kind of a foreign-news junkie and read a lot of foreign newspapers so I’m always concerned with the worldview and how the world sees the United States. But what inspires me to make a dance is different every time for every piece.
HH: Any final thoughts?
LY: One thing I’d like to say. One of the characters is Offred’s best friend, Moira. She really got to me. Moira’s story for me was just unbelievably moving and powerful. She’s the one character in the novel that fights back and that has been the most important inspiration for me for making this ballet. Moira is reckless. But she’s also brave. She’s brave. She stands up and so you’ve just got to love her. You love her because she’s a fighter.
Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s premieres The Handmaid’s Tale choreographed by Lila York on October 16th running through the 20th in Winnipeg.