(Rough) Translations


This October,  I attended the premiere of RWB’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the film Hannah Arendt at Cinematheque,both damning indictments of totalitarianism and right thinking,[1] and much more interesting than the tragedy of the Harper government or the comedy at Winnipeg City Hall. I intended to do them both at once, but I’ve run out of steam unable to sit down and write fewer than 1,000 words about work that I get caught up in, so I’ll spare you the second thousand about the film until the weekend.

RWB slider with amandaBMargaret Atwood introduced ballet translation of The Handmaids Tale at it’s recent RWB Winnipeg premiere in an opening chat with Artist Director Andre Lewis. She made clear, when a written work, like her novel, is taken up by another art form, the language and the vocabulary change.  In the best of instances, concentrating the translation through the strengths of the new discipline, we encounter something new and satisfying on its own merits.

The work needs to be considered for what it is, rather than for what it is not, or what is missing in translation. Atwood has been reasonably fortunate in previous translations for opera and film, and now also the ballet, proving to me at least, the original work is strong enough to survive these,  sometimes rough translations.

I went to McNally Robinson two days after the premiere, and The Handmaid’s Tale was sold out, which I noted positively as a sign that though the ballet was satisfying, many were going to read the novel and make their own comparisons about the success of the translation. 

There were a few opening night glitches like positioning a rather grand and ominous  staircase  by stage hands,  but the set, designed by Clifton Taylor, assisted by Anshumnan Bhatia  was excellent.  The set made striking use of vertical space which always appeals to me on a big stage, with ladders, gallery, the staircase, and other elements setting an appropriate tone and visual cue in a totalitarian society where women serve as breeders or Jezebels, and the majority of men live and work as drones.  

The lighting and the projections were predictable but did not impede the success of this translation. The costumes on other hand, designed  by Liz Vandal, were a much weaker element. Vandal who has a huge and successful career working out of Montreal with companies like La La Human Steps  either didn’t have her heart in the project, or lacked time and budget to seize on the material and design the kind of spectacular work of which she is capable.  Either that or she was told to dial it back because this was ballet, and the dancers must be able to dance without any interference or difficulties presented by costuming.  Contemporary dance choreography on the other hand sometimes complicates dancing with costuming as a strategy of the work., flippers, blocks of wood,  for example.

I think this was a missed opportunity whatever the reason, and I would hope that future productions would give the men more original and substantial helmets and loose the gross shiny pants, no matter how flattering. The commander and men of higher ranks fared better though the cold war references in their uniforms were really just a shorthand, and not very interesting.

The women fared slightly better though their headgear might bear some more attention as well. The gray unitards, with the red fabric over garments worked well, though with the headgear I immediately thought of nuns (which may have been intentional, and fine by me). The resonance with my experience though, was with a Manitoba Opera presentation of Bizet’s Dialogue of the Carmelites (their best work in that decade anyway), which does have relevance to the ballet and the novel, but I digress.

  The music was contemporary but with so many classical , religious and popular references I had to check to see the names of 20th century composers like Schnittke and Arvo Part for example. The orchestra under the direction of Tadeusz Biernacki sounded terrific, and Winnipeg is fortunate to able to see such a complete production at such a high level of performance.

  I’ve avoided talking about the choreography because I am uncertain, generally and particularly about this production. The RWB has done a marvelous thing in setting up their endowment to support the creation of new work like this one.  It is expensive in most of the performing arts but opera and ballet really can break the bank. According to the notes work started on The Handmaid’s Tale in August with the company on site, though there will have been a lot of of work done before hand.

More time is rarely something available these days as even well-endowed organizations need to strive for balanced budgets. The first half seemed to long too me with lots of story to tell, and the second too short with a focus on dancing, so structurally some changes for a better balance might help. On the other hand, the ballet was lighter that the  novel, perhaps a curtsey to an audience happy with Moulin Rouge and the Nutcracker.  The Snidley Whiplash mustache twirl by the Commander during the rape scene made me laugh, and not in the best postmodern way.

Choreographer Lila York has an English degree and a long history as a dancer and as a choreographer since the 1990s, known particularly for her work with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. A better fit I think than Tywla Tharp for the RWB. York has set work on the RWB before, and here in the Handmaid’s Tale with some lovely pas de deux and small ensemble work especially effective.  I came away thinking that totalitarianism was taken too literarily in the translation to some rather rigid choreography, especially in the first act. There was a much better sense of York’s capabilities when she was  working more freely, especially in some of the romantic scenes (I was made to think of “Belong”) and in the second half and with the rebels.

Hands are hard, in dance even more so than in painting. It may be a small quibble but the women’s angular up and down hand movements (not uncommon in contemporary dance where I don’t like them either) in front the chest are awkward. Even if I’m missing what they might “mean” they are so damn distracting and laughable I hope they are reconsidered in future productions.

The performances were of usual high caliber, especially in a new work. Likely Lilia’s previous experience with the company was a help, with the rehearsal time available. I enjoyed particularly the performances of Alexander Gamaunov as The Commander, Sophia Lee as Moira and Yosuke Mino as the leader of the  resistance .  In the opening chat Andre Lewis drew attention to the importance of physicality of dance in making this ballet work, and yes, I could see that. But the translation of the novel’s  “heart of darkness, ” was glossed over in this translation, perhaps not trusting the audience enough, to see as Leonard Cohen sings “there is a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”

They do get close enough in this first, rough translation, that I look forward to future productions of what i hope will become a staple of their repertoire.


[1] See my poem “Correct in this Culture” from my 1985 collection of the same name in the Books section of this site.


This entry was posted in Seeing, This & That, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



Blog Subscription

To receive notification of new articles.