Choreographed by Wayne McGregor for the National Ballet of Canada. Inspired by Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam Trilogy”. At the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., until November 30. national.ballet.ca, 416-345-9595 or 1-866-345-9595
How to solve a problem like MaddAddam?
If you’re British star choreographer Wayne McGregor, you begin by recognizing the futility of a literal page-to-page transfer of Canadian icon Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic and dystopian speculative fiction trilogy of the same name. . Instead, you opt for an impressionistic, emotionally charged theatrical response to the books’ overarching themes and assemble a small army of your favorite artistic collaborators to help the project along.
The result is a sensory feast of sights and sounds so overwhelming that at times it makes your head spin, yet still delivers an undeniably thrilling experience.
It’s no wonder they stood and clapped Wednesday night as the National Ballet of Canada danced the highly publicized and mega-marketed world premiere of McGregor’s “MADDADDAM,” its title for some reason shouted with uppercase insistence. Atwood beamed as McGregor invited him to join the encores; an even bigger roar of approval.
Most choreographers who delve into literature opt for familiar stories, so even if you haven’t read the text or seen the piece, you have a basic idea of what’s going on. Think “Romeo and Juliet”, “Hamlet”, “Cinderella”. And, of course, there’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, a runaway success for the National Ballet in its 2011 rendition by Christopher Wheeldon and, like “MADDADDAM”, a co-production with the Royal Ballet, except in this case it was the British company that halved the alleged $2 million budget while leaving Canadians the privilege of taking the production to the stage.
You might even include Atwood’s 1985 “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the familiar tales camp since it has become widely known through film and television. Indeed, Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs a dance adaptation by American choreographer Lila York. “MADDADDAM”? Not really.
Atwood’s trilogy is hugely complex with overlapping timelines, flashbacks, and a changing cast of characters who sometimes don’t even keep the same names or outward appearance. As Atwood constructs his overly prophetic accusation of human greed and degeneracy, the grim events of the books are told from multiple angles. It makes for a difficult but exciting read.
The natural question is therefore whether one needs to read the books to get something out of ballet. There is no clear answer.
If you’ve read the books, you might be frustrated by what’s left out, though you’ll be spared the uncomfortable child porn through which Atwood first introduces us to the mysterious Oryx, who would later become the pinnacle of a love triangle.
If you haven’t read the trilogy, even playwright Uzma Hameed’s lengthy introductory essay in the house program is unlikely to make navigating through the tangled web of finely drawn characters any easier. This is especially true in “Castaway,” the first of three acts of 30-minute “MADDADDAM.”
Here, McGregor attempts a summary of the trilogy’s main storylines, including of course the “waterless deluge” of a deadly global pandemic, engineered by the morally ambiguous mad scientist Crake, which wipes out most of the human race that he despises so deeply. McGregor introduces us to all the main characters who survive the disaster and the genetically engineered race of sweetly innocent, polyamorous, herbivorous, singing hominids called, after their creator, Crakers.
McGregor even adds references, thanks to the cinematic contributions of Ravi Deepres, to Atwood’s denunciations of capitalism, corporatism and urbanization gone mad. If you don’t blink, you might even see a fleeting image of the CN Tower.
The choreography, initially in slow motion, is hard to see in Lucy Carter’s moody but dark lighting, especially when behind a scrim. The projected effects are wonderfully realized in themselves. Architecture firm We Not I’s enormous three-dimensional egg-shaped sphere is a magnet for the eye, but it also distracts from what, in a ballet, you’d assume to be the main event. : dance.
Then everything changes for the better. The remaining two acts are full of inventive and breathtaking choreography with large groups of dancers creating an almost kaleidoscopic whirlwind of movement or, as a duo, counterbalancing or cantilevering each other as the limbs project outward. or that the dancers are carried aloft in perilous shoulder lifts.
Act 2 is titled “Extinctathon”, a reference to an online game childhood buddies Crake and Jimmy play in the Atwood trilogy when they’re not watching a TV channel featuring real-time executions. . Gareth Pugh’s elaborate costume designs for Act I now give way to minimal white. The characters, transposed from Act I, are identified as “Player 1”, “Player 2” and so on. Above them hangs the architectural cluster of an upside-down city.
The projected captions don’t help much in explaining precisely what is going on. The introduction of a spoken passage from “Burning Questions”, Atwood’s recent collection of essays, is somewhat abrupt. We already understand the point.
Act 3, “Dawn,” is the most emotionally impactful as McGregor tries out a potentially conflict-free, nature-friendly new Genesis. The Crakers will carry the torch as they mourn the ancestors.
As elsewhere in “MADDADDAM,” the Max Richter-commissioned score, a seamless blend of recorded electronica and live orchestra, deftly supports and emotionally complements what we’re witnessing, whether flirting with EDM in Act II or to bring together the powerful sound of epic film music in Act III.
A ballet like this inevitably takes time to set up. In the world of commercial theater, Wednesday night would have been a first preview. That said, the National Ballet dancers made impressive debuts with standout performances from Harrison James, Siphesihle November, Koto Ishihara and Heather Ogden as walk-through characters Crake, Jimmy, Oryx and Toby respectively. Hats off, too, to those tasked with the unenviable task of portraying the Pigoons, the only hybrid creatures to transition from Atwood to ballet.
The revered star guest of the evening was apparently thrilled. The Toronto Star’s Deborah Dundas caught up with Atwood just before Act 3 when the author expressed her joy that the story had been made into a video game in Act 2.
“The dancing is beautiful,” Atwood said, adding in his own wry way. “I guess we have a hit on our hands.”
Let’s hope she’s right. If society hopes “MADDADDAM” will become the blockbuster it deserves to be, it better pray that positive word-of-mouth and social media endorsements will help sell the many seats still available for all eight performances. remaining. ‘MADDADDAM’ is exactly the kind of bold and imaginative affirmation of the potential evolution of classical ballet that is most likely to appeal to new audiences and ensure the survival of this art form.
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