“We danced.” Margaret Atwood arrives at a Toronto studio and collapses into a chair next to Wayne McGregor. The pair have returned from a photoshoot to promote the world premiere of Mad Addama new ballet performed by the National Ballet of Canada and inspired by Atwood’s trilogy of books, which opens this month at the city‘s Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts.
Atwood, author of more than 60 non-fiction books, poems and critical essays, whose novels include the 1985 classic The story of the maid and its sequel in 2019 The wills – Co-winner of the Booker Prize – is no stranger to the art of the plié. “I was a five-year-old ballet and tap dancer. I’d be standing in my little sailor outfit on top of a cheese box that would look like a drum playing ‘Anchors Aweigh,'” she says in a Canadian tone about what first ignited her lifelong love of theater and ballet. An aspiring young performer, she recalls, “It was the skit era, so we sent through high school, college, and summer camp a few times. I remember a production by hamlet in which Hamlet was called an omelet.”
The author, who turns 83 in November, is in a mischievous mood. But while she and McGregor, 52, have the playful old-friends relationship, they hadn’t met before the project began in 2016 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and was appointed Resident Choreographer at The Royal Ballet in 2006, the first with a contemporary background. This year he is celebrating a milestone, the 30th anniversary of his company Wayne McGregor (formerly Random Dance).
“We tried to think about how we could make these big, full-length ballets from sources that you wouldn’t think were making dance projects. I had made this amazing ballet inspired by the life and writings of Virginia Woolf and The Dante Project in London,” he says of his reinterpretation of The Divine Comedy for The Royal Ballet, “but Margaret’s novels have always been an incredible part of my life. The language is so alive, the character relationship is so alive, the worlds are so alive. I find them really moving; they speak to me.”
McGregor’s enthusiasm for the books led to a conversation with Karen Kain, former Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada. “I asked her if she knew Margaret, and her sly way connected us,” he recalls. “The next thing I knew we were having breakfast.”
McGregor loves a challenge. His avatar guided ABBA journey Blockbusters with director Baillie Walsh are currently thrilling audiences in Great Britain. But while this production is a dizzying feat of virtual imagination, Mad Addama triptych ballet spanning three books (Oryx and Crake; The Year of the Flood; and the third title Mad Addam) in a story that hops between dystopia and apocalypse in different timelines may well be his most ambitious project to date.
Atwood’s trilogy introduces us to a world of unbridled corporate greed and scientific exploration. There, a mad scientist (“Crazy? Maybe he’s just logical,” Atwood interjects), bent on eradicating the scourge of humanity, unleashes a deadly virus on a gentle and innocent bioengineered quasi-human species called the Crakers to leave world. The surviving humans become the Crakers’ protectors, but the new species becomes obsessed with their origins – a narrative shaped (and ultimately tainted) by flawed human memory and interpretation. As a piece, it asks if you can ever really wipe the board clean.
“I just want to know how you get around those giant blue penises,” says Atwood with a huge grin: In the book, Crakers’ genitals enlarge and turn blue during mating season. McGregor bursts out laughing, but then quickly pulls himself together. “It’s not a literal interpretation, but a leap of faith,” he explains of his translation of a dark odyssey into dance. “It’s about finding a dialogue with the work and its environment, and then creating movement around the key themes.”
His words trigger a memory in Atwood. She jumps in, remembering the party at age nine where she first saw the 1948 film The red shoes. “There is an amazing dream sequence where a newspaper comes to life. I remember being quite scared of that – it’s a brilliant sequence, so impressionistic, a bit like Singin’ in the Rain; it’s pure emotion,” she says.
McGregor agrees, “That’s what makes dance brilliant. It opens up a whole range of somatics, a kind of sensual relationship with character or ideas. It’s funny because when we first started thinking about how the novels could become a ballet, the stories were presented as imaginings of what could happen. Then Covid came and there was a sense of speculative fiction moving into documentary territory.”
Atwood’s work seems remarkably prescient. Particularly, The story of the maid has become an unnerving allegory for the post-Roe vs Wade world. “It wasn’t me, but it was predictable,” she replies matter-of-factly.
After finding “a really beautiful visual language for the three novels,” McGregor is excited to share the praise for directing Mad Addam; His backstage collaborators include London architecture firm We Not I, English lighting designer Lucy Carter, filmmaker and photographer Ravi Deepres and British director and writer Uzma Hameed. “Gareth Pugh, one of the greatest fashion designers in the world, also designed these incredible costumes and composer Max Richter wrote a new score for the play.” Atwood splashes cheekily. “You mean you don’t Swan Lake?”
Atwood’s interest is piqued when McGregor describes the avatars he’s been working with and they start talking excitedly about physical intelligence and how many of us have separated from our bodies in the modern world. McGregor is currently writing a book on the subject; Atwood shares his fascination. “At the beginning of the 20th century most people lived in rural areas and many on farms, that’s my background – my father worked with his hands and with tools. If something broke, you fixed it; you had to know how to fix it,” says Atwood. Her father, Carl, was a forest entomologist whose research took him to the forests of northern Quebec, where the author spent much of her childhood. During the harsh winters, the family returned to the cities of Ottawa (early 1940s), Sault Ste Marie (1944-45), and Toronto (1946-47). “Kids are now growing up knowing how to code, but not how to chop wood,” she says. “There will be a problem if the power goes out.”
Atwood’s background also played a role in McGregor’s decision to do this as a co-production between the Royal Ballet of Covent Garden and the National Ballet of Canada. “It was important that it started in Toronto,” says McGregor. “Not least because Margaret has been here, but also because Canadians scream through the novels – it’s that sense of wilderness and city that you can detect in terms of geography. The cast is quite large – because we have so many shows, we double and triple cast many roles, so there will be over 60 dancers involved in the production. Then there’s the orchestra, the electronics, and the big sets. It’s a huge effort.”
I ask Atwood, who is an outlier to many, how she feels about others’ interpretation of her work: In addition to her hugely popular television adaptation The story of the maid was also adapted into an opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders. “I’ve seen that a lot over the course of my very, very, very long life,” she says. “When I was approached about doing the opera, I thought the guy was crazy. But I said to myself, either he’s going to do a good opera and it’s going to be a big hit, or he’s going to do a bad one and it’s going to collapse. So I said to him, ‘Be my guest, be my sound box.’”
And what does she think of McGregor’s ideas for the show so far? “I haven’t seen any costumes or sketches and I haven’t heard any concepts — and I don’t want to,” she says. “I want to be surprised. I want to see everything the way any viewer would see it.”
How does McGregor feel about the trust placed in him? “It’s both terrifying and liberating,” he says. “But to see Margaret say, ‘That’s really cool’ on premiere night after seeing it for the first time – that would be something. That’s what we shoot for.”
MaddAddam is a guest at the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts in Toronto, Canada, November 23-30. national.ballet.ca