The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s (RWB) production of Going Home Star—Truth and Reconciliation, which ran Oct. 1 to 5 and opened the ballet’s 75th season, has had reviewers scrambling for adjectives. The Winnipeg Free Press‘s Holly Harris suggested that it “marks a significant turning point” that ” ensures the RWB’s own place in dance history.” Paula Citron of the Globe and Mail said of Christos Hatzis’s score that it “may be the best ballet composition ever created in Canada.” Writing for the CBC, Robert Enright said it was an “unqualified success” and suggested that it “may be the most important dance mounted by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in its illustrious 75-year history.”
The accolades, it would seem, are richly deserved: the ballet, about the path to healing followed by a residential school survivor, is not only long, complex and rich, but is also a significant milestone in Canadian art. While this is not the RWB’s first production to explore the stories of indigenous peoples—The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in 1971 looked at the tragic experience of a young woman who leaves the reservation for the city—Going Home Star is the first to portray the abuse suffered by many who went through the residential school system.
Despite the difficulty of the subject matter, the RWB’s artistic director, André Lewis, said the response “has been absolutely astounding.” For the performers as well as the audience, it has proved to be an extremely powerful work, Lewis noted. “Some people were emotional, especially Wednesday night; some of the dancers were…not traumatized, but emotionally impacted by what they had just done.” He believes this emotional impact came from the show’s relevance. As he put it, “it’s an event, in a way, of great significance that is relevant to today. A lot of the time we portray a fantasy world, but this ain’t fantasy. It’s a reality.”
Some audience members interviewed by the Anglican Journal were likewise impressed. The national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Susan Johnson, was particularly moved by the sensitive way in which the story was portrayed. “I think they were very brave in some of the things they showed in a very tasteful way, including rape. But they didn’t try to whitewash the experience.”
Melanie Kampen, a theology scholar who specializes in indigenous-settler relations, agreed, adding that “especially if you have residential school survivors in the audience, to be able to tell truth about what happened but not in a way that would retrigger people—or at least try not to retrigger people—is really good.”
Its special capacity for this kind of sensitivity, Lewis argued, is part of what makes ballet so powerful. “You can portray certain situations, certain emotions, without having to be descriptive as far as words are concerned…It impacts people.”
Michael Kannon, a programmer, writer and activist from the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation who has been involved with the indigenous rights movement Idle No More, stressed how important the show was as an opportunity for survivors to meet and support each other. “We knew we were a bit different than the ballet regulars and we smiled at them gladly. We stopped and talked to several residential school survivors throughout the evening. I could see they had an instant bond with each other even if they were just introduced. They needed love and kindness from each other…That, too, was beautiful.”