On October 1 the Royal Winnipeg Ballet opens its 75th season with an emotionally charged dramatization of healing in the wake of Canada’s residential school system. The production, Going Home Star-Truth And Reconciliation, was written by award-winning Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden and includes music by Polaris Prize-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
Going Home Star takes its title from an aboriginal name for the North Star, and follows the journey of Annie (Sophia Lee), a young First Nations woman living in the city who is disconnected from her heritage until she meets Gordon (Liang Xing), a homeless First Nations man who is struggling with the pain of his experience in a residential school. As the story unfolds, both Annie and Gordon realize that finding peace and reconciliation lies in facing the difficult realities of the past and overcoming them through a reconnection with their traditions.
André Lewis, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, told the CBC that he commissioned the work because he believes that “Art for social change is something that is possible…For me, it’s about trying to find ways to move forward as a society. The ballet is not about trying to create a guilt trip.”
This same spirit of openness and dialogue is embodied in the artistic fabric of the production, with its nuanced mix of First Nations and European traditions. Just as Boyden’s story incorporates Western and indigenous symbols, so too does composer Christos Hatzis blend classical traditions of music with the complex power of Cree powwow drumming and Inuk throat singing.
This mix was not, however, an easy or obvious one. When approached to help turn the narratives of residential school years into a ballet, Boyden (whose novels Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda all explore the relationship between First Nations peoples and Europeans in Canada) expressed some initial doubts about the project.
As he confessed in an interview with CBC Radio’s Jian Ghomeshi, “I wrestled with it at first…why would we take something so traditional and then try to attach it to something very European? But then I started watching a few ballets and I started thinking, ‘My God, is this ever beautiful…why not attach a very painful experience to something that is beautiful?’ ”
The production’s message is one very much grounded in the experiences of First Nations people in Canada, and although none of the dancers are themselves First Nations people, several First Nations people have been involved in developing the production, including Boyden (who has Anishinaabe as well as Scottish and Irish heritage), associate producer and former Member of Parliament Tina Keeper (of Norway House Cree Nation) and Métis set designer KC Adams.
Moreover, while the production is being debuted by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Boyden also spoke optimistically about the possibility of having it staged by First Nations dance companies in the future.
The opening performance will be prefaced by a discussion with Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners Justice Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson about the work of the commission and the value of ballet as a way of bringing together residential school survivors, First Nations people and the wider Canadian public.
The Anglican Church of Canada, which operated over 30 residential schools across Canada, has actively participated in Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) events across Canada.