The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is currently touring Canada with its groundbreaking and deeply moving ballet “Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation,” which premièred in Winnipeg in October 2014, during its 75th anniversary season. On April 1 and 2, 2016 Dance Victoria brought the production to Victoria’s Royal Theatre, recognizing the significance of what the company’s artistic director André Lewis has described as “the most important dance mounted by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in its illustrious 75-year history.”
Every county has its own traumatic past (just to name a few: German and Italian fascism and the Holocaust, Bolshevik and Stalinist Terror and the Gulags in Russia, French colonialist war with Algeria, U.S. slavery and internment camps during WWII, South African Apartheid, continental African civil wars and genocides, and many other examples of infringements on human rights and lives committed around the globe). Canada has a long history of eradicating its Indigenous population, the most recent manifestation of which are the missing and murdered Aboriginal women of British Columbia.
Through the residential schools legislature from 1883, over 70 schools were established all across Canada, where Aboriginal children were taken away from their families to be educated by nuns and clergy in order to “civilize and Christianize” them. These underfunded schools operated on a half-day system until the 1950s, where students were taught to read, write, and count in the mornings, and forced to work for the rest of the day to help upkeep the schools. By the 1940s, the residential school system was recognized as a failure, yet the system was expanded into the Canadian north. In 1969, the federal government ended its partnership with the churches and slowly began to close the schools or turn them over to local educational authorities. Over the last 20 years, through testimonies, memoirs, and legal action, it has become apparent that generations of children have been physically and sexually abused, beaten, malnourished, punished for using their native language and culture, and forced to child labour, which led to the psychological and social destruction of many Indigenous cultures all across Canada. The last schools did not close until the mid-1990s – which means that these atrocities happened ON OUR WATCH.
In 2007, after many years of protest and legal action by generations of survivors and their families, the Canadian government established the Residential School Settlement Agreement to provide compensation to survivors, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to collect testimonies of survivors, to educate the Canadian public about its gruesome history in the treatment of its own people, and to attempt to foster projects of support and reconciliation. The Commission’s slogan that “without truth there is no reconciliation” has become an umbrella brand for dealing with controversial subjects, conversations, and works of art. After an official apology from the Canadian government and the Pope, we are now entering the socially awkward “reconciliation” phase of our national history (historically akin to the post-war generations of Germans during whose lifetime and on whose watch the concentration camps took place – except that we didn’t have a dictatorship or a World War).
Culturally, this reconciliation project has been generously funded, incorporating various Native people’s histories and arts into all public institutions, universities, museums, galleries, airports, parks, and shopping malls. Aboriginal voices are slowly entering mainstream media and culture (after becoming Miss Universe Canada in 2015, Ashley Callingbull Burnham – the first Aboriginal Canadian woman to win the contest, spoke out against the former Conservative government’s neglect of Aboriginal issues in Canada), and the majority of Canadians are being educated into respecting First Nations’ traditions and rights. But we still struggle with guilt, shame, enforced political correctness and social awkwardness when confronted with survivors and a general lack of words and inability to express the fact that we all allowed this to happen.
While many people, including the Canadian writer Joseph Boyden (author of the “Going Home Star” libretto) expressed initial doubts about whether ballet would be an appropriate art form for a topic of such social significance and emotional complexity, two Indigenous women who first conceptualized and initiated this project had no doubts that through dance and music (themselves important elements of Indigenous cultures – and most cultures for that matter) one can indeed express infinitely more when words have failed.
This ballet exists because of the efforts of these two Indigenous women who wanted this story to be told through the art of ballet: first envisioned 12 years ago by the late Cree elder and activist Mary Richard, former Chair and CEO of the Circle of Life Thunderbird House and a long-time subscriber and supporter of the Royal Winnepeg Ballet, who approached the company’s artistic rirector with the idea to create an Indigenous-themed ballet. It was then revived by another First Nations woman, Tina Keeper, a former MP, producer, and actor, who wanted to produce it with the help and funding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, telling the stories of many residential school survivors and their families.In keeping with Richard’s wishes, the full-length ballet employs the vocabulary of classical dance, with some contemporary touches.
For this production a remarkable team of some of Canada’s top artistic talents was assembled, including novelist Joseph Boyden, Montreal-based choreographer Mark Godden, renowned Toronto-based and Juno-award winning composer Christos Hatzis, and award-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and Steve Wood & the Northern Cree Singers.
The ballet tells the story of Annie, a young, urban First Nations woman, who works as a hair stylist, commutes through the city on the subway, and frequents nightclubs, where dancing, drugs, and love affairs fill her nights. Disconnected from herself and her culture, she only feels alive when she is dancing.Yet over time, her routine gradually begins to break down (symbolized by musical and dance fragmentations of movements and melodies), especially after she meets Gordon, a mystical trickster disguised as a homeless man, who has run away from his abusive foster care existence, living in the streets. Recognizing a connection in his experiences, Annie is drawn to him, and together they explore the past of their ancestors, rife with injustice and abuse, all the while learning to carry one another’s burden, and helping each other face a hopeful future together.
Through flashbacks (based on survivors’ testimonies), we see the stories of Niska and Charlie, who are abused, beaten, and raped at the residential school they were forced to attend by the clergymen. Charlie runs away searching for the train tracks that he hopes will lead him home, and by following the “Going Home Star” – the North Star that he uses for navigation, but the way home is much longer than he anticipated. He disappears, as many other “Star Children” have, in search for home. We see Niska’s parents, who with their love and support represent a community of healers, and whose generation suffered the most at the residential schools. We see the damage done not merely to one individual child, but to the whole community, the whole nation. We see the colonial history and the arrival of Europeans told from the point of view of the First Nations who assisted the the so-called “pioneers” with survival in their new homeland. We see the model of the residential school set on fire in a symbolic and cathartic flame, and feel the relief that the main protagonists experience in overcoming their past and focusing on a future filled with love and support.
The TRC Commission head, Justice Murray Sinclair, noted that this ballet “is a story that Canadian society needs to be able to communicate to itself in a way that survivors can appreciate.” The most challenging part in the creation of this ballet was getting to “reconciliation,” which is always a collaborative effort, and as such the production process of bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and collaborators together was a step in the right direction. Moreover, the moving power of music and dance to tell stories and mobilize compassion, empathy, and understanding play a very important role in this production.
At its core, this ballet is a love story of two people adrift in the urban and isolating world, but searching for belonging, connection, resonance, and community. In their struggle to connect to each other, they discover, as we all have to on our path to maturity and personal growth, that the traumas of the past have to be reconciled in the present in order for a true connection and a functional relationship to be possible.
The larger and more social implications of their traumas have a wider political and historical dimension relevant for all Canadians. This includes reframing Canada’s so-called “Aboriginal Issue” as our collective (and global) issues with colonialism, racism, and patriarchy (as the poet and educator Tasha Spillett suggests), understanding that privilege (especially white and male privilege) means “thinking something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally,” and finally furthering collective educational initiatives to facilitate a culture, in which both responsibility and respect are shared, and where the common goal is social justice.
Founded in 1939, initially under the name The Winnipeg Ballet Club, by Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet received the first Royal charter granted by Queen Elizabeth II in the Commonwealth after her visit to Canada in 1953. In 1971, the company produced its first Indigenous-themed ballet choreographed by Norbert Vesak, “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,” based on the play by George Ryga, about a young Aboriginal woman who leaves the reservation in the hope of finding a better life in the city, but quickly becomes entrapped in a desolate world of prostitution and drug addiction.Originally commissioned in 1971 by the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood Association to mark the centenary of the signing of Indian Treaties Number 1 and 2, Vesak’s ballet was 40 min long and premièred in Ottawa.
In 1990, the Soloist Mark Godden was appointed the company’s resident choreographer, and in 1996 André Lewis was named artistic director, replacing the famous dancer and company director Arnold Spohr. Since 2013, the company expanded its Canadian content, when it invited Lila York to adapt and choreograph Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Celebrating the 30th anniversary of its publication, Atwood’s canonical work tells the story of a society where human (and especially women’s) rights have been stripped away. Thus experienced, more than any other Canadian dance company, in taking on more challenging themes (as well as classical masterpieces), with “Going Home Star” the company has set a new record for using art and dance to engage with issues of social importance and social justice.
The company dancers masterfully conveyed a wide spectrum of emotions (ranging from anger and despair to love and healing). Principal dancer Sophia Lee, born in Seoul, Korea, and trained in Langley, BC, captured Annie with grace and humility. Liang Xing, a native of Beijing, China, plays Gordon, and Dmitri Dovgoselets from Kyiv, Ukraine, portrayed the head clergyman. The part of Niska was danced by Alanna McAdie, a native of Edmonton, and the role of Charlie was performed by Yosuke Mino from Japan. Also noteworthy was the soloist Yayoi Ban from Japan, who played Niska’s mother and also dances the role of Annie on alternate performance nights.
At the end of the performance, Sophia Lee made a very moving speech, dedicating the work of this international cast to all the survivors of residential school and thanking them for their presence and courage.
The ballet is truly a Gesamtkunstwerk of transformative power. All its components, including the set designs (KC Adams) and costumes (by Paul Daigle), work together masterfully. But especially noteworthy is Christos Hatzis’s tour-de-force score that weaves in musical elements from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and Stravinsky’s “The Rites of Spring” together with the vocals of Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers. Moreover, we also hear fragments of recorded excerpts of survivor testimonies, that have been layered into the beats and rhythms of the score, thus immersing us into a rich and textured audio experience that is at times familiar and alienating, melancholy and uplifting, moving and provoking. The Brechtian alienation techniques used throughout the score and the performance work to allow the audience to think critically about the issues evoked in the ballet, rather than merely get lost in the beauty of its execution and grace.
At each performance, the organizers set up an “elder corner” in the lobby where audiences can learn more about residential schools. The company also provided counsellors to talk to anyone upset by the scenarios portrayed in the ballet. Dance Victoria made efforts to reach out to the local Aboriginal community, including an exhibit of paintings made by students at the Alberni Indian Residential School in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and providing tickets to residential-school survivors (raised through fundraising and donations from the community), a practice that’s been followed in other cities. In addition, Dance Victoria invited Chief Yuxwelupton (Bradley Dick) who made a traditional welcome before both performances.
Most reviewers and critics in the Canadian press have focused on issues of cultural appropriation and political correctness, especially because none of the dancers and creators of the ballet are Indigenous Canadians.But we need to consider that walking the fine line between paying tribute, raising public consciousness, and making the ballet performances inclusive, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is one of the first companies to explore ways of making Canadian culture and arts more inclusive and inspirational for all communities.
A Kyaanusili Haida peace poem is included in the program, that reads:
The path of vengeance and the path of feathers
start and end together.
On the path of vengeance I departed.
By the path of feathers I arrived.
Survivors have insight, wisdom, intellectual and emotional intelligence that most people have only limited access to. Survivors have been teaching us about the depths, paradoxes, and resilience of the human spirit for generations. But we are not always capable of listening or understanding that wisdom. Or worse, we think that it does not concern us.
Reconciliation entails so much more than just knowing or speaking the truth. It consists of building new, healthy, and functional relationships based on unconditional respect, equality, support, community, and common values of love, empathy, and kindness. It is a communal process and involves relationship- and community-building expertise that go beyond legal reparations and debates. Many women, including UVic’s Dr. Andrea Walsh, have demonstrated remarkable leadership in this direction.
As the company continues to tour and invite awareness, consciousness-raising, and community reconciliation across Canada, this ballet will become an important milestone in Canadian cultural history, passed down by generations of Canadians, and hopefully inspiring young people to engage more mindfully with our wonderfully-hybrid multi-culture, and to continue to foster cultural inclusivity, creativity, and social justice.
Photography by Réjean Brandt, Samanta Katz, Vince Pahkala.