WINNIPEG – One of the most European forms of dance will tackle Canada’s fraught colonial history when performers with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet take to the stage Wednesday for the world premiere of a ballet about Indian residential schools.
The ballet, entitled “Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation,” follows the journey of a young, urban First Nations woman who discovers her ancestors and finds meaning in her own life with the help of a homeless residential school survivor.
Based on a story by novelist Joseph Boyden, it includes appearances by Polaris prize winner and Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq along with other aboriginal vocalists.
The ballet, sponsored by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is an attempt to capture the emotions and experiences of residential school survivors by a company that doesn’t have an aboriginal dancer.
But commission head Murray Sinclair said it’s a way to bring a dark chapter of Canadian history to a different audience.
“We know that people will say this is not their story to tell us,” Sinclair said in an interview. “That’s true, but what we say to survivors who wonder why this is being done is: ‘This is a story that they’re telling themselves. This is a story that Canadian society needs to be able to communicate to itself in a way that they can appreciate.’
“This is one way of doing that.”
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend government schools over much of the last century to “take the Indian out of the child.” The last school closed outside Regina in 1996.
The $60-million truth and reconciliation commission is part of a landmark compensation deal between the federal government, the Crown and residential school survivors. It has visited hundreds of communities and has heard graphic details of rampant sexual and physical abuse.
Learning about the issue through dance can reach those who would not necessarily attend a lecture or a speech on the topic, Sinclair said. Dance and music have also been shown scientifically to stimulate a separate part of the brain, so the ballet has the potential to reach people on a different level, he said.
“This is not an aboriginal story. This is not only about the experience of those who were students in the school. This is also the story about Canada’s experience,” Sinclair said.
“While they were indoctrinating aboriginal people into believing that their people were inferior, their languages were irrelevant, their cultures were not worth protecting, the very same message was being given to students in public schools in this country.”
The performance was spearheaded by aboriginal actress and former MP Tina Keeper, who sits on the ballet’s board of directors. The history of residential schools in Canada lends itself well to the ballet stage, she said.
“At the heart of every ballet is a great story and that’s what we have here,” she said. “It is a great tragic tale and a love story, so in that sense, it fits perfectly.”
Choreographer Mark Godden said the aim was to reflect the heart-wrenching stories coming out of the truth and reconciliation commission. But the experience also needed to be positive.
“It’s to not deny the past but to say that, in many ways, First Nations and aboriginal people are stronger than they are before. Many of them aren’t victims,” he said. “That was the desire — to build a story that was more uplifting.”
Godden said he started by watching streaming testimony given at the commission. With two kids of his own, he was an “emotional wreck” absorbing the raw, emotional testimony, he said. But he also saw the courage and strength of survivors who relived their abuse by talking about it publicly.
“That’s something I wanted to put into the ballet,” he said. “If everybody picks up the burden of this story, then we lighten the load for everybody. It’s a sense of social responsibility there.”
The ballet is careful to avoid cultural appropriation, Godden said. There is no attempt to integrate traditional aboriginal dance or costume. The music, performed by aboriginal artists, provides a bridge between the European tradition of ballet and the aboriginal experience, he suggested.
Commissioners and survivors met with those involved with the ballet throughout the creative process.
“The process itself has been reconciling,” said commissioner Marie Wilson. “The process of having dancers and creative people learn about this history while they are practising their own art form has allowed for growth. Those who come as audience members will be witness to that.”
The ballet is giving away free tickets to residential school survivors and is setting aside a batch of “pay-what-you-can” tickets for one performance.
It’s hoped the ballet will tour across the country following its premiere in Winnipeg.