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Royal Winnipeg Ballet dances for truth and reconciliation in ‘Going Home Star’

By Yasmine Shemesh
A harrowing yet beautiful look at the pain caused by the residential school system. Photo: Réjean Brandt

A harrowing yet beautiful look at the pain caused by the residential school system.
Photo: Réjean Brandt

VANCOUVER — For five years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) travelled across Canada to collect the testimonies of First Nations survivors who were submitted to the residential school system. 94 “calls to action” were then published to recognize the harrowing legacy. One of these calls was directed to the arts community and donations were made to put towards projects that would acknowledge the accounts and create something enduring by using them.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production, Going Home Star, responds to this call.

Late Anishnabe Elder Mary Richard, a fan of the company’s 1971 production of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, had been encouraging RWB’s longtime artistic director André Lewis to create an Aboriginal-themed project. To help fulfill the vision, Tina Keeper (Cree activist, former member of the Canadian House of Commons) joined the RWB’s board of directors and suggested doing a ballet based on the TRC’s findings. Lewis — who performed in Rita Joe — agreed immediately.

“I was [at] one of the [TRC] events in Edmonton and boy, you heard some pretty rough stories, testimonies,” Lewis says. “It was not an easy situation. I have two kids, my wife and I, and I could not imagine losing them at age six to go somewhere where I don’t know where it is, you have no control. I would find that — well, I don’t know how people coped.”

Photo: Samantha Katz

Photo: Samantha Katz

A diverse cast of artistic collaborators was assembled, including Giller Prize-winning novelist Joseph Boyden. Boyden penned a powerful narrative that follows the journey of a young, contemporary Aboriginal woman, Annie, as she begins to understand the plight of her ancestors through Gordon, a homeless residential school survivor. A commanding musical score composed by Christos Hatzis features Polaris Prize-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and Steve Wood & the Northern Cree Singers, alongside choreography by Mark Godden.

Working with a diverse range of mediums — dance, literature, music — was a challenge, but, Lewis says, a fulfilling one. “We work differently and, to tell you frankly, every artist works differently. It’s not just because of cultural differences, but cultural differences can also accentuate those ways of working differently or looking at the world differently.”

Looking through another pair of eyes is, in fact, an integral concept when it comes to Going Home Star. “At first people say, and it was mostly the non-indigenous community that felt, ‘why are you doing a story like this? This is not our story, this is an indigenous story,’” Lewis says. “First of all, I disagree.” It’s a Canadian story, he maintains. A story that peers deeply into the country’s painful past, through lenses of truth and reconciliation.

Going Home Star runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from April 7-9.

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