The ballet of reconciliation

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The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is currently touring Going Home Star, a new production that finds its subject matter in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This intriguing blend of European art form and Aboriginal narrative is the first of its kind for the ballet world.

For many years as a board member for the RWB, the late Elder Mary Richard prodded Artistic Director Andre Lewis for an original Indigenous ballet. The company had performed their interpretation of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, but the desire was to create something new.

As the 75th anniversary of the company loomed, Cree board member Tina Keeper, known for North of 60 and her political activism, made a suggestion. With the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings in everyone’s minds, the idea was that this new ballet would address the trauma in First Nations communities. Having explored psychological terrains before in his ballet Svengali, Mark Godden was recruited to choreograph the new piece. Going Home Star boasts an original score from composer Christos Hatzis, who utilized the throat-singing virtuosity of Tanya Tagaq and the textured voice of Northern Cree singer Steve Wood.

The irony of using a European art form to express First Nations stories wasn’t lost on Godden.

Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company dancers in Going Home Star - Truth and Reconciliation - photo by Samanta Katz

“The bridge between these two cultures had to be the music,” said Godden. “The music allows you to go to some very dark and intimate places. There’s a beautiful saying from American writer Flannery O’Connor, ‘The South is not necessarily Christ-centred but they are Christ-haunted.’ We talked about how this is a haunting. That is what Christos is trying to tap into.”

The story follows an urban Native girl named Annie, who is as strong-willed as they come. Yet her life feels unfulfilled until she meets a homeless residential-school survivor named Gordon. He elicits visions of Niska and Charlie, two children under the abusive authority of clergymen. This is history she does not know and though it’s a great burden to carry, Annie finds the will to help Gordon along and together they seek healing for the future.

These themes have been explored before in the works of Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, who provided the narrative for Going Home Star. Boyden inventively uses Annie, Gordon, Niska and Charlie to represent the medicine wheel while two Elder spirits watch over them. These spirits provide the ballet’s title.

RWB dancer Yosuke Mino - photo by Samanta Katz copy

Dancer Yosuke Mino – photos by Samanta Katz

“I call them star children,” said Godden. “I wanted it to be a ‘going-home story’. The Polaris star is known in some First Nations’ communities as the going-home star. If you keep the star over your shoulder as a reference, you’ll always be able to find your way home. I absolutely love that idea.”

It was important to the company that the ballet was created in a respectful way. During rehearsals the company observed smudging ceremonies, spoke with Elders and participated in a sweat.

“To move forward we can’t just think about ourselves and the story and how we want to hold it. This story relates to very real individuals,” Godden observed.

In Winnipeg, audience members were moved to tears, one reason why each performance offers an Elder corner in the lobby as wellas on-site counsellors.

“The path of vengeance and the path of feathers start and end together. On the path of vengeance I departed, on the path of feathers I arrived,” Godden intoned, reciting a Haida peace poem. “To me, this speaks of reconciliation. That’s the feeling of the ballet.”

Going Home Star will be touring well into the spring with dates advertised on the Royal Winnipeg’s website.

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