The Canadian residential school system operated on a federally sanctioned policy aimed at eradicating First Nations culture. That is the truth. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Going Home Star, commissioned with the support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is part of reconciliation.
Founded in 1939, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is Canada’s premier ballet company, under the artistic direction of André Lewis for more than fifteen years. Over a decade ago, Going Home Star was first envisioned by the late Cree elder and activist Mary Richard and André Lewis. Multi-talented Tina Keeper (Cree activist, producer, actress, TRC Honorary Witness, and former MP) later joined as associate producer and soon the company assembled a remarkable team of some of Canada’s top artistic talents, including Giller Prize-winning Canadian author Joseph Boyden, acclaimed choreographer Mark Godden, and Juno Award-winning composer Christos Hatzis.
As a profession, ballet is a relatively exclusive and particular calling. “It is a little bit ironic,” Joseph Boyden admits. “We are taking a very European form and introducing it to a First Nations experience.” The company was aware from the outset that they were taking on a sensitive subject and took measures to collaborate with First Nations in meaningful and imaginative ways. “It was a risky project,” Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told the Toronto Star, “but I knew something magical could happen, and it did.”
Going Home Star began its nationwide tour this January in Ottawa, concluding with the Vancouver premier April 7-9. Lewis feels this production is his best work since The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (a production Elder Mary Richard loved). He also recognizes the subject matter is difficult, but extremely important. “This chapter in Canadian history needs to be a dialogue in schools,” he said.
“We feel immensely honoured to have been entrusted with this story and to use the ethereal beauty of ballet to further an imperative dialogue around truth and reconciliation,” says Lewis. “Born from a collaboration between some of Canada’s finest creative minds, it is a gorgeously raw, exquisitely honest work whose artistry and message will resonate in the hearts of all Canadians.”
Going Home Star tells the story of Annie, a young First Nations woman adrift in a modern lifestyle of excess until she meets Gordon, a trickster disguised as a homeless man. Scenes shift through time in an otherworldly realm as Annie and Gordon travel the roads of their ancestors, rife with injustice and abuse. They walk together through the past and into the future, helping one another carry the weight of that legacy.
Mark Godden’s choreography is not a “tutu and tiara” ballet. The dance style is contemporary and emphatic, with expressive movements that communicate powerfully raw emotion as well as tender vulnerability. Joseph Boyden says, “Ballet cuts right to the heart of what’s most beautiful physically in humanity and what’s most beautiful in story.” An original score by Christos Hatzis provides a richly-layered soundscape that incorporates spoken word and the voices of Steve Wood and his Northern Cree Singers, along with Polaris Prize-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and the occasional echoes of classical works (Rite of Spring, Swan Lake, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet).
The heart of the ballet is cradled in the teachings of the four directions. Annie is South (red), a fiery young urban hairdresser who spends her downtime doing everything her mother warned her against, living fast and going nowhere. Her new found friend Gordon is North (white), a man of winter living hand to mouth on the streets, scooped by social workers as a child and toughened by a life in foster care. Gordon remembers his grandmother’s stories of Nanabush the trickster, and it is Gordon who holds the key to Annie’s awakening.
Niska is West (black), a young woman imprisoned in residential school. Their goal is to break her, but she will not be broken. She comes from a family of healers; her strength is in the earth and the grounding rhythm of the drum. Memories of her family keep her going. Charlie is East (yellow), a child suffering and desperate to find a way home. In Niska, he has a friend and ally, a light in a dark and lonely place. It is significant that the children knew to find the north star, Lewis explains. It’s a small but meaningful detail, knowledge likely to have been shared by their parents, not something they would have learned in the school. “When they escaped from the school, that was the way home.”
Theodore Fontaine, former chief of the Sagkeeng Ojibway First Nation in Manitoba, wrote of his own residential school experiences in a memoir, Broken Circle. He attended the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School for ten years (1948-58) and the Assiniboia Indian Residential School from 1958 to 1960. André Lewis shared that Mr. Fontaine had seen the ballet and felt Going Home Star has helped in his own healing and that it was a positive experience to see this performance.
Thelma Musqua also attended residential school in Manitoba. She spoke at a reconciliation event in Nipawin, Saskatchewan and shared her story in the Nipawin Journal. “My life was turned upside down,” she said. “There were things I believed in that I had to let go. What your parents taught you was demon worship.” Each child at the school was assigned a number and learned how to work. “It was not education at all,” Musqua said.
Her description of the school itself illuminates the metaphor of the schoolhouse on Gordon’s back in Going Home Star. Musqua recalls the cement building was a physically and emotionally cold place. “You had to forget about feeling, loving, forgiving. The sadness, the pain. It was a very cold environment.” Before going to the school, she remembers a warm and safe place with no violence. “We knew when we could play and when we had to sit still. We would always listen. It was very beautiful.”
By the time Thelma Musqua left the school, everything changed. “I had a broken spirit,” she says. “I knew how to work, that was it. I was so ashamed of who I was.” Going to ceremonies and listening to the community elders helped her navigate. She went to a university and became a social worker, but her siblings, who also attended residential schools, were less able to cope. “I leave the past in the past but I never forget,” she said.
The story of Going Home Star isn’t just about the characters onstage. “This is a story of Canada,” says Joseph Boyden. “This is one of our stories that we have for years and decades and centuries refused to face as a nation.” He explains, “For almost 100 years Aboriginal peoples were not allowed to practice their own dance, to speak their own language, to practice their own religions.” Now people are beginning to realize “we not only have to face this story as a nation, but we need to.”
I am personally grateful to have attended the premiere of Going Home Star during its tour in Coast Salish Territory. The lobby of Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver was bustling with activity before the performance. Everywhere you looked, people were engaged. There were information booths and displays of art and carvings. Smudging took place on the patio outside. There was also a lovely little tree decorated with paper stars bearing messages of hope and reconciliation, some written in the languages of the people. Health care workers were also on hand if anyone felt “triggered” by the performance and needed support—an unusual service, but a uniquely compassionate gesture.
The buzz of activity settled only when Tsatsu Stalqayu Coastal Wolf Pack arrived with drums and song, focusing attention and spirit before the ballet began. It was uplifting to hear their singing and drumming again when the performance was over. I turned to exit the aisle and noticed the entire row of people behind me was still wiping away tears from their faces—a humbling, yet comforting, experience of shared emotion.
Watch highlights of Going Home Star online [https://vimeo.com/135976249].