I attended the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s latest commission, Going Home Star, with eagerness and a drop of apprehension. Heading into the theatre, I arrived with questions about what it means to embody a history of trauma when the disturbance is neither yours nor your family’s. Further, as a critic, I wondered — how do I “judge” or describe the representation of this history that is so integral to present lives, policies and dialogues? Who am I to do this?
Expressing a story by Giller Prize-winning writer Joseph Boyden and choreographed by Mark Godden, the production is a collaborative endeavour involving partnership with other voices, most importantly indigenous ones, through the process and during the performances. It deserves to be noted that this collaborative spirit is both acknowledged and credited in the program notes. This detail may seem mote, but it’s an important authorship distinction in the European western theatrical tradition that denotes archival status. Among those credited are members of the First Nations community, local elders and mental health support organizations. In his welcoming speech Artistic Director André Lewis paid respect to late Cree elder Marie Richard whom he recognized as the impetus for the ballet. Lewis also emphasized that the event was in honour of “harmony, prosperity and dignity,” and care was taken to acknowledge trauma: there were trained compassionate listeners on site in case of triggered trauma (there were residential school survivors in the audience). In what was, to me, the most emotional segments of the performance, the Bear Creek drummers shared their music with the audience before and after the performance, ushering us into and out of the theatre.
The ballet opens in Annie’s life in the city. The mise en scène is set one side as her salon, with a barber’s chair and mirrors. On the other side is a street scene indicated by a brick wall and what first seems like looming streetlights. As the stage lights brighten, I notice the “lights” are in fact whale rib bones suspended in the dark — imagery that harkens to Northern Canadian survival and prosperity — throwing urban and rural lifestyles in relief. Against this backdrop, Annie works by day and plays by night with her friends. The atmosphere is joyous but tinged with superficiality. During the course of the ballet, Annie and her companions dance through a variety of simple yet stunning scenes including a magical outdoor landscape with a fire and tall white pines, and the inside of the residential school with its tidy white tables and chairs and tall brick wall.
Going Home Star, which premiered in October 2014, is touring other Canadian cities during a vital national moment. Last month the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal upheld a First Nations claim that children on reserves have been discriminated against due to the underfunded child welfare system. This policy is one of the ways in which the federal government engages in systemic neglect of First Nations peoples. There is tremendous power in telling traumatic stories through dance; watching another body emote through movement — expressing physical and emotional feeling simultaneously — holds, I believe, a talismanic potential for empathy. Embodiment of intense emotions like shame, joy or fury, are palpable between performer and audience. The choice to use ballet as its channel facilitates affective resonances that reach a wider audience than other forms of dance, thereby giving this important history visibility.
My initial apprehension in anticipation of reviewing this ballet stemmed mainly from skepticism about how the seemingly European aesthetic sensibilities of ballet could possibly represent the story of residential school survivors. Ballet has a legacy of representing other cultures in a way that is neither accurate nor respectful. While I still question this pairing, it may not offer a useful basis on which to approach this ballet. During the pre-show chat Sandra Laronde, artistic director and founder of Red Sky Performance,reminded those in attendance that we should not overlook how ballet has been influenced by indigenous dancers (Maria Tallchief, a muse of George Balanchine’s, comes to mind). Ballet too, is entwined in Canada’s cultural history in ways one might initially overlook. Although largely undocumented, many ballet teachers taught in small towns all over the country, teaching students from diverse municipalities. And we can’t forget the RWB’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, adapted from a play in 1971. Perhaps Going Home Star, and its telling within a ballet aesthetic, symbolizes one way two cultures come together or clash in embodied traditions not immediately observable.
Christos Hatzis admirably portrayed this collision in the musical score. For instance, by quoting Tchaikovsky’s main theme from Swan Lake in moments where the two young lovers mingled, we were reminded of the narrative arc of previous ballets. Annie and Gordon, played on opening night by Sophia Lee and Liang Xing, are two First Nations young adults who represent divergent childhoods. He grew up in the residential system; she did not. The theme music, familiar to ballet regulars was, I can only speculate, a nod to the unanimous experience of love and an indication of the pure-hearted hopefulness of Gordon’s character, despite his damaged past.
The most exciting and creative element of Going Home Star was the score. Featuring the otherworldly Polaris Prize-winning Tanya Tagaq as well as Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers, the music seemed the most collaborative element in the performance. Tagaq in particular was recognizable throughout and her moanings, groanings and grumblings, were often used as admonitions of darkness. There were also everyday noises heard throughout, record scratching, CD skipping, the beating of bird’s wings and the tolling of a school bell. Orchestral and medieval strings beckoned memories of oral histories and testimonies, which were interspersed with the music.
Keeping in mind the powerful, united musical score, I wish Going Home Star had bit its teeth deeper into expressing the pain of these narratives through the movement. Other reviews of this work have been effusive in their praise, and for good reason (namely the ones above). However powerful the music, and emotional and momentous as this ballet is, I didn’t emotionally react to the movement it presented. To me, the choreography, although beautifully intricate and holding powerful imagery, held only a fraction of the emotional resonance that the music elicited. Perhaps the choice to parlay a traditional narrative framework made the choreography seem too similar to other stories, and the characterizations appeared to rely on clichés and familiar steps to provoke. I wanted to see the raw nerve of this legacy, but instead it looked a bit too pretty. The portrayal of the priests and colonists made them whimsically villainous instead of emotionally threatening. The choreography, I thought, could have easy belonged to Drosselmeyer from The Nutcracker — sinister, but not evil.
In contrast, the most impactful moments of dancing were the joyous sequences. When Annie is working as a hairdresser in the city, she along with her friends embody a carefree, youthful exuberance reminiscent of West Side Story or Rodeo. The abandon in their time together is intersected with brief but ominous imagery that foreshadows the arrival of Gordon. In the recovery of Gordon’s memories, the audience is taken along on his journey, backwards in time. This leap into the past was effective in portraying how the legacy of systemic violence impacts the present lives of survivors and their loved ones, eventually becoming part of the family’s DNA. Musically, this motif was enhanced by the sound of a skipping CD, which repeated at moments like inescapable memories. As the ghosts of Gordon’s past also begin to haunt Annie, they go on a journey together, witnessing the brutality inflicted upon residential school students Niska and Charlie, played on opening night by Alanna McAdie and Yosuke Mino. The dancers in the school moved as though they had invisible shackles in duet with the bell ringing; bent forward and pulled backwards, the dancers were controlled by the bell, which regulated their lives by time segments. Someone intones, “We don’t belong here.” Annie and Gordon, witness to the pain of the students, eventually climb a high brick wall to look at the night sky.
Inside the school the audience is privy to Gordon’s memories via Niska and Charlie: their hair is cut against their will and they’re whipped when they resist. Their mother tongue is prohibited. A voice-over proclaims, “They could not possibly have survived without us,” acknowledging how authoritarian brutality was justified as paternalist protection. A group of colonialists is depicted literally, in European garb with ships on their heads. Their movements organized, but stuffy, bumbling but proud. Stilted, affected gestures make them look silly instead of dangerous and threatening. Another voice speaks, “It was peaceful until the colonists came.”
In one final scene there are many faces lit against a dark, starry sky. This image is one of the most emblematic of the performance’s success, due mostly to the variety of voices adding to the tapestry of the narrative. By giving us a sense that every residential school survivor has a different story, the performance invites dialogue and understanding. One voice insists, “It’s okay to remember; it’s okay to forget.” A model version of the school burns down as archival images are projected onto a scrim. The residential school system is often misleadingly called a “dark chapter” of Canada’s history, indicating that its impacts are, ultimately, in the past. In reality the colonialist legacy still influences the lives of many, among them are the missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Perhaps the greatest strength of Going Home Star is that it recognizes the persistence of these memories without attempting to reconcile them.