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The NACO performance of I Lost My Talk will include a film directed by Barbara Wills Sweete, featuring 10 First Nations dancers.Milan Podsedly

In late October, 2013, almost 2 1/2 years ago, Chris Deacon, the managing director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, was having a secret celebratory dinner with British conductor Alexander Shelley. The two of them knew, but no one else did, that within a few days, Shelley would be named the new music director of the NAC Orchestra. As a welcoming gift to Canada, Deacon gave Shelley a copy of a book.

It was Alice Munro's latest volume of short stories, Dear Life.

Two years later, that simple act has blossomed into a major, complex, risky and highly ambitious project for the National Arts Centre (NAC) – a set of four newly commissioned pieces, all based on the work of Canadian women, presented in imaginative multimedia formats in the NAC's Southam Hall. Dear Life, based on the final story in Munro's volume, began the series in September. On Thursday, the second of the group will receive its premiere. I Lost My Talk, with music by Edmonton's John Estacio, was inspired by a poem by the late Mi'kmaq artist Rita Joe. The subject: the response of one sensitive, proud, compassionate aboriginal woman to her experience in residential schools.

It was actually Shelley who first suggested that Rita Joe's 30-year-old poem be the basis of one of the NAC commissions. He had come across it online, as he was investigating Canadian literature, and was immediately struck by "its inner strength, and the enormous gentleness in the language. It was so true and direct." Although Shelley was unaware of the full political context in which the poem was written – which has since become so much more immediate in this country with the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – he understood that the problems it relates have an international and universal resonance.

From that decision in April of 2014 to use I Lost My Talk as one of the NAC commissions to Thursday's premiere was a long, complex journey involving some of Canada's most creative personalities. The first step was to talk to composer Estacio, who had already been commissioned by the NAC to write another symphonic-length score. With some coaxing and encouragement from Deacon and Donna Feore, the director/choreographer/producer/force of nature who had been brought into the project to provide overall artistic vision, Estacio was able to change gears and turn his creative imagination to Joe's work (helped by a commission from Joe Clark's family for a work to celebrate his 75th birthday).

The next step was for the team to conceive the multimedia visuals for the piece. Estacio had decided that he didn't want to set Rita Joe's short poem directly to music, but to incorporate the spoken text into his score. So, to represent the spirit of Joe in the piece, elder Monique Mojica was asked to read Joe's simple, moving words on the Southam Hall stage. Feore commissioned First Nations choreographer Santee Smith to create an original piece based on Estacio's score, and enlisted the famed Barbara Willis Sweete to film the dance in Killbear Park on Georgian Bay. That film will be projected on a special beaded scrim in front of the NAC orchestra during the performance, a technique that Montreal's Turbine production company adapted especially for this NAC project.

I Lost My Talk is an aboriginal reflection on the dark truth of Canada's residential schools. And Deacon, Feore, Estacio, Willis Sweete, and Alexander Shelley are white. Did this worry them as they embarked on this project?

From the first moment, according to Deacon. Even though the NAC had the blessing of Joe's family, whom Feore had visited as she conceived the project, "a hundred flags immediately went up," says Deacon, when they began their work. "My biggest fear," he says, "is that we would do to Rita Joe what her residential school teacher did to her – take away her story, snatch it out of her hands, and make it our story."

Whether Deacon and his collaborators were successful in remaining true to Rita Joe's intent will be put to the test on Thursday night.

I Lost My Talk premieres Jan. 14 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said composer John Estacio is from Calgary. He is from Edmonton. Also the article incorrectly said Monique Mojica is a Mi'kmaq elder. In fact, she is from the Guna and Rappahannock First Nation. This online version has been corrected.