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First Nations mezzo-soprano Marion Newman sings in all three parts of Bearing, a dance-opera that aims to express how residential schools’ past is linked to the present. It is the culminating work of two artists deeply affected by the residential system.

Liz Beddall/Globe and Mail Update

Michael Greyeyes and Yvette Nolan are both the children of residential-school survivors, but Nolan is a product of the system in quite a literal way. When her Irish-Canadian father couldn't get a job as a draftsman, he was offered a position teaching math at St. Mary's Residential School in Kenora, Ont., where her Algonquin mother was a student.

"The nuns gave my mother a wedding at the end of her schooling," Nolan says. "She was 17. I was born a year later."

"Bearing is the culminating work of two artists deeply affected by the residential system," Greyeyes explains.

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He's referring to the genre-bending, dance-opera-theatre work that has its world premiere at Luminato this week, a vast undertaking that includes 30 musicians, 10 singers, nine dancers and three actors. Bearing has been in development for three years; it's produced by Signal Theatre and co-directed by Greyeyes and Nolan (Greyeyes has distinguished himself as a choreographer/director/dancer and an actor in numerous American films; Nolan is a notable Canadian playwright and director).

It's a work in three parts: The first is set to a Bach motet, the second to music by Québécois composer Claude Vivier and the third to a commissioned score by Anishinaabe co-composer and librettist Spy Denommé-Welch and composer Catherine Magowan. Members of the National Youth Orchestra will accompany the work and First Nations mezzo-soprano Marion Newman will sing through all three parts.

Greyeyes and Nolan have collaborated on several creations about the legacy of the schools before, but Bearing is singular in the way it's steeped in their mutual uncertainty about the validity of "reconciliation" as a tenable way to move forward.

"We all talk about reconciliation as if there was a pre-existing relationship," Nolan says of the dynamic between Canadians and First Nations. "I don't think there was a relationship to make unbroken. I think we're just starting to make a relationship now."

Bearing has a cast of three Indigenous actors (Brandon Oakes, Sophie Merasty and dancer Aria Evans) who play a First Nations family, and nine multicultural dancers who play the "Canadians" – a community who want to begin a conversation about the legacy of the past. But one of the key dramaturgical decisions was to set the action in the present. "I can tell you the history, but then you'd understand it as history," Greyeyes says. "We wanted to show the way the past disrupts the present."

The plays uses the device of costumes to let the performers metaphorically "try on" the experience of victims and perpetrators of the schools. "The dancers keep encountering these portholes. They drop into a porthole and all of a sudden, there's a duet. Sometimes those duets are repeated in different costumes and we see this sudden juxtaposition," he says, widening his eyes. "The thing that looked like a husband and a wife in conflict – now it's disturbing. Because now it's a little girl and what looks like a priest doing the same movement."

As a child, it never occurred to Greyeyes that his family history was unusual. His mother would mention having slept in a dormitory – a room of children arranged in small, hard beds – and he would accept this unquestioningly. It wasn't until later in life that his father began to speak candidly and emotionally about his past and the hardships he'd endured.

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"I think he was divesting himself. My dad was angry in his life … and I saw the anger burn away from him. It was like leaving something in the sun. He had to work his whole life to process what had happened and so it's really incumbent on me to tell those stories with integrity."

Greyeyes grew up in Saskatchewan and when, at the age of 10, he was the first Indigenous boy accepted into Canada's National Ballet School, his parents both took a leave of absence from work to accompany him to Toronto. The idea of placing their son in a school residence was an emotional trigger for both of them and they wouldn't allow it.

"We're making art out of these ashes – out of stories that failed to pass between parents and children," Greyeyes says. "When you take away children, you collapse a family. When you do it for generations, lots of information gets lost."

When I ask Nolan about the conversation in her childhood home, she sighs deeply. "It's so complicated. I was actually named after a nun – Sister Yvette Nolan – because she protected my mother." She pauses for words. "My mother wanted to learn. There was no learning in her community; there was alcohol. She was taken from her community when she was seven; she never went back. She didn't have a terrible experience – but at what cost? She was totally alienated from her community. She lost her mother tongue."

When he wasn't teaching math, Nolan's father was an amateur photographer and some of the photos that he took of the residential schools (he taught at several) will appear as projections in Bearing.

"The first thing that happens is that we see the land, then the image of the residential school shimmers up into the space on the dance floor," Nolan says. "The Canadians start moving into this space – and it's the beginning of the conversation."

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Bearing plays at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre from June 22-24.

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