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Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancers in Going Home Star.

Samanta Katz

What does "reconciliation" actually look like? While the idea of a regenerative rapprochement between a government and its victims may be easy to define abstractly, it's harder to imagine the social, emotional and political realities of its manifestation.

The first thing that comes to mind probably isn't ballet.

But the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production of Going Home Star is the first major artistic project to come out of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After seven years of travelling tirelessly across the country to record thousands of testimonies of First Nations survivors of the residential-school system, the TRC compiled a list of 94 "calls to action" to redress and commemorate the system's traumatic legacy. In addition to these recommendations, TRC was given money to put toward projects that could, in some way, transform the harrowing material shared by survivors into forms that were lasting, cohesive, powerful and collective.

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In short, they wanted to commission art.

Of course, art is endlessly engaged in the processing, grieving and indicting of history – we see this from Homer to eighth-century Chinese war poetry to the proliferation of literature that took place around the First World War. Commissioning high-profile architects to build stylized memorials to terrible atrocities has become a conventional form of collective mourning and remembering. If Theodor Adorno's famous dictum on the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz is true, it certainly hasn't deterred our efforts. When confronting the unthinkable, art sure seems to help us think.

But a live-work of dance connected to a major national reconciliation process – a process that (despite the release of its final report) still continues – feels like a particularly dynamic overlap of art and current events. Add to that the fact that the medium at hand is ballet – a form that's non-literal, non-verbal and rarely (explicitly) political – and the project becomes all the more singular and unexpected.

Ballet is an unexpected choice in another sense: There's a huge lack of First Nations dancers in major North American ballet companies. In the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, there are no First Nations dancers at all.

The story of Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation starts with an earlier RWB work that holds an important place in the company's repertoire. In 1971, choreographer Norbert Vesak made a ballet adaptation of George Ryga's 1967 play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. The play is about a young aboriginal woman grappling with urban poverty and drugs; it's often considered the first meaningful piece of theatre about Canadian aboriginal issues. In the realm of Canadian dance, the production was doubly groundbreaking in the sense that it exploded balletic stereotypes; here was classically based technique tackling a politicized, contemporary subject.

The late First Nations elder and aboriginal activist Mary Richard was a huge fan of Vesak's Rita Joe. A long-time RWB patron and season-ticket holder, Richard kept encouraging artistic director André Lewis to take on a new aboriginal-themed project; she was determined to bring about an even closer relationship between the ballet world and the aboriginal community. Lewis was very keen on the idea, but the right project didn't materialize until former MP, actress and Cree activist Tina Keeper joined the RWB board of directors in 2009.

Keeper, who comes from a family of residential-school survivors, was loosely involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She was also sitting in the House of Commons when the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history – was tabled. She knew the TRC had money for commemoration projects and she knew she had a ballet company eager to create indigenous-themed work. It all felt a bit serendipitous, particularly with the RWB's 75th anniversary approaching in 2014. What could better mark the birthday of an important arts organization than such an acutely relevant and distinctly Canadian project?

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Working with Lewis, Keeper put together a team of aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists. It included novelist Joseph Boyden (as scenarist), Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq, choreographer Mark Godden, composer Christos Hatzis, scenic designer KC Adams and musician Steve Wood with the Northern Cree Singers. Keeper took the role of associate producer.

But was there an element of problematic cultural discord in the whole enterprise? Godden, a former RWB dancer who's choreographed several important ballets for the company, leapt at the opportunity to work on the project, but felt sensitive to and concerned about the risk of real or perceived appropriation.

"The worry was: Here's a white European art form that would once again exploit a First Nations story," he tells me.

In speaking with Keeper, he found that they both wanted to transcend any knee-jerk fears of authority and exploitation. They consider the story of the residential schools and the TRC to be a Canadian one, and therefore a narrative that all Canadians might have an interest in telling. Their primary concern was to make good art, and both felt no real creative process could be stunted by worry or trepidation.

"What is reconciliation, beyond the process of listening?" Godden asks me. "I think that letting people make art is part of that process – art that's not bound by worries of what belongs to whom."

Keeper, who may be best known from the 1990s CBC-TV show North of 60, thinks it's crucial to get over the anxiety of appropriation. "I think, as indigenous artists, we're quite aware that we're often using Western forms as mediums to tell our stories. We're not unaccustomed to that, whether it's Tomson Highway or any literary figure; we don't come from a written history either. In a way, it makes the use of a medium almost irrelevant."

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Instead, Keeper saw the project as an opportunity to see aboriginal themes and culture work in concert with great artists and a great institution.

"Using ballet seems ideal for this kind of commemoration project – the form is so dramatic. Ballet has the ability to carry weight and emotional burdens while, quite literally, lifting things up."

When the production opened in Winnipeg in the fall of 2014, the company went to practical lengths to reach out beyond its subscriber base. It introduced a pay-what-you-can performance (a rare initiative in the ballet world, where production costs are steep) and reserved a block of seats for survivors of the residential-school system. Keeper tells me that in addition to critical acclaim, Going Home Star was embraced by the aboriginal community.

But there was criticism, too – from the dance world and beyond. Given that there are no First Nations dancers in the company, some thought the RWB should have invited prominent indigenous dance artists to collaborate on the work. While Keeper thinks this would have, no doubt, made for an interesting piece, it wasn't what the company wanted to do.

"The RWB was totally committed to this project in the true sense of reconciliation. We knew from the beginning that we didn't want to do fusion. We wanted to make a ballet." Part of the mentality of a large repertory company, she explains, is to have the dancers exposed to new designers and perspectives. In this case, it meant having them reach out to the community, and even speak to survivors. "The question was: How do we find a way to tell a native story while sticking strictly to the ballet form? It was a really fulsome experience."

The dearth of First Nations dancers in the ballet world is obviously a complex issue, involving systemic questions of economics, accessibility and culture. It's something the RWB is hoping to address through the development of a flexible training bursary for pre-professional aboriginal dancers, supporting them in a variety of needs, be that access to indigenous culture or ritual ceremonies throughout their training.

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"But you know Maria Tallchief?" Keeper asks me.

My answer is an enthusiastic of course. Keeper and I spend the last bit of our interview gushing over the brilliance of the first major American prima ballerina and George Balanchine's first muse – a dancer who was also member of the Osage Nation. In fact, Maria Tallchief is one of five indigenous ballet dancers born in Oklahoma in the decade after the First World War (they're known as the "Five Moons") who went on to have illustrious international careers. It's a fascinating and often overlooked fact that North American ballet started with this important First Nations chapter.

It would be a great subject for a new ballet.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Going Home Star–Truth and Reconciliation is now touring Canada, through April 9 (rwb.org).

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