It was 12 years ago when a Métis elder named Mary Richard approached Royal Winnipeg Ballet artistic director André Lewis with an idea. The revered social advocate and Order of Manitoba member was a lover of the arts, and she wanted Mr. Lewis to create a new work – specifically, a ballet that would bring indigenous and non-indigenous communities together.
Ms. Richard died in 2010, but her dream lives on in Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation, a ballet that delves into the experiences of First Nations residential school survivors.
The powerful piece follows Annie, a young aboriginal hairdresser living a life of urban excess – until she meets a mysterious trickster disguised as a homeless man. Together, they travel back along their ancestors' paths, laden with injustice and abuse, and forward toward healing and hope.
The work's creation involved Canadian luminaries from a range of disciplines, including Cree activist, actress and former MP Tina Keeper; award-winning novelist Joseph Boyden; choreographer Mark Godden; and composer Christos Hatzis. It features the music of breathtaking throat singer Tanya Tagaq, as well as Steve Wood & the Northern Cree Singers.
Of course, aboriginal issues and ballet may seem an unlikely pairing, but Mr. Lewis argues that ballet is a language like any other, and can express experience and emotion in a way that words alone cannot. And while some have raised the spectre of cultural appropriation, Mr. Lewis says the work steers well clear of cultural stereotypes, and the response from aboriginal communities has been overwhelmingly positive.
"You honour all of those who have died and those of us still living. Your dedicated work will live on in our spirits forever," wrote one survivor in a touching letter to the company. Another said it helped him come to terms with his own reconciliation.
It's also not the first time the Royal Winnipeg Ballet has included indigenous stories in its repertoire, and to great acclaim: In 1971, the company premiered The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, which follows a young aboriginal woman who leaves her reserve to find a better life – but instead discovers poverty, prostitution, drugs and violence.
For years, Mr. Lewis danced the part of Rita Joe's boyfriend Jaimie Paul, and to this day he says it was his favourite role because it felt significant. He feels the same way about the power of Going Home Star – even if Canada is only beginning to find truth and reconciliation.
"It's about telling people what happened. Can ballet heal a nation? Everybody can help. It's a big wheel, and we're just one spoke," says Mr. Lewis. "As [Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Justice Murray] Sinclair said, this is a 20-generation process. So starting now is a good thing."
Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through Saturday (ticketmaster.ca).