Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver – April 7, 2016
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation tells a story of the horrific legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. Over a decade in the making, the ballet premiered in 2014 and is on its first national tour.
The subject is a particularly dark part of Canada’s history – the network of boarding schools jointly operated by the Canadian government and Canadian church organizations for over a century that intended to assimilate Aboriginal children into western culture. The abuses that the children suffered in these schools and the profound disruption of Aboriginal culture is not so far in the past – the last of such schools only closed in the mid-1990s. Inspired by and working closely with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, RWB makes an ambitious and earnest effort to tell this Canadian story in through Aboriginal and western traditions, for a presentation that is as relevant and contemporary as the story itself.
The ballet, choreographed by RWB’s former resident choreographer, Mark Godden, is a collaboration of decorated Canadian talent. Author Joseph Boyden, known for his novels on Aboriginal culture, penned the detailed storyline. Internationally-acclaimed Christos Hatzis composed the wildly eclectic score, which features Inuk throat singer, Tanya Tagaq, as well as Steve Wood and The Northern Cree Singers. Cree actress, Tina Keeper, known also for her advocacy for Aboriginal issues, joins as associate producer.
In an earlier interview, principal dancer, Sophia Lee, who performs the title role of Annie, humbly described an invitation that the RWB company received from the Aboriginal community near Winnipeg to participate in a sweat lodge and smudging ceremony. “They prepared a big feast and welcomed us as if we were part of their family…the experience was very touching and it brought me closer to the role and the Aboriginal community.”
Boyden’s wrote a cohesive story arc that conveys a clear sense of setting and character, rooted in Aboriginal traditions. Its main characters – Annie, Gordon, Niska and Charlie – each embody one of the four directions South, North, West, and East, and the traits ascribed to them in Aboriginal teachings. Principal dancer Liang Xing performed the character of Gordon, who escaped from a residential school and is also a ‘trickster’, a character with mystical powers. He uses these powers to recount to Annie, a contemporary Aboriginal woman, the horrific experiences endured by residential schoolchildren Niska and Charlie (performed by Alanna McAdie and Yosuke Mino). A turtle shell, ribbons around birch trees in the four colours of the medicine wheel, a pyre and flame (set design by KC Adams) symbolize the ways in which the characters heal and reconcile with their anger and pain, while an ensemble of dancers as Star Children represent their hope. When Charlie, longing to return home, looks toward the railroad tracks and the North Star, the ‘going home star’, for navigation, it shows how European settlers changed the Aboriginal landscape.
Hatzis’ ebullient and multi-faceted score illuminates Boyden’s narrative. Samplings of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring, and western orchestral instruments intersect with traditional and contemporary Aboriginal song. In doing so, Hatzis lifts them from their traditional contexts to suggest new interpretations that reflect diverse contemporary culture.
Godden’s choreography struggled to fulfill the framework laid by the involving story and score, and came across in clear but muted tones against Boyden’s and Hatzis’ vibrant palettes. In the first scene, Broadway-styled chaînes, fouettés, arabesque jumps and leaps, and also mime, performed by Lee and the ensemble, seemed too cheery for the portrayal of Annie’s evenings at night clubs, dabbling in cocaine use and casual sex. Principal dancer Dmitri Dovgoselets, as the Clergy Man, in a heavy black skirt that swept outward at each turn, captured the threatening nature of the character with his commanding stature, but a limited vocabulary of outstretched arms, lunges and turning jumps confined him as a stock villain in a ballet fable. His rape and abuse of Niska and Charlie were clearly portrayed, but seemed more like reenactments than the use of dance to convey the anguish of such events. While Xing supports Lee in balletic lifts, Lee lifts Xing’s heavy limbs to relieve him from the weight of his past, represented by the reliquary of a schoolhouse. A deep friendship is conveyed by these gestures and longing looks toward one another; however, the love story, without deeper emotional exploration, seemed too abrupt. Lee’s steps were clean and they fulfilled the choreography, but their expressiveness relied heavily on the music and the story’s narrative.
That none of RWB’s dancers are Aboriginal does not detract from the production, after all, dancers have the imagination to empathize with and express many different personas. Soloist Yosuki Mino, was convincing as Charlie, conveying naiveté in the springiness of his steps and energetic jumps. Soloist Yayoi Ban, in the role of the Mother, was particularly touching in the way she leaned her whole body into her gestures, hunching mournfully as she dragged Charlie’s body, representing the children who never returned home, across the stage on a large cloth. Xing formidably captured the mystery and restraint of Gordon’s character, in his grounded presence and precise gestures.
Going Home Star may be one of the most important works by RWB to date. Expressing this painful truth through art will hopefully inspire more of such stories to be shared.