Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation
Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Choreography by Mark Godden. At the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Feb. 5 and 6.
Early in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star there’s an unforgettable example of the power of movement imagery. A character named Gordon, a homeless runaway from an Indian residential school, lifts and then crumples under the weight of a sizable model of one such school.
It’s a haunting metaphor for the psychological burden he seems incapable of escaping, part of a vicious circle of discrimination that has blighted Canada’s First Nations for many generations.
Going Home Star opened the ballet’s 75th anniversary season in October 2014 and played to large and appreciative Toronto audiences at the Sony Centre on the weekend as part of a 12-city coast-to-coast Canadian tour.
It’s rare for any art form, least of all ballet, to tackle a subject of public concern as sensitive and current as the trauma inflicted by the residential schools system. The almost two-hour work’s subtitle, Truth and Reconciliation, spells out the ballet’s origins and objectives.
Acclaimed author Joseph Boyden, one of several artistic collaborators of native descent, provided a long and perhaps confusingly elaborate synopsis — there’s a meaty play in there waiting to be written — that guided choreographer Mark Godden in fashioning his dance-drama.
Gordon, who has magical trickster powers, time-travels with Annie back to his school days to reveal the sufferings of former fellow students Niska and Charlie. The vivid depiction of their abuse at the hands of a demonic priest/pedophile — costumed like his confreres by Paul Daigle in something akin to flowing black fetish wear — signals the heavily didactic and scarcely nuanced hand that hovers over the entire artistic enterprise.
Awakened to her shared burden of cultural anguish, Annie eventually becomes Gordon’s guide in a process of healing that culminates in another striking image, the ritual burning of the model school house.
It might seem incongruous to deploy a European art form perfected in the very French court that sent explorers up the St. Lawrence Valley and beyond, which perhaps explains Godden’s decision to mock them in the ballet as foppish colonizers with miniature sailing ships on their heads. Then there’s the fact that among the ballet’s 27 dancers, only 10 of whom are Canadian-born, none is of aboriginal descent.
But Going Home Star is about building bridges of understanding, of positioning the legacy of the residential schools as a Canadian story. The dancers’ total investment in this admirable goal shines through. For them, it’s not just another show.
Toronto composer Christos Hatzis’ electroacoustic symphonic score, necessarily in recorded form for most of the tour, mixes multiple genres, historic and contemporary, and cleverly integrates the extraordinary vocalizations of Inuk musician Tanya Tagaq along with Steve Wood and the Northern Cree singers. Several harrowing survivor accounts are also interpolated.
KC Adams’ set design includes a notably effective skeletal vault of whale bones and a movable brick wall that serves multiple dramatic needs. Meanwhile, Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections conjure their own magic in a ballet that mixes realism and supernaturalism.
Godden sticks mostly to a conventional ballet vocabulary, the dance language he knows best. The Act I ensembles evoking bustling city life have an almost jazzy Broadway feel to them, even with the women in pointe shoes. Baroque dance is parodied in Act II and there are occasional hints of native dance in some of the arm and hand gestures for the spirit “Star Children.”
Sophia Lee and Liang Xing as Annie and Gordon, both excellent in their roles, risk being upstaged by the passionate dancing of Alanna McAdie and Yosuke Mino as Niska and Charlie. Dmitri Dovgoselets does his best to add some sort of dimension to the cartoonish evil of the leading clergyman, the one who almost casually, like an afterthought, rapes Niska.
In portraying the evils and horrendous outward-rippling consequences of the residential schools, Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation puts an important Canadian story before a broad and diverse Canadian public in a visceral and accessible form. Ideally, in keeping with the commission’s objectives, it will foster a positive way forward.