Review: Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation (Royal Winnipeg Ballet)

going home starRoyal Winnipeg Ballet takes on the legacy of the residential school system in Going Home Star

It was an intense evening at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts last night for the opening of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Toronto leg of their Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation tour. The strength of the RWB dancers and their dedication to telling this story, the story of residential schools and the terrible mark they’ve left on the Indigenous community, make this ballet one of the most powerful and necessary dance productions I have seen in a while.

Going Home Star focuses on Annie, a young urban woman of First Nations descent going through the motions of contemporary life, from days filled with monotonous work at her hair salon to nights fuelled by clubbing, one night stands and the occasional cameo of cocaine. It seems clear that Annie is aimless, though even she’s not sure why, until she meets Gordon. Gordon is a trickster, dressed like a subway-dwelling homeless man, and carrying the weight of the effects of residential schooling (literally) on his shoulders.

Annie is fascinated by Gordon, and Gordon, seeing a potential kinship with Annie and understanding why her life seems adrift, starts telling her stories about the residential schools. He tells her about the physical and emotional abuse perpetuated by the clergy on young Indigenous children, taken from their parents and forced to learn and live in a way that was completely foreign to them under extreme conditions.

It’s not a story that’s easy to watch, but it is one that is necessary to tell, and I commend the RWB for doing it so beautifully and conscientiously. From the subject matter to its execution, this is not your typical ballet. Produced with the support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Going Home Star was pieced together by a creative team that includes Order of Canada recipient and novelist Joseph Boyden and former Member of Parliament and Cree actor Tina Keeper, each TRC Honourary Witnesses.

I was impressed with the entire multimedia experience of the performance, from the visual projections that scrawled across the back drop to the intriguing mix of music. There were a lot of choices made with this production that I thought were completely on point.

The music was especially powerful in that it was a mix of familiar classical themes (you might catch a tiny shout out to Swan Lake), contemporary sounds and urban beats. All of this intertwined with the thrum of Polaris-winner Tanya Tagaq’s hauntingly beautiful throat singing, Steve Wood’s rich narration of Joseph Boyden’s evocative words, and the lilting voices of the Northern Cree Singers.

I think one of the aspects of this production that most interested me, is that it is a ballet. Dance is one of those performance mediums that evokes thoughts and emotions on a visceral level. The residential schools and how they’ve horribly impacted the Indigenous community are not pleasant tales to tell, and using dance to express that, to me, feels like the best way to get to the truth of what happened. To explain the hurt, sadness, frustration and devastation in the most honest way possible.

I think Godden’s choreography capitalizes on that, especially as this production doesn’t feel entirely like classical ballet. There are touching moments of contemporary movement like head wobbles, languid arm swings and hip sways that feel more modern, pedestrian and accessible than the structured forms and pictures of ballet.

Sophia Lee as Annie is a deft dancer, infusing her movement with Annie’s initial ambivalence and then her will to help and heal. I really enjoyed watching her dynamic with the strength and agility of Liang Xing’s Gordon during their duets. Niska and Charlie, danced by Alanna McAdie and Yosuke Mino respectively, had boundless energy as the Indigenous children that Gordon speaks of in his stories to Annie. Their movement felt young and naïve, which made it all the more difficult to watch them undergo the abuses brought on them by the clergymen at the residential school.

I think I was most blown away by the power of Dmitri Dovgoselets as the Clergy Man. As much as I abhorred his character, or at least what his character meant to represent, he exuded this terrifying and awe-inspiring strength as he crossed the stage. He was so compelling that, even though I knew nothing good could come from his actions on stage, I had trouble looking elsewhere.

Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation doesn’t hide anything and it will probably make a lot of people uncomfortable, but I’ll say it again: I think it’s extremely necessary. I think the RWB has created something monumental and evocative that I hope as many Canadians as possible get a chance to see, whether they’re into dance or not.


Photo of RWB Company Dancers in Going Home Star by Samanta Katz.