The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is opening its 2014/15 season by focusing on a subject that might seem an unlikely choice to aficionados of the dance form. Going Home Star - Truth and Reconciliation, the new work developed by artistic director André Lewis, examines the untold aftershocks of the Indian residential school system.
The ballet’s story follows an Indigenous woman named Annie meeting Gordon, a street-wise trickster and Indian residential school system survivor.
“They meet and build a connection together,” Lewis notes. “That connection allows Annie to get in touch with her background and for Gordon to relive his experience in the school system through flashback. It’s a love story. In order for Annie and Gordon to connect, he needs to reconcile with his past and fulfill his destiny.”
The story of Going Home Star, written by Giller Prize- and Canada Reads-winning author Joseph Boyden, took years for Lewis and choreographer Mark Godden to finally bring it to light.
“In 2004, I was approached by Mary Richard, an Elder from the aboriginal community, who was interested in commissioning us to create a new work based on an Aboriginal theme,” Lewis explains. “She felt that through art, we could bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people closer together.”
The residential school system, which operated between the late 19th and 20th century, consisted of up to 80 schools funded by the Canadian government and administered by Catholic, Anglican and United churches. Decades of neglect and abuse caused the Canadian government to eventually issue an apology to Aboriginal Peoples in 2008, prompting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to describe the system as “a sad chapter of our history.”
The story of Going Home Star - which is produced with support from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada - may be sobering, but Lewis believes it also promotes a sense of optimism.
“This is not a guilt trip,” Lewis confirms. “It’s about realizing what happened and having a hopeful end to it. Reconciliation is part of it: that you reconcile yourself first with your past so that you can move forward. It is difficult to move forward without recognizing that truth.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, an organization Lewis has been a part of for almost 40 years. Lewis clearly remembers his early days in the profession, back when he was a dancer and instructor before advancing to the position of artistic director in 1995.
“I arrived in Winnipeg at the age of 19 with about $600 in my pocket, my entire life savings,” recalls Lewis, who was born in Gatineau, Québec. “No support from anywhere else. My parents were not in a position to be able to support me. But I never looked back. And now, it’s about 40 years later.”
In the end, Lewis expresses confidence that the emotional side of the story will not be lost on audiences.
“It packs a pretty strong punch but thankfully, that punch is also very beautiful,” concludes Lewis.