Joseph Boyden creates a ballet inspired by a dark past

Joseph Boyden on the harrowing yet wondrous journey of creating a ballet

Royal Winnipeg Ballet.  Going Home Star.  Photograph by Rejean Brandt

By Joseph Boyden

I still remember the day a couple of years ago when the brilliant actor, producer and director Tina Keeper called me at home with what she promised was exciting news. After some small talk, she blurted it out: “Joseph,” she said, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I would like you to be involved in a ballet.” She went on to explain that Royal Winnipeg Ballet artistic director André Lewis was inspired by the late Anishnabe elder Mary Richard, who happened to be a season ticket holder, to create a new Aboriginal-themed dance. “You have to do it,” Tina said.

I was taken aback. “I’m, ah, I’m really not much of a dancer, you know. And I’d probably feel really self-conscious wearing tights in public.”

There was a bit of a pause on the other end. “No. Joseph. God, no. We don’t want you to dance in a ballet. Really, we don’t. But we would like you to help create one.” Tina went on to explain. After five gruelling yet vitally necessary years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—travelling back and forth across Canada to record the testimonies of First Nations survivors who were, for more than a century, submitted to our brutal and misguided system of forcefully removing children from their families and communities in an attempt to “re-educate” them—would be reaching the end of its mandate in 2014. The idea of a ballet to commemorate the years of pain, the years of calling on survivors to come forth and allow their experiences to be recorded and archived, the years of making sure that our country never forgets, needed to end in a surge of beauty across a stage.

Still, I wanted to immediately say to Tina that I knew nothing of ballets. The last time I’d even been close to one was when I was seven and fidgeting at my sister Suzanne’s rehearsal as little girls in pigtails bounced around and fell down and curtsied. But I’d promised myself not that long ago that the only way to continue growing as a writer, as a person, as an artist, was to never say no to a writing challenge that frightened me. “Yes, Tina, of course!” I blurted. “Let’s do this.” My wife, Amanda, stared incredulously at me when I got off the phone to tell her what was brewing.

Fast-forward two years, and our country’s oldest, and certainly one of its most prestigious companies, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, is about to debut Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation on Oct. 1.

What a journey these last couple of years have been.

I think everyone involved will agree that it wasn’t easy getting this project off the ground. Any project where you bring together highly talented people like André Lewis, choreographer Mark Godden, composer Christos Hatzis or the incomparable Tina Keeper, not to mention the brilliant musicians Tagaq and the Northern Cree Singers, so much energy will be pulsing through the virtual room. Maybe too much. And when you’re dealing with a subject like residential schools and how best to bring that very particular experience to the stage, when so many of the artists involved have never lived with the weight of its history or the daily reminders of its long and negative reach, it’s easy to see how mental boundaries and defences and sensitivities can bubble to the surface.

Adding to these concerns, I couldn’t shake my own doubts as to whether or not I was the right person for the job. Novelists work mostly alone, and we hope our stories become three-dimensional in our readers’ minds. But on an actual and literal stage? Mark Godden took the role of point man, speaking with me on the phone regularly those first months, assuring me that I was the one to help create the story, kindly expressing that my novels had opened his eyes to certain Aboriginal Canadian experiences that he’d never known about before. Not until he suggested he come down to my home in New Orleans to talk more and show me film of some of his past work did I realize that we were all in it for the long run. The ballet was on.

Mark’s number of days in the Big Easy, and our long talks about ballet in general and the importance of creating one to celebrate the winding down of the TRC’s mandate specifically, ended up bringing to the surface what was holding me back. My fear, I suddenly realized, wasn’t that I couldn’t do it. It was that I questioned the very concept of using using such a Western art as ballet in order to try to bring to life a First People’s story.

Amanda was the one who suggested that I take a crash course in the history of ballet so that I might not just better understand what I was doing but more importantly why so many of us were gathering to attempt this. And so the two of us rented and watched a number of classics together: Don Quixote, Giselle, La Bayadère and, of course, Swan Lake. And I loved them. Here were tales being told through gorgeous human movement, cutting right to the heart. Why not, I asked myself, teary-eyed at the end of a DVD of Romeo and Juliet, take a very European form and introduce it to a First Nations experience? To meld these two could only be fascinating on stage. Time to get to work.

I wanted the heart of the ballet to centre on the teachings of the four directions and the traditional First Nations’ colours that they represent. This would offer the story a natural structure and would allow me to create principal characters who could interact with one another. While on a book tour for The Orenda, I found the chance in Toronto to lock myself in a hotel room for a few days to try and piece together some kind of narrative that I imagined taking shape on a ballet stage. Briefly, this is what I came up with:

The young, hip and beautiful Annie is South; she is red. She represents youth and summer when life is at its easiest. She’s a contemporary Aboriginal woman living in urban Canada, cutting hair in a chic boutique, spending nights clubbing with pretty boys, basically enjoying all that her mother always warned her against. Life’s too short, after all, not to find another party or date.

Gordon is North and is represented by the colour white; he is a man of the winter. Thin and tough, he’s homeless and lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the big city streets. But Gordon’s no victim. Despite his harsh circumstances, Gordon’s always remembered his grandmother’s stories of Nanabush the trickster, and Gordon has taught himself the ability to appear to others as he sees fit.

Niska is West, black, representing the earth as well as the strong grounding beat of the drum. She’s a young woman who is imprisoned in a residential school of the past. Niska is from a family of healers, but a family that was forced to give her up to the authorities. In the residential school, Niska is strong-willed and refuses to be broken. She fights the priests and nuns at every turn, suffering horrible abuse for it. She knows one day, though, that she will return to the land and the place of her family.

The child, the promise of life blossoming in spring, is Charlie. He is East, and he represents the spirit and is the colour yellow. He, too, is imprisoned in the residential school of the past, but he believes that he simply needs to follow the train tracks home to reach his family once again, if only he could escape. In the torture of the school, Charlie and Niska have bonded, creating their own family. When the time comes for Charlie to escape, both know that the parting will be particularly painful.

Annie passes Gordon every day as he begs in front of the subway. She ignores him, however, until the day that she has a spare coin. Being the ferryman, Gordon introduces her to a world below the current one, where they eventually find a tunnel leading them to a big white building in the forest. Through the windows, Annie and Gordon see two others, similar to themselves: Niska and Charlie, undergoing the horrible trials of the residential school.

Annie can’t stand what she sees. Eventually, Annie crosses the line that Gordon warned her not to cross. She smashes the window glass and enters into Niska and Charlie’s world. She’s captured by the people of the black cloth, as is Gordon. All four are indoctrinated with the strange and frightening rituals of their tormentors, rituals sometimes bizarre, sometimes brutal, even sometimes hilarious.

Using their combined strengths, the four continue to fight the black-clad figures at every turn. Young Charlie finally manages to escape with only a few matches to help get him home along the railroad tracks he remembers his family living close to. What he doesn’t know is that the distance to home might be impossibly far for him to walk.

Back at the big white building, the people of the black cloth’s abuse turns darker than any of the remaining three can imagine. It’s finally gone too far. The three must wrestle for their very souls. The climactic fight is on.

Nervously, I sent the story to Mark and Tina, wondering what they might think. Any writer who’s worked on a collaborative project knows that once you turn your work over, it’s no longer yours. It belongs to everyone involved. Both Mark and Tina really liked what I’d done. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was time now for the real work to begin.

At first, I could feel the tension of trying to get things off the ground from a distance of thousands of kilometres. Was it possible to get the company to better understand the residential school experience? Tina, Mark, and Christos had long conversations with each other, and all agreed that even if the dancers were non-Aboriginal, so much of the creative energy of this project was grounded by First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. We had my story, but more importantly we’d attained the musicians that Christos and the rest of us wanted to act as the backbone of the ballet: Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis and Steve Wood along with the Northern Cree Singers. As well, the costume designer Steve Daigle worked in collaboration with Oji-Cree set designer KC Adams. This was all a very good start.

Both chair Justice Murray Sinclair and commissioner Marie Wilson, as well as residential school survivor Doris Young of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to talk with everyone, from artistic director to choreographer to composer to dancers. When rehearsals began in earnest, a blessing day was held by elders Mel and Shirley Chartrand that included a pipe ceremony and a sweat-lodge ceremony in which 30 of the dancers and staff participated. For those who decided not to participate in the sweat, residential school survivor Ted Fontaine read from his book Broken Circle. The day ended with a feast of traditional foods including bison stew, bannock, wild rice, and pickerel. It proved to be a vital and bonding event. The previous tensions dissipated and we all realized at the same time what was happening. A collaborative and powerful dance was being born.

I’ll admit that as the opening night quickly approaches, I’ve been on pins and needles. My schedule hasn’t allowed me to get up to Winnipeg to see the rehearsals, but Tina attends weekly and has shared with me that she finds the dance both beautiful and devastating. Liang Xing and Sophia Lee play Gordon and Annie, and Yosuke Mino and Alanna McAdie play Charlie and Niska. Tina says the music that helps drive the story is as much a character as the dancers. The echoes of Tagaq’s and Steve’s voices in the background are tragic and haunting, so much so that Tina admits she cries as she listens and watches.

She says Liang and Sophia are so strong and open, their characters taking us through the journey and into the past. And Yosuke and Alanna as Charlie and Niska ground viewers in the experiences of residential school, making us sink before buoying us up again.

“The dancers have been so engaged,” Tina writes to me. “And certainly so have Mark and André.” She goes on to say that both have participated in a number of Truth and Reconciliation national events.

“We also worked with Murray Sinclair to guide us through some of the rough patches when we were ambivalent about doing the project,” Tina adds. “When we were trying to determine whether we were doing ‘reconciliation’ correctly, we arrived at a place where we decided that we couldn’t determine whether we were doing it right or wrong, and that it is about engagement and an earnest effort—this is where we understood that this was a creation which had indigenous and non-indigenous collaborators to be performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet—this was our process of reconciliation.”

When I ask André what this work means to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, he says, “We knew right from the start that this ballet represents something bigger than all of us. We hope the work goes beyond the story on stage. We want to be able to help bring awareness to this part of Canadian history that so many know little of—the best way we can express it and hopefully touch many people.”

I email Tina to double-check that the Royal Winnipeg Ballet won’t be needing me to pull on some tights and work my dance moves. I also let her know that my mother will be joining Amanda and me for the opening night. Tina’s thrilled. She tells me that three of the people involved in bringing Going Home Star to the stage, including Tina, have lost their mothers this year. “I feel like they’ll be sitting with your mom, with all of us,” Tina says. “It’s beautiful. It’s perfect!”

I ask her to tell me more.

“It’s been a harrowing, wondrous journey,” Tina says. “I have to think,” she adds, “that this concept called ‘reconciliation’ might just provide us the opportunity to all be greater than we ever imagined.”