Above: Royal Winnipeg Ballet performing Going Home Star. Photo by Samanta Katz

By contributor Chantelle Spicer

One possibility of art is to take a topic and reframe it into a visual language that offers different perspectives to the viewer. It is a way to engage the mind and emotions, creating a space to discuss difficult subjects in a new and enlightening way. To see art used in this way is to fully realize how powerful it is as a way to precipitate change.

This seems to be a driving factor in the creation and production of Going Home Star, the newest story being performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB), which is being shown at Nanaimo’s Port Theatre on April 4 and 5. The company is renowned for its contemporary, progressive, and fearless storytelling through dance.

In previous years the RWB has shown a variety of stories including a dance production of the works of Leonard Cohen, as well as Moulin Rouge, and Alice in Wonderland. For the 2016 season, the company will be conveying the horrors, consequences, and courage that have emerged from the Indian Residential School System (IRS) of Canada, which ran from 1876-1996. It is an ambitious effort to provide a new understanding of a painful part of our past.

Going Home Star, which is supported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), follows the main character as she attempts to navigate living in a society which is reeling from the effects of this history. Touching on the psychological lateral violence which has occurred in Aboriginal communities and families, the audience is allowed to explore how the past continues to exist in the present. According to CBC reviewer Sandra Abam, “the work is a dramatic re-telling of worlds and relationships torn apart, with a nod to a brighter future.”

A major recommendation from the TRC was a need for ongoing education for non-Indigenous peoples on the realities of our shared history—it is one which all Canadians carry together. Through the beauty and power of dance, the audience is offered a chance to see these stories acted out, as the work is inspired directly from testimony of residential school survivors. It is interwoven with Indigenous learning as well, offering “trickster” characters—an archetype of storytelling to many Aboriginal cultures around the world. As described by the Port Theatre, it also works to remind that our past is always with us, carried by our ancestors whose histories are a part of each person. It seems as though a theme of community is also very present in the story, documented through the relationship between the two main characters, who are constantly learning from and supporting one another. This idea of communal sharing of pain and hope is integral to an Indigenous perspective of overcoming the atrocities of the IRS—we all bear witness together. The collaboration between TRC, the dance community, and the audiences carries this off the stage and into the lives of Canadians.

Going Home Star offers a way to open ourselves in new ways to the stories of our neighbours and fellow peoples of Canada. The opportunity to empathize and gain insight into the multiple ways we, as humans, experience in the world and our history may have as far-reaching impact as the residential institutions did—but in a very different way. The idea of hope is something very much alive in Canada right now—our current Prime Minister won an election on a campaign of hope, environmental organizations are beginning to feel hope as policy change. Indigenous peoples everywhere are starting to feel this too, like a great weight lifted from generations as the truth comes to light.

VIU Elder-in-Residence Ray Peter, who is attending the ballet as an honoured guest and residential school survivor, regularly teaches students the importance of using dance or song to awaken the body and lift the spirit. He is very excited and interested in the ballet, hoping that it can spark some positive conversation.

The ballet has received glowing reviews from every stop of the tour, praising the work for its courage and the hope that it offers as we, as a nation, move forwards. Community Outreach Coordinator for the Port Theatre, Shelly Johnstone, is excited about the opportunity to share in this work.

“This ballet, in addition to being an evocative and beautiful performance, is key to helping our community better understand Canada’s past. Through the arts we can learn about, and learn from, our history while supporting important dialogue around reconciliation in our community. We are proud that we can present an important work by the world-renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet here at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo.”

Read also: Shawn Atleo delivers inspiration for indigenous progress