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Powerful new ballet breaks ground, hearts

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/10/2014 (2134 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GOING Home Star -- Truth and Reconciliation might well be the most important ballet produced by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in its 75-year history.

The company kicked off its diamond anniversary season Wednesday night with the highly anticipated world première choreographed by Mark Godden. It's a work 10 years in the making, first envisioned by late Cree elder/activist Mary Richard and artistic director André Lewis, and in turn supported by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the production's associate producer Tina Keeper.

Sophia Lee and Liang Xing in Going Home Star -- Truth and Reconciliation.


Sophia Lee and Liang Xing in Going Home Star -- Truth and Reconciliation.

The nearly two-hour story ballet openly acknowledges Canada's painful legacy of government-sanctioned residential schools, where indigenous children were ripped from their families and forced into boarding schools designed to "kill the Indian in the child." The fact that this tale, inspired by survivor recollections that emerged through the commission's investigation, is being told via a 400-year old European art form serves as further testament to healing.

Based on a story by Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, Godden's mostly classical ballet tells the tale of First Nations woman Annie (soloist Sophia Lee), a young urbanite hairdresser caught up in a downward spiral of boozy clubbing and meaningless hook-ups with Random Lover (second soloist Tristan Dobrowney). After meeting trickster Gordon (principal dancer Liang Xing), she becomes spirited away to confront the devastating truth of the residential schools. She witnesses with him as stone-faced clergymen beat their young wards, until they both finally discover a sense of peace through reconciliation.

Christos Hatzis's tour-de-force score viscerally integrates contributions from recent Polaris Prize-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra superbly led by Tadeusz Biernacki. The Toronto-based composer's multi-layered, electro-acoustic score is a game-changer. Mangled hymn tunes bleed into Tagaq's guttural vocalizations, and it even pays a sly nod to Swan Lake as Annie flies through the air in her dreams.

Winnipeg visual artist KC Adams' tour-friendly set design of cold brick walls contrasts with more naturalistic items such as suspended birch trees, arched whale bones, which become a visual theme, and a giant, luminous turtle shell. Sean Nieuwenhuis's video projections of starry night skies, gently falling snow and hurtling subway tunnels add texture and dimensionality while Pierre Lavoie's shadowy lighting underscores mood.

The Montreal-based Godden has always excelled at creating darkly dramatic characters, such as the brooding Svengali or tortured Dracula in earlier RWB ballets. His generically titled Clergyman joins his nefarious club. Dressed in costume designer Paul Daigle's flowing black robes, soloist Dmitri Dovgoselets filled the stage with terror every time he appeared, finally exploding like a powder keg when whipping aboriginal child Charlie (soloist Yosuke Mino). It was a scene that was almost unbearable to watch. However, his rape of young girl Niska (corps member Alanna McAdie) seemed strangely subdued as the ultimate corporal punishment.

At times, Going Home Star risks losing its own North Star. The plot-heavy narrative becomes obfuscated, with its Act II scene depicting colonization teetering on didacticism. The choice to include recorded excerpts of survivor stories, ironically, upstaged and distracted from the choreography. Some of the story's symbolism doesn't always read clearly, and unless one studies the tome-like, four-page plot synopsis well in advance, several aspects simply get lost in translation.

Still, the re-energized company has never looked better. Its corps de ballet members performing as Urban Women and Men, Clergymen, the Divine Louis and Star Children showcase Godden's unmistakable choreographic melting pot of contemporary-infused flexed feet and cocked wrists juxtaposed with traditionally balletic pirouettes and battements.

Both Lee and Xing in the lead roles -- and with nary a second cast or any understudies in sight -- also proved their keen acting skills, with their razor-sharp and wholly believable performances as the ballet's two truth-seekers. Mother (soloist Yayoi Ban) and Father (corps member Thiago Dos Santos) serve as a moral presence, with their tearful parting scene with daughter Niska.

By providing a bookend to its equally groundbreaking 1971 première of Norbert Vesak's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Going Home Star marks a significant turning point for the 75-year old company. The opening-night crowd included aboriginal elders and other members of the aboriginal community.

By presenting what is likely the world's first full-length First Nations-inspired ballet, Going Home Star also ensures the RWB's own place in dance history, with its message of hope, cast against a backdrop of ever-rising numbers of murdered and missing aboriginal women, never more desperately needed.


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Updated on Friday, October 3, 2014 at 9:41 AM CDT: Adds video

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