Groundbreaking, unorthodox ballet attracts a wide audience

(Photo: Liang Xing and Sophia Lee share a kiss in the final scene of the show. Photo by Samanta Katz)

Fresh Cut - Brenlee Coates
Fresh Cut – Brenlee Coates

Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) debuted its 75th year with a sharp detour from programming as usual.
By daring to tackle the inter-generational effects of residential schools in Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation, the ballet company broke the mould and in turn welcomed a new audience eager to see how the theme was presented.
First-time ballet attendee Danielle Robidoux said it was the first time she had been excited to see a ballet, and it had provoked water-cooler discussion at her workplace with other young staff leading up to the show.
The modernity and complexity of the show’s theme seemed to serve as an invitation to a wider audience; it allowed the age-old art form to seem forward-thinking and become palatable to more viewers.
Getting new people in the seats was also helped along by price incentives.

Access Pointe: Ballet Under 30

The program Access Pointe: Ballet Under 30 reduces the price of admission to a cool $30 plus taxes and fees for people between the ages of 15-29.
Attendees can purchase up to two tickets at this rate, provided the guest is also under the age of 30.
The only catch is that you have to sign up to become an Access Pointe member ahead of time, as you are sent a passcode by email approximately one week from a show’s debut, which you can use to redeem the offer. The program is meant to help young adults, students and new professionals make the arts part of their lives while the full-priced admission is still a little out of reach.

Pay What You Can

In conjunction with Going Home Star, the RWB also debuted its first Pay What You Can initiative, when for one date of the run, patrons could buy tickets at a reduced rate in the two hours leading up to the show (a donation of $20 was suggested).
This opened the ballet up to any low-income individuals and coincided well with the socially-conscious message being shared in Going Home Star.
The Going Home Star show was 10 years in the making, and it kicked off the renowned company’s season with so much vim that it will be a tough act for itself to follow.
The show was inspired by the tales of residential school survivors collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. It was the vision of the late elder and activist, Mary Richard, to see the dance company stage something with First Nations origins and a profound social statement.
Adapting a story of this magnitude and putting such a unique spin on the classical 400-year-old European art form was a lot of responsibility to bear to say the least – but it helped that the RWB found enthusiastic participants along the way.
The plot is based on a story penned by prominent Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, who comes from European and Anishinaabe heritage. He frequently explores themes from First Nations history and culture.
His expertise helped authenticate the show, as did the musical elements from Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers and the recent Polaris Prize-winner Tanya Tagaq, whose emotive, primal, and alternately soft and coarse voice supported the symphony like the heartbeat of the show. Worthy of mention is also the composer Christos Hatzis’ of-the-moment score which was experimental enough to allow Tagaq’s thumping, breathy sounds to seep in seamlessly.
Her voice transcends genres and demands to be heard – and it was a rare and perfect fit for the beautiful and simultaneously uncomfortable ballet.
The story was also transposed with audio recordings from residential school survivors’ experiences, which supported a more direct and cognizant delivery of the show’s message.
While the tale follows two First Nations protagonists; one that at first is disconnected from her heritage and feeling the weight of its absence, and one that can’t shake the past – Going Home Star reminds us that the history of the residential school system is everyone’s story to share, and everyone’s to try to reconcile.
Perhaps artistic director André Lewis said it best when he introduced the show: “Truth is important, but also, reconciliation is just as important if not more.”

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