Royal Winnipeg Ballet steps into painful territory with Going Home Star

Dancer Sophia Lee talks about staging this dark history of residential schools

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      Dancer Sophia Lee probably never could have predicted that her classical-ballet career would take her to a sweltering sweat lodge on a remote Manitoba First Nation reserve. The hours-long healing ceremony was about as far from the world of tutus, pointe shoes, and mirrored studios as she could get.

      But that’s exactly the kind of lengths the Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer and the company were willing to go to in preparation for staging Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation.

      It wasn’t a traditional rehearsal process for the show, and it’s not at all traditional subject matter for a ballet: the new work, written by novelist Joseph Boyden and staged by choreographer Mark Godden, tackles the ugly history of residential schools and the lasting damage they inflicted on survivors and subsequent generations.

      “It was like a tent and there were about 20 of us in there,” the Korean-born dancer says, recalling the experience she and other dancers had in the sweat lodge. The Langley-trained ballet sensation has made a brief stop by the Straight before Going Home Star opens here, after critical acclaim for performances back East. “By the end I was drenched! We got to share what we were thankful for, and some of the elders were crying. They really opened up to us, so it was not just hearing their stories but actually being there. It was real.

      “Everybody that did go was changed. There’s this connection now.” She adds the same elders will hold a feast and blessing for the company before it heads out on its tour to the West Coast.

      In the piece, Lee plays the lead role of Annie, the sort of character you seldom see a ballet centred on: she’s a big-city hairdresser who’s lost in a world of casual sex and drug use. When she meets Gordon, a homeless native man who ran away from a residential school and who possesses tricksterlike abilities, she starts to awaken to her people’s traumatic past.

      The ballet is partly inspired by the testimony of survivors of Canada’s residential-school system and developed with the support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Helped by KC Adams’s artful set design (which includes a surreal, miniature model of an old residential school) and Sean Nieuwenhuis’s projections, it mixes the achingly real with the magic and fantastical.

      “Gordon teaches her about the past and the stories about survivors,” says Lee, whose character sees what occurred long ago through dream visions. “By the end of Act 1, I start to change. At first, Annie is shocked; she actually pushes Gordon away and doesn’t want to hear any more. But there’s a switch where she starts to carry Gordon—there are parts where it’s almost destroying him just to tell the story—and they start the process of healing. They make each other stronger, and that’s the really beautiful and interesting part of the story.”

      Liang Xing and Sophia Lee in Going Home Star.
      Vince Pahkala

      Lee explains that, though the role is far removed from her own experience, Godden has created the choreography specifically for her, and it feels like natural expression.

      Still, the creative process that Lee was a part of was often intense and challenging. The pressure to portray the issues responsibly was palpable in the rehearsals.

      It seemed everyone was aware of the risks of using what has historically been a white, European art form to tell a deeply painful First Nations story whose wounds are still open and raw in Canadian politics.

      Lee adds the devastating emotional content itself was often overwhelming.

      “I remember one rehearsal working on a scene where the two students were being abused and we actually had to stop. Mark couldn’t go on,” she recalls. “But I truly think Mark was so perfect for this show because he’s such a good storyteller. And because in ballet we don’t actually use words to tell the story, people get to feel the raw emotions.”

      Christos Hatzis’s musical score, she says, is integral to the mood and the respect for indigenous culture that the ballet evokes. It features Steve Wood with the Northern Cree Singers and, in some of its most haunting moments, the unearthly throat singing of Inuit star Tanya Tagaq.

      What could have been a disaster—a nonaboriginal company and its nonaboriginal dancers taking on a loaded First Nations subject—has turned out to be worth the risk. Some critics have called it the most important work the 75-year-old ballet company has ever staged. Lee reports many First Nations people approach her after the show to give support. In cities where Going Home Star has been performed, residential-school survivors have been given tickets to the show—often marking their first foray into the world of ballet.

      Sophia Lee and Liang Xing in Going Home Star.
      Samanta Katz

      “As a group we feel really proud of it,” Lee says, stressing the RWB sees this as just a trigger for discussion and way to raise awareness of residential schools.

      For Lee, the local kid who is making it big as a ballerina, the role of Annie is part of what has become her dream job as a principal dancer at one of the country’s top companies.

      “I never wanted to be a principal dancer. I just wanted to do what I liked,” says the statuesque, dark-maned dancer, who adds she’s as happy tackling the Sugar Plum Fairy and a cancan star in Moulin Rouge as she is this dark, complex role. “There were two things I wanted: I wanted to be a fierce dancer, even if my technique wasn’t perfect. And the other was to be a diverse dancer. So I’m so grateful to get these kinds of opportunities. I really can’t ask for more.”

      The Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Thursday to Saturday (April 7 to 9).

      Sophia Lee and Liang Xing in Going Home Star.
      Samanta Katz