Going Home Star an unusually intense, artfully metaphorical night at the ballet

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      A Royal Winnipeg Ballet production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, April 7. Continues until April 9

      Intense is not a word you’d normally use to describe a ballet performance. But Going Home Star is haunting and distressing, not just because of its subject matter—the lasting trauma of Canada’s residential-school system—but because of the visceral, metaphorical way it is staged. 

      It’s compelling and thought-provoking, and definitely not your average night out at the ballet. Unless all you want to do is lose yourself in another Swan Lake, you should probably check it out before this historic work leaves town at the end of its western tour.

      Projected video of train tracks and starry skies—both symbols of escape for imprisoned schoolchildren—inundates you, the imagery made more acute by Christos Hatzis’s driving music. Layering urgent rhythms and strings, the soundtrack is punctuated by Tanya Tagaq’s breathless throat singing, and even, at one point, real spoken survivor stories. On-stage, clergymen in sinister black robes with semisadomasochistic design touches circle like vultures around students. An urban native woman loses herself in the subway rush and one-night stands. A group of spiritual “Star Children” lift a frozen boy to the night sky.

      It was a loaded assignment choreographer Mark Godden took on: staging a piece about the indigenous tragedy using what is generally considered a white, European art form. But the nonliteral-minded Godden turns out to have been a good choice for the project, his abstract ideas, theatrical-cinematic approach, and penchant for symbolism a surprising but welcome match for subject matter that can’t be reduced or literalized.

      The venture was a risk for the company, which made history with another out-of-the-box First Nations subject in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in the 1970s, but its close work with aboriginal advisers and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems to have paid off here.

      And the commitment of the company is obvious at every turn. Sophia Lee is fiercely focused as Annie, the urban hairdresser who spends her off-hours amid drugs and meaningless sex, until the homeless man/trickster Gordon (a powerful Liang Xing) slowly reveals the collective history they share. Alanna McAdie and Yosuke Mino are subtly moving as the two schoolchildren whose stories he shows her through visions. Godden gives them life through choreography that’s never showy, integrating the everyday (watch Annie come to life, lying on the floor, from her literal slumber) and, at one point, judicious use of aboriginal dance vocabulary.

      It doesn’t all work. You may need author Joseph Boyden’s extensive synopsis to understand every plot detail, or the program’s First Nations symbol guide to interpret bigger set pieces like a turtle shell. The show’s delirious second half, a dreamlike reckoning with the colonial history that led to the residential schools, includes sparkly ship-shaped headgear and a ballet parody that feel a touch too campy in this context. And it is difficult to suggest the ugliness of child abuse using a form as beautiful as ballet.

      Still, there are so many transcendent, visually inspired moments that you will be grateful this company took the risks it did. By the end, as Godden interweaves overwhelming music with real imagery of forgotten children and flames, you may find yourself deeply moved.

      Nothing about this production feels like your usual ballet show. As soon as you arrive in the lobby, you see info booths, aboriginal youth ambassadors, and even nurses to work with people who face triggers during the show. The Tsatsu Stalqayu Coastal Wolf Pack began the opening night with their chilling strains and drum beats, and led us out of the theatre. The whole evening feels important and current, and it’s a unique way to bridge cultures and collectively face a dark history that affects us all. It’s story ballet reimagined in an extremely provocative way. Like I said, intense.