In one scene, a young residential school student receives crippling blows from a clergyman. In another, he is brutally strapped. His classmate later has her long hair sheared off.
This is part of what viewers will see when Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation debuts at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet on Wednesday.
Although ballet is often known for its delicacy, this new work will also include scenes of historical abuse and violence.
"At first I was a little nervous — how is a company that is non-aboriginal going to tell an aboriginal story?" said Joseph Boyden, who wrote the ballet's story. He is also the author of Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda.
Boyden admits he initially had to wrap his head around telling a First Nations story through an art form that he says has a reputation for being bourgeois and Western.
"I started watching some of the classics and just the gorgeous simplicity of human movement on a stage to tell a story, whether it is beautiful or painful," Boyden said.
The ballet opens with Annie, an indigenous woman living in the city. She meets Gordon, a homeless man, in a subway, who was forced into a residential school as a child. The two travel back in the past to witness the abuse of other First Nations children.
Boyden says it was important to craft a story based both in the past and present.
"The average viewer will be able to see that this is something that still exists," Boyden said.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Artistic director André Lewis says this production is grounded in the belief that art can create social change.
"I hope people will be touched. They will understand better the situation that did happen," said Lewis.
There are no aboriginal dancers in the cast, but actor and former member of Parliament Tina Keeper was involved in the production as an associate producer. She also brought in Polaris Music Prize-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers.
Members of the ballet company heard survivor stories, had conversations with elders and Truth and Reconciliation commissioners, and participated in a sweat lodge.
Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says he hopes residential school stories can also be explored in other settings, including opera and symphony.
"The artistic community has a way of connecting with people at a visceral level that we think is very important," he said.
Boyden hopes people leave feeling optimistic after seeing Going Home Star.
"My work tends to end on positive note, it tends to end on a redemptive note," he said. "I think this ballet is no different. It really is about redemption and healing."
Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation runs at Winnipeg's Centennial Concert Hall from Oct. 1 - 5.