Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation may be the most important dance mounted by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in its illustrious 75 year history.

Choreographed by Mark Godden, the story of Annie and Gordon, a pair of contemporary aboriginal young people who come to terms with a soul-destroying past, is inspired and inspiring.

It has visibly catalyzed the entire company; I have never seen the RWB dance better.

Throughout the ballet’s two full acts, the dancers move with grace, precision and clarity, holding in a delicate balance a narrative that could easily have become abstract or overly dramatic.

Godden, a choreographer who has set a number of fine ballets on the RWB, is at the top of his form. He doesn’t let the arc of history overpower the art of dance; as a result both are given equivalent importance.

'It has visibly catalyzed the entire company; I have never seen the RWB dance better.' - Robert Enright

His exceptional choreography asks the dancers to move through a range of emotional conditions that includes anger, violence, sensuality and tenderness. They make those transition seem effortless.

Sophia Lee is flawless in the main role as Annie, a good-time girl who realizes that her fast-paced urban life, complete with casual sex and cocaine, is hollow at its core. When she meets Gordon, danced with a rare combination of power and vulnerability by Liang Xing, her life undergoes a profound change, as does his.

He is a survivor of the residential school system and the burden of that experience is overpowering. It is literally embodied in a reliquary, a model of a residential school, that he carries on his back; at the end of the second act this symbolic object is destroyed and with its burning and Annie’s love, Gordon begins the difficult and necessary process of healing.

In addition to Lee and Xing, the other principal roles are Niska and Charlie, danced brilliantly by Alanna McAdie and Yosuke Mino. They are victims of the residential school system as well, especially Niska, who is beaten and raped.

These scenes are extremely powerful, all the more so because they are underplayed. The economy of the movement in the ballet is admirable. The role of the clergyman, danced by Dmitri Dovgoselets, is a tour de force of mesmerizing menace.

To be sure, all the priests in the ballet, with their flowing skirted cassocks, are excellent; their dark threatening presences are countered by the delicacy and lyricism of the Star Children.

Remarkable creative team

Godden has assembled a remarkable creative team to help him realize Going Home Star, beginning with Joseph Boyden, the award-winning novelist who provided the story idea (Tina Keeper also acted as an associate producer).

The music by Christos Hatzis is richly layered, borrowing from aboriginal sources as well as European ones. It is worth noting that Tanya Tagaq, the Polaris-winning throat singer, and Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers perform on stage, in addition to being present in the score.

There are also echoes of other classical ballets in the RWB repertoire, including Rite of Spring, Swan Lake and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s as if Hatzis wants to remind us that the story being told here is musical as well as historical.

KC Adams’s set design is instrumental in the story’s development and Paul Daigle’s costume design is wonderful, especially in the ship-headed costumes for the Divine Louis’s, a ridiculous cluster of 17th century fops who represent European decadence. They bring a sort of absurd humour to the ballet, and they appear all the more pathetic in contrast to the beauty and dignity embodied in the aboriginal culture that they exploit.

An unqualified success

One final thing: Going Home Star marks the 75th anniversary season of the RWB. It took genuine vision to choose a dance based on the testimony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the opening ballet of this watershed year.

In choosing it, Andre Lewis, the company’s long-standing artistic director, made a courageous decision, one that will resonate to his and the company’s credit for the next 75 years.

Going Home Star is an unqualified success. For those of us privileged enough to have been in the audience last night, it sits indelibly in our consciousness.

The history of the residential schools is now our history as well as the history of First Nation’s people. Memory has been made flesh in a new kind of kinetic genesis; it promises a legacy of light, understanding and hope.