At first, Joseph Boyden couldn't wrap his head around it.
When the award-winning author was first approached to write the story for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's new work, he wondered about the suitability of depicting the horrors and consequences of Canada's residential school system through ballet, of all things.
"Why use a western art form to tell an aboriginal story?" Boyden asked an audience at the premiere of Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation, in Winnipeg in 2014.
But Boyden said he was eventually convinced to take part because he wanted to be involved in communicating "the living history of aboriginal people in a way that breaks new ground."
The finished product is a tale of despair, humiliation, courage and — eventually — hope, told through movement, music and dance. It focuses on the story of Annie and Gordon, two aboriginal people who must confront their childhood suffering.
Inspired by the testimony of survivors of Canada's residential school system and developed with the support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the work is a dramatic retelling of worlds and relationships torn apart, with a nod to a brighter future.
Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired the commission, said he hopes the piece will help convey the residential school experience to all Canadians.
"It's part of the educational experience we feel is so important for Canada," said Sinclair, who attended the premiere.
"The most common expression from non-aboriginal people is, 'We didn't know any of this. I didn't know this happened.' Now with this event, not only will you see the beauty of dance, you will learn about the stories of those who have lived this."
The RWB's artistic director André Lewis commissioned the work to mark the company's 75th anniversary.
Lewis enlisted the creative help of choreographer Mark Godden, composer Christos Hatzis, costume designer Paul Daigle and set designer KC Adams.
The first production of the ballet drew widespread praise.
"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." wrote reviewer Robert Enright.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is offering complimentary tickets to residential school survivors for the Ottawa performances of Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation.
Performances take place at 8 p.m.in Southam Hall of the National Arts Centre from Jan. 28 to 30. The Ottawa shows kick off a national tour that will run through the spring and include additional stops in 12 more cities such as Toronto, Regina, Banff, Victoria and Vancouver.
A pre-performance discussion with members of the creative team will take place in the NAC Salon on Jan. 28 at 7 p.m.