Joseph Boyden wades into 'very sacred' territory with residential school ballet

Award-winning Métis author Joseph Boyden said he had "no idea" how to write a ballet when he was first asked to tell the story of residential schools in Canada through dance.

Award-winning Métis author talks about Going Home Star on CBC's All In A Day

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation. (National Arts Centre)

Award-winning Métis author Joseph Boyden says he had "no idea" how to write a ballet.

But as he told CBC Radio's All In A Day, he accepted the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's challenge to tell the story of residential schools in Canada through dance as a way to promote reconciliation for future generations.

"One of the things I did not want to do was make this feel old and historical. I didn't want this to take place in the 1800s. I didn't want this story to take place even in the 1960s," Boyden said Friday.
Author Joseph Boyden, shown in a handout photo, is an award-winning author. (The Canadian Press)

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production of Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation opened on Thursday at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and continues through Saturday.

It premiered in Winnipeg in 2014.

"I wanted [the ballet] to begin contemporarily because, as anyone in-the-know understands, the fallout from residential schools is going to go on and on for a number of generations still," Boyden said. "And I wanted to speak to young people."

Boyden was an honorary witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The commission's final report, released in December after years of hearings and testimony from thousands of residential school survivors and many others, made 94 calls to action on how to both repair the damage caused by residential schools and move forward with reconciliation.

Boyden said he delved into "very sacred and tough territory" to tell Going Home Star's story of a young, urban indigenous woman who meets a homeless residential school survivor.

'This was scary'

Boyden said writing the ballet was a welcomed challenge.

"As artists, the only way we're going to continue to grow is to take challenges that really push us and scare us. And certainly, this was scary," he said.

Listen to the full interview below.

Acclaimed writer Joseph Boyden was tapped to help create a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production based on the stories of residential school survivors. He spoke with All in a Day about creating a story for dance. 9:43

Boyden worked with choreographer Mark Godden on Going Home Star, who inspired him to go beyond the "stodgy old ballet you might picture," he said.

His story for the ballet really started to come together while he was on a book tour for his novel The Orenda, he said.

"I literally had to lock myself in a hotel room in Toronto for three days," he said.

"I realized that the classic ballets are simple stories on the surface that you can just tell there's great weight holding them up. It's almost like an iceberg: you only see one-tenth of that, but you know that there's great weight holding up that iceberg."