The Van Mag Q&A: Joseph Boyden

The author of Going Home Star talks ballet and reconciliation

January 26, 2016

By Eliot Escalona / Photo: Réjean Brandt Photography; Norma Wong

All it took was one performance for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star, written by acclaimed writer Joseph Boyden, to be propelled onto a nation-wide tour. Now, a show meant as a closing piece for the Truth and Reconciliation Committee has embarked on a path of its own (and comes to Queen Elizabeth Theatre this April). Leaving behind bureaucracy, stiff formality, and politics, Going Home Star uses art to bring forth issues facing First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people while projecting a message that all Canadians must play a part in the reconciliation process. Boyden, a Canadian novelist of Irish, Scottish, and Anishinaabe heritage, was one of many collaborators that made the ballet possible. He is the author of Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce, and The Orenda and often lectures with UBC’s creative writing program. We spoke with Boyden about the collaborative process behind the ballet and the future of Canadian history.

How did the idea of this collaboration come to be?

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were talking about doing something together to bring about the closing of the commission itself, and so they decided on a grand ballet, which they needed a story for. After deciding to work together, they approached me to create a story on which to hang the ballet.

What was it like to write a story that you knew would be directly interpreted through movement on stage?

It was a very collaborative effort, and so I didn’t actually write with the idea that I would shape the movement, because I am not an expert in ballet. What I knew I had to do was to create a story that someone like Mark Godden, the choreographer, could take and do, what I call, the translation of my story into actual movement. With this in mind, I created a story that seems simple on the surface but that carries some weight to it that would transfer into dance.

You’re a novelist. How was this writing experience different, knowing that your characters would come to life on stage, with props and costumes?

It was a little different. I mean I am a very visual writer, and I usually try to envision things in my mind, and I try to capture that in words, so this was an interesting test on how I do write my fiction. I got to sit down and create scenes that I knew for sure would actually come to life on stage, so it was pretty fascinating to work that way. As I said, I am a very visual writer anyways, so I think that it was all just a natural extension of my writing to have that happen. I think the end result of that whole collaboration was very powerful.

Once the opening night rolled around and you watched the show, what emotions came over you? What did you think when you saw your words embodied on stage? 

I was quite nervous obviously. I think everyone was that night. We knew that it was something beautiful, what the Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancers had created, and we knew that it was a collaborative effort. But I was more nervous and interested to see how the audience would react those nights that I got to see it in Winnipeg, and the reaction was extraordinary—everything that I had hoped for and more. I mean, people were crying, people were laughing when they were supposed to laugh, and people walked out of the show feeling that they had witnessed something special. The reviews the next day confirmed that. Some said that it was the most important ballet that the Royal Winnipeg Ballet had done.

What was your thinking process behind having such a modern protagonist for the story?

From the very beginning I knew that I didn’t want to approach the story just from a historical standpoint. I didn’t want to write a ballet that takes place in the 1920s, 1800s, or even the 1960s. I wanted it to be contemporary because I wanted to make sure and underline that reconciliation is an ongoing process—it’s not something that happened in the past and we can forget about now. I wish it was that simple, but it’s not.

We all have to understand that it is not just a native problem. The solution lies in incorporating all of Canada, and I think the ballet tries to capture that by having dancers from many ethnicities, music from the brilliant Greek-Canadian Christos Hatzis, a story line by me, a mixed-blood First Nations person, and Tina Keeper from Norway House Cree Nation as the associate producer. It’s a combination of efforts from a very amazing cross-section of Canada.

At the end of this national tour, how do you see this show continuing onward?

We have already discussed how smaller versions of the ballet can travel much more easily, because you know to have a ballet of this scope and size to travel is not an easy task. But smaller versions can travel to smaller communities and reserves in the country. There is also talk of the ballet doing Canada-wide tours again in the coming years. It’s just a wonderful example of how something can stay alive and keep coming to new audiences because it shows us something about a tough problem in a new light.

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