Canada’s residential school system — a network of government-sponsored, custodial religious schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture — is not in the past. While the last residential schools closed in the 1990s, their painful impact on Indigenous communities and wider social and cultural repercussions are woven into the present-day fabric of our country.
Bearing, a new dance-opera co-created and co-directed by Indigenous artists Michael Greyeyes, a professor of theatre at York University, and playwright Yvette Nolan, explores the long shadows cast by the residential school system. The production receives its world premiere June 22-24 at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre as a featured event of Toronto’s Luminato Festival.
Greyeyes and Nolan bring a deep personal connection to the work, as both had parents in residential schools. With a title that evokes both endurance and bearing witness, their dance-opera proposes that we address our history collectively, anchored in the Indigenous notion that time is circular and that the trauma of the past is inextricably linked to the present. With Bearing, Greyeyes and Nolan bring into full circle the pain and healing of what happened in the residential schools.
“Every person in Canada is surviving residential schools, because if you’re Canadian, you’re part of it,” Greyeyes said. “Until we face this legacy together, it will haunt and divide us.”
Bearing unfolds in three acts. In the first act, modern-day Canadians, naked but for their undergarments, are reluctant to enter into a difficult conversation. As they put on costumes that are strewn about the space, they assume the experiences and memories attached to the clergy, a residential school uniform, lawyers, regular citizens. An Indigenous family bears witness to this dance. The family is estranged, splintered by its own history with residential school, and is barely noticed by the Canadians.
In the second act, the Canadians take their places in the classroom of a residential school. The family moves into a house to watch while the Canadians live the experience of residential school. The act ends in wreckage with chairs and clothing everywhere, and bodies twisted and exhausted.
In the final act, the Canadians revisit their stories and embark on real healing with the Indigenous family as they gain a deeper understanding of the experience of the Indigenous people, and what it means to bear some of the weight of this history.
“When the headlines speak of an Indigenous community in crisis, Canada’s national discourse demands that we remain present and that our conversations move us all forward into healing and recovery,” Greyeyes said. ”
To create the work, Greyeyes, a Plains Cree, and Nolan, an Algonquin, worked with librettist Spy Denommé-Welch, who is Anishnaabe. Bearing is produced by Greyeyes’ company, Signal Theatre, an ensemble committed to the collaborative process, experimentation and intercultural research. Nine performers communicate through dance, music and spoken word.
The production features music by J.S. Bach, Claude Vivier, and a commissioned work by Indigenous composer Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan, performed live by the National Youth Orchestra with some of Toronto’s leading professional classical musicians, a chorus and mezzo soprano Marion Newman, who has Kwagiulth and Stó:lo roots. Choreography is by Signal Theatre. The creative team includes award-winning York theatre alumni, lighting designer Michelle Ramsay (BFA ’97) and costume designer Joanna Yu (BFA ’07).
For more information about Bearing, including a blog post by Michael Greyeyes and Yvette Nolan, visit the Luminato website.