We are surviving that history together

Time is circular—and the trauma of the past is inextricably linked to the present.

May 8, 2017 | BY: Michael Greyeyes and Yvette Nolan

Bearing is a work about Canada. It is a dance work for that explores unflinchingly Canada’s Indian residential school legacy. It also challenges much of the received messaging that Canadians have so far received about that history. Both of my parents were sent to residential schools as children, my father only five years old when he was first enrolled. And their stories have both saddened and fascinated me from an early age. I have created other works—namely Nôhkom and Winter Home in response to this family history, but with Bearing I am, along with my co-director Yvette Nolan, planning to break new ground. Our company, Signal, is intercultural; we work with a culturally and ethnically diverse group of performers and designers who, through the process of creating together, come into intersection with Indigenous narratives and our cultural protocols. This diversity is a huge asset as we seek to explore this content from a provocative viewpoint: we are ALL residential school survivors. I am saying this as an Aboriginal person, whose own family history has been severely impacted by residential school, and I do not say so lightly.


Michal Greyeyes


This premise emerged in 2015 while I was on the other side of the earth. Working for two months in Cape Town, South Africa in the summer of 2015 on a film project, I was struck by the immense shadow of Apartheid, across the city where I was working, across every interaction I witnessed. Everyone—African, White, so-called Coloured, and every foreigner was implicated in this history—where we travelled, shopped, and worked. We were marked by our skin colour and by our privilege. I needed to experience this to understand that in my own country, we are ALL equally implicated in the colonial framework. Where we live, the languages we speak (and don’t speak), where we work, where we went to school, how we view ourselves. And because Indian residential school is intergenerational in its terrible scope, I have lived amongst those who survived. I work alongside those taken and those who were part of the taking, and so do every other Canadian. We are surviving that history together, some intimately, others, like myself, as witnesses. This is what Bearing proposes—that we address that history collectively. It is not something that happened only to a few. It is woven throughout our country’s present and until we face it together, its long shadows will haunt and divide us.

Bearing is a dance work for nine performers in three sections, each approximately 20 minutes in length. The entire piece is performed on a nearly bare stage, with live music as integral to the audience’s understanding of the work. The first section is set to Bach’s Motet (BWV 227 “Jesu, meine Freude”); the second to Claude Vivier’s searing work “Wo Bist du Licht,” while the third section is a new composition and libretto by Indigenous composer Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan. Renowned mezzo-soprano, Marion Newman (Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations) anchors the voices and will sing the lead in Vivier’s work (scored for a single mezzo soprano), while Dénommé-Welch is featuring her voice in “Sojourn” the third section. Beginning with the sacred music of Bach, we ask audiences to understand the implications of the church as part of the framework of assimilation, moving next to Vivier—his own history marked by Quebec’s Catholic boarding school experience, until we place the voice of an Indigenous composer and librettist as the final work of the evening. The structure of the music will be a parallel to our historical journey—settler voices describing a foreign god, then a settler voice questioning that “light,” moving to our own voice imagining another future, one of hope and reconciliation.




This project includes many long-time collaborators, particularly Yvette Nolan (Algonquin) as co-director and writer and Joanna Yu as costume designer, as well as award-winning lighting designer Michelle Ramsay and emerging projection designer Laura Warren. In addition, some of Canada’s most respected independent dance artists have joined our process, including, Jillian Peever, Louis Laberge-Côté (A Soldier’s Tale), Ceinwen Gobert (from thine eyes, A Soldier’s Tale), Daniel McArthur (A Soldier’s Tale, Nôhkom), Irvin Chow, and Indigenous performers including Sophie Merasty, Aria Evans, and Brandon Oakes (Winter Home).

There have been few high-profile works that examine the Indian residential school system through dance—the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s recent production of Going Home Star, coming readily to mind. Going Home Star, while lauded for its timeliness and the company’s willingness to tackle such a potent topic, is problematic on many levels—the lacklustre choreography and staging, the assertion that Indian residential school remains a historical issue, and limited Aboriginal involvement in the creation and ultimate direction of the work to name a few. Bearing confronts these issues directly, and we feel would therefore make a strong choice for Luminato audiences—who are familiar with dance at the highest level, innovative staging, and the provocation that a forceful Indigenous subjectivity could provide. Signal Theatre’s creative leads are entirely Aboriginal, and the work we present is grounded in our performance protocols and ontologies. As opposed to staging the dismal historical backstory, Bearing would ask Luminato audiences to confront the reality of inter-generational damage. This work, furthermore, examines the Indigenous notion that time is circular—and that the trauma of the past is inextricably linked to the present. When the headlines speak of an Aboriginal community in crisis, from suicide and economic despair to the national tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women, our national discourse demands that we remain present and that our conversations must move us ALL forward legitimately into healing and recovery.


Bearing is playing June 22–24 at the Canadian Opera Company's Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre.
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