Q&A with Michael Greyeyes on his dance-opera as a vehicle for healing Canada

Michael Greyeyes, former Director of the Graduate Program in Theatre at York University and critically acclaimed actor/director/choreographer, joined forces with playwright Yvette Nolan to produce Bearing, a dance-opera about Canada’s residential school system that débuted at Toronto’s Luminato Festival last spring. While the last such schools closed in the 1990s, the aftermath of this painful social experiment to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture, resonates to this day in Indigenous communities and across the nation. It is woven into the present-day fabric of our country.

photo of Michael Greyeyes

Michael Greyeyes. Credit: Jeremy Mimnaugh

Bearing was a deeply personal endeavour as both Greyeyes and Nolan’s parents attended residential schools. To create the work, Greyeyes, a Plains Cree, and Nolan, an Algonquin, collaborated with librettist Spy Denommé-Welch, who is Anishnaabe.

In this Q&A, Greyeyes sits down with Brainstorm to talk about the goals and impact of Bearing, what it meant to him personally and the supportive environment at York.

Q: What was the impetus or the driving force behind Bearing?
A: My co-creator and co-director, Yvette Nolan, and I, as Indigenous people, have been dealing with the aftermath of Indian residential schools pretty much our entire lives. Indigenous families are affected by this piece of history in countless ways. It’s akin to someone who has been displaced, like a family from a war-torn country. It’s so significant that it affects your life constantly, even if the war’s over, you’ve moved to another country or your country has rebuilt. Things impact you, they haunt you still.

photo of Yvette Nolan

Yvette Nolan. Credit: Keesic Douglas

As artists, we’ve been making work that is marked by this history. Bearing is our deepest examination of that fallout.

Q: What is the story of Bearing?
A: Bearing revolves around a family — a metaphor for a community or a nation. We looked at the family because residential schools broke apart families. At the heart of our drama is a family impacted and torn apart by residential schools.

Over the course of the three acts, we are introduced to this family, they interact with the Canadians around them and, in the end, the family is brought together again. So, the journey for the audience charts the progression of the Indigenous family, how they were separated by this history, by circumstance, by their trauma and, ultimately, how they find their way back to each other.

Q: The final act speaks to a deeper understanding, to healing, to what it means to bear some of the weight of this history. How did you accomplish this?
A: When we look at the body of work that’s out there — and it’s a growing body of work since many people are addressing residential schools in literature, performance and visual art — what I’ve seen is an historical approach, primarily. Indigenous artists are required, quite unfortunately, to educate Canadians around this history.

“History is not gone, forgotten, over. History plays out into our present; it is part of our current experience, our everyday lives.” — Michael Greyeyes

We wanted to present something quite different. This is what I suggested to my collaborators: Let’s look at what residential schools means today, in this moment, on this street. That’s where the drama lives. We did this very purposefully to make apparent, for Canadian audiences, a truth that Indigenous people have been living with for a long time: History is not gone, forgotten, over. History plays out into our present; it is part of our current experience, our everyday lives.

That’s how Bearing is remarkably different compared to other works. It’s about now, about how people survive trauma, how we live with each other, how we collectively live with that trauma.

The premise of the work is this: Unless we, as a larger Canadian community, acknowledge and accept that history, accept our complicity in those events and how this affects all of us — not just Indigenous people — then there really is no chance the nation can move forward as a whole.

Q: Bearing premiered at Luminato. What did it mean to you as an Indigenous person and an actor/director/choreographer to unveil this work to the world?
A: It was a very proud moment for me as the Artistic Director of Signal. Bearing was our most ambitious project. I was particularly proud of the quality of the work.

When Bearing was being created, I was also working on the AMC television series “Fear the Walking Dead,” filming in Mexico. So Yvette, Nancy Greyeyes, my wife and co-choreographer, and Brittany Ryan, our general manager, led the final weeks of Bearing rehearsals.

The strength of that kind of collaboration really came forward. I feel that Bearing is our finest work. It was a collective effort. This represents Indigenous ways of working, of power sharing, and how we communicate and work together.

“Unless we, as a larger Canadian community, acknowledge and accept that history, accept our complicity in those events and how this affects all of us — not just Indigenous people — then there really is no chance the nation can move forward as a whole.” — Michael Greyeyes

Q: What kind of feedback have you received?
A: The feedback was tremendously gratifying. People were deeply moved by the work and struck by its great beauty. With live music, it was a very powerful kind of document. Live theatre affects people in ways that film can never hope to.

I think the experience from audiences was incredibly positive. They walked away from it saying that it was a profound experience. That makes me, as one of the collaborators, deeply proud.

Q: How has York’s Theatre Program, in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD), supported your work?
A: I’ve always felt a great deal of support from my colleagues at York. I’m always impressed by the generosity of the department and my colleagues.

photo of a scene from Bearing

Scene from Bearing. Credit: Dahlia Katz

As a long-time York faculty, I recognize the quality of the graduates that we produce. I’m always seeking an opportunity to work with York students and colleagues. For example, Aria Evans, one of our main performers, is a York grad, as is Ervin Chow. Our brilliant costume designer, Joanna Yu is a graduate of the theatre department, as was our award-winning lighting designer, Michelle Ramsay. The chance to work with very talented professional artists from York is truly gratifying.

A related article, “Theatre prof’s dance-opera explores the legacy of residential schools,” was published by AMPD (June 2017). For more information about Greyeyes, visit his faculty page. To learn more about Signal Theatre, visit the website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca

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