‘Healing through dance’: evocative ballet adaptation honours missing and murdered Indigenous women


An annual campaign that honours missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and their families in Fredericton, N.B., includes a spin on a ballet production about domestic violence. 

In its fourth year, the Red Shawl Campaign, co-ordinated by the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre at the University of New Brunswick, is holding ceremonies and events during the month of October to bring awareness to the issues facing Indigenous women across the country. 

The focal point of the campaign is a creative adaptation of the Atlantic Ballet production Ghosts of Violence, which explores the stories of victims of domestic violence. 

“Our dancers and [Atlantic Ballet] dancers could somehow send a message of healing through dance,” said Wolostqew Elder Opolahsomuwehs (Imelda Perley), of the idea to incorporate Wolastoqey themes into the show. 

Wolastoqew Elder Opolahsomuwehs (Imelda Perley) said the special performances of the ballet are meant to send a healing message. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Perley said that from the first day, it was important to ensure that the art forms of western ballet and Wolastoqey song and dance had separate representation in the production.

“That way we don’t replace, we don’t displace, we blend,” she said.

“[Atlantic Ballet] does their ballet, we do ours — we just do it together.”

The Red Shawl Campaign in Fredericton has been getting larger each year, said Perley. Fredericton municipal buildings were aglow in red light during the week of the performance, local churches rang their bells daily as a reminder of the cause, and hundreds attended daily events and the ballet. Perley said she expects the momentum to continue.

She practises Wolstoqew puberty ceremonies, which mark the transition of young women into adulthood with the presentation of a shawl. Red shawls were made to be the symbol of the campaign, Perley said. 

Wolastoqew Elder Imelda Perley said it was important that different generations of women are represented during the campaign so that everyone can learn and heal together. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

The production features live singing, drumming and dancing by four generations of Wolstoqew performers from multiple communities of Wolastoq territory in New Brunswick. 

“I always make sure there’s a young girl, a teenager, a mother and grandmother,” said Perley. 

“For me, it’s that intergenerational healing that’s needed among our women.”

‘We bring the culture of this land and integrate … the presence of the soul, the presence of the culture, inside the ballet performance,’ said Atlantic Ballet artistic director Igor Dobrovolskiy. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Igor Dobrovolskiy, artistic director for Atlantic Ballet and the choreographer for Ghosts of Violence, said the adaptation was important to the company given the cause, but also calls it an “upgrade” on the original performance. 

“We bring the culture of this land and integrate … the presence of the soul, the presence of the culture, inside the ballet performance,” he said. 

‘All of us have a responsibility to care for our non-Indigenous and Indigenous sisters,” said jingle dress dancer Amanda Rogers, left, with Sarah Francis. Both performed in Ghosts of Violence. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Dobrovolskiy, who’s originally from Ukraine, said it’s been a personal honour to work with the Wolastoqiyik over the years. Hw said he’s learned a great deal about the subject of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and First Nations cultures in Atlantic Canada. 

“I grew up in the Soviet Union and read some books, but never thought I’d have the chance to actually speak and work with Indigenous Peoples. I was so happy,” he said. 

“It’s a heavy subject, but [we’re doing] a good thing.”


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