Ballet brings issue of domestic violence to stage

Tara Bradbury
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Art has the powerful potential to heal, the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada has discovered. One single performance can resonate within a viewer for a lifetime.

That’s the effect the Moncton-based ballet company is hoping to accomplish with “Ghosts of Violence,” a moving tribute to victims of domestic violence, which it is taking to arts and culture centres in St. John’s, Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor, Stephenville and Corner Brook over the next two weeks.

The full-length ballet grew from a 2007 short piece put together by Igor Dobrovolskiy, the ballet company’s artistic director and choreographer, for the Murial McQueen Fergusson Foundation for Family Violence Research, based in Fredericton, as a part of their Silent Witness Project.

“Five hundred people were brought to tears in seven minutes,” Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada CEO Susan Chalmers-Gauvin told The Telegram. “It was a wonderful example of the impact the arts can have.”

The ballet company’s phone began ringing, Chalmers-Gauvin said, and members quickly became aware of a groundswell of interest in the piece among community groups and others.

Realizing the message of the piece was an important one, and one that could be brought around the world, the ballet company worked with Canadian playwright and dramaturge Sharon Pollock — known for her pieces with strong social themes — to turn it into a two-act ballet.

Dobrovolskiy has said it was a challenge to find the proper language and plot to tell the story.

“I knew it was a huge challenge to explore this issue within the framework of a ballet, but I felt there was much more to say about these women, their lives, and this devastating social problem that crosses all boundaries,” he said in a written statement. “I knew we had an opportunity to bring this message to a broad public in a unique way and that we had a chance to change lives with our art.”


In developing the piece, Dobrovolskiy and Pollock were provided with the case information and histories of the 23 women in New Brunswick who had been murdered at the hands of their partner at that time. They conducted focus groups with youth, met with various women’s groups and researched statistics about domestic and dating violence in Canada.

Dobrovolskiy and Pollock based “Ghosts of Violence” on four real-life cases, but represented various ages, backgrounds and social classes. The pair were also intent on creating a piece that was powerful, yet sensitive to victims of domestic abuse that may see it and have an emotional reaction.

New York filmmaker and projection designer Adam Larsen was brought in to create a multi-media component to the piece: he shot images that play on five large screens, mirroring the aggression on the stage, as the ballet unfolds.

After taking two years to create, and with music by Alfred Schnittke, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, “Ghosts of Violence” debuted at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in February 2011.

“The response has been wonderful,” Chalmers-Gauvin said. “For people who haven’t been touched by the issue, many of them have said they hadn’t considered it or given it much thought until now. What we’ve been told by survivors is that Igor hit the scenes bang on. A group of survivors surrounded Igor after one performance and they wanted to talk and talk — they asked him, ‘How did you know what I went through?’

“Unfortunately, domestic violence is still a taboo subject, and when a ballet company creates and tours a piece like this, it adds a validity to their lives and concerns.”


At least one woman is killed in a domestic violent incident in Canada every week, Chalmers-Gauvin said, and dating violence has increased by 40 per cent over the past four years. Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest risk of dating violence, representing 43 per cent of the incidents.

Canadian statistics on violence show, the ballet company found, that only 72 per cent of victims of dating violence report the abuse to the police.

In an effort to reach youth, the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada is offering “Ghosts of Violence” as a high school matinee, and has subsidized seats for young people.

It has also developed Celebrate Courage, a project integrating the ballet with an educational campaign on domestic and dating violence, with the goal of inspiring dialogue and action.

Celebrate Courage has a number of national partners, as well as local partners in every community. In Newfoundland and Labrador, those include the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, Memorial University, status of women councils in Gander and Corner Brook, Marguerite’s Place Women’s Centre, various coalitions to end violence and the province’s victim services program, among


At each performance location, some of the partners will be on site, and in this province, there will be a discussion with them and Dobrovolskiy both before and after the show.

In St. John’s, The Telegram will present a matinee performance of “Ghosts of Violence” to more than 700 high school students. The Telegram also has its own project to raise awareness of domestic violence and support victims, called the Warm Hearts campaign, which will take place in February for the second year.

“In sponsoring ‘Ghosts of Violence,’ we hope to continue to bring awareness to this very important issue — an issue that tends to be kept behind closed doors,” Telegram publisher Charlie Stacey said. “As a newspaper, we feel a responsibility to ensure these doors are opened, dialogue continues and actionable steps are taken with regard to awareness, education and assistance, and the ultimate goal of removing domestic violence from our society.”

The ballet company plans to tour “Ghosts of Violence” across the country for three years, and hopes to bring it to Labrador in the spring.

“Ghosts of Violence” will run for one night only in each community: Oct. 29 in

St. John’s, Nov. 1 in Gander, Nov. 5 in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nov. 7 in Corner Brook and Nov. 9 in Stephenville. Tickets are $25 ($18 for seniors, students and those under 18) and are available online at

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada CEO, The Telegram, Murial McQueen Fergusson Foundation for Family Violence Research National Arts Centre

Geographic location: Gander, Corner Brook, Stephenville Fredericton New Brunswick Canada.Dobrovolskiy New York Newfoundland and Labrador Canada

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