Songs Well Sung: Fatty Legs
Over the last ten years, Xara has created 25 original works of choral theatre in addition to recording two CDs and performing hundreds of times before audiences of all sizes. This tenth anniversary blog series highlights ten of our favourite original productions. We hope you'll enjoy seeing these glimpses from the past!
OCTOBER'S FEATURED SHOW
Originally commissioned by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada as part of their Atlantic National Event in 2011, Fatty Legs is the true story of one little Inuvialuit girl's experience in residential school. A collaboration between Xara and several Indigenous artists, the show was remounted in 2015 for a 19-performances tour across the Maritimes. This October/November the company has regathered to tour the show across Ontario.
We skip ahead this month to 2011 to look back at a show that has taken Xara on a particularly significant journey. Fatty Legs, in its three incarnations, reflects the development of the choral theatre genre as Xara has been exploring it over the last ten years. The show also reflects the profound effect that visceral involvement with a story can have on the singers themselves.
Fatty Legs is a stage adaptation of a book with the same title, written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes and published by Annick Press. It is a true story that begins when eight-year-old Margaret begs her father to send her to residential school so she can learn to read. When she arrives, she discovers all is not as she had expected - her long braids are cut off, she is forbidden to speak her language, there isn't enough to eat, and she is forced to do chores instead of attend classes. A mean teacher makes her wear bulky red socks, causing her classmates to tease her: "Fatty Legs!" Alone and far from all she knows, she devises a plan to ensure a triumphant end to her humiliation.
Xara Choral Theatre, working closely with the authors, adapted the book for the stage and began a long-term collaboration with Anishinaabe contemporary dancer Sarain Carson-Fox. The collective first performed the piece in front of hundreds of residential school survivors and their descendants at the Atlantic National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The singers formed the backdrop and the soundscape for Sarain's emotive dancing and the powerful text was read by Margaret herself along with her daughter-in-law and co-author Christy.
In 2015 we remounted the show with a Maritime tour, joined this time by Mi'kmaw actor Lisa Nasson as the voice of Margaret. Reflecting Xara's growth as a choral theatre ensemble and our development of this genre, the 2015 reworking of Fatty Legs was expanded to include two more pieces of music and more choreography for the singers along with a beautiful lighting design by Matthew Downey.
In November of 2017 Xara's professional touring choir is bringing the story of Fatty Legs to thousands of school children and public audiences in Ontario. Graced once again with the dancing of Sarain Carson-Fox, we will also be joined by poet and activist Rebecca Thomas who will speak the words of Margaret.
For many of the singers, the 2011 show was the first time they had encountered the history and legacy of the residential school system. Years later, the singers connect even more deeply with story through their music and movement. In the words of performer Shila LeBlanc who first took part in Fatty Legs in 2015, the experience"immeasurably shaped my worldview and solidified my dedication to reconciliation work in Canada." For Shila, the depth of the connection creates an empathy that "builds bridges for deeper understanding and (hopefully) some critical thought about the ongoing impact of the residential school system on this country." Jenny Trites, third time performer, agrees. "This will be the third time we revisit this show, and it grows in power with each telling."
Fatty Legs is a profound yet accessible story that brings to light the suffering created by residential schools while celebrating the deep strength of a young child who refused to be broken by her experiences. We are forever thankful to Sarain Carson-Fox who calls this her life and heart's work, to our narrators Lisa Nasson and Rebecca Thomas, and the singers of 2011 & 2015, and 2017 who continue to journey with us in this piece. And of course, thanks especially to Margaret and Christy, for allowing us to use their words and memories.