Residential school play featuring Peter Gabriel music will be performed with live symphony in Calgary

Wednesday, May 31st, 2023 1:25pm


Image Caption

Performers in the New Blood production, which is based on the experiences of residential schools of survivors, including Siksika Nation Chief Vincent Yellow Old Woman.
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

What better way to mark a theatre production going into its tenth year than to pair it with a live symphony?

New Blood, based on the residential school experiences of Siksika Nation Chief Vincent Yellow Old Woman and others, had such an impact on David Wartman, executive director of the Calgary Civic Symphony, that he approached the play’s creator to collaborate with her.

New Blood is put to the music of Peter Gabriel, and Deanne Bertsch, the play’s creator/director, says it’s her “dream come true” to have Gabriel’s 12 songs performed by a live, full orchestra.

“People want to know more (about residential schools) and care about the story. It moves them when they watch the show and I think it's going to be especially moving with the live music,” said Bertsch.

In 2012, Bertsch received Gabriel’s album New Blood from a friend, who suggested she create a show to go along with the music. It wasn’t until a couple years later that inspiration struck when she visited Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta and learned about Indigenous history.

“I went back to that New Blood album—I don't even know why I pulled it out—and started listening to it and the lyrics were just so evocative and so much about the story that we were going to be telling. And it just tied in so perfectly,” she said.

Peter Gabriel, singer/songwriter
Peter Gabriel, singer/songwriter

Bertsch emailed British singer-songwriter Gabriel for permission to use his music.

“He actually wrote me back and he said that he has always had a great respect for First Nations people and he would be honoured for us to use his music for this kind of work and he wasn't going to charge me any rights to use it,” said Bertsch.

As for the concert with the Calgary symphony, she adds, Gabriel also gave them the orchestration for free.

New Blood is told through dance, music, art and poetry and through the talent of performers from Siksika Nation, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers from the Rosebud School of the Arts and Strathmore High School.

Bertsch teaches drama, dance and musical theatre in Strathmore and directs and choreographs at Rosebud.

Skip Wolfleg is one of the Siksika Nation performers. He is a powwow drummer who has been involved in the production since it started. He calls himself the “heartbeat guy” with his drum. The heartbeat of the First Nations people beating throughout the performance.

“We're going to have this orchestra. It's going to be incredibly lit up. It's going to add some power to it,” said Wolfleg, who’s looking forward to the new experience.

After almost a decade on the stage, Wolfleg says New Blood still resonates with him. The stories are the familiar ones he heard from his grandparents.

He knows the production also continues to resonate with people, some returning numerous times to take in the performance and some who come anew.

Over the course of the years, New Blood has evolved. The production now has a scene with a shovel in reference to unmarked burial sites at former residential schools across Canada, and nun costumes to mark the experiences relayed by dancer Eddie Wolfchild about his father for the play.

“The story itself about residential school, I think, is always going to develop as we go,” said Wolfleg. “There's going to be more things that come about and so I think it's good to stay up on those changes…I think it's important that they be added.”

While the story has grown, Bertsch says the production has been pared down and streamlined, partially because it has been taken on the road and toured Alberta. There is no longer a full choir, nor a full drum group.

In the past few years, New Blood has also travelled out of province to Victoria, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.

To get ready for the single performance with the Calgary Civic Symphony on June 15, the performers will rehearse with the symphony the week of June 11.

Bertsch says she had no idea when the production hit the stage in 2014 that it would still be going today and that they would perform live with a symphony.

“I simply did it just out of my own desire to learn more about my students who I work with. I had no clue that it would be as important to as many different people as it has been or as relevant,” she said.

As for Wolfleg, who stumbled into the performance rehearsal the first day expecting he was going to be doing the “usual gig” of an honour song or two, he stayed because “pretty much each and every one of us have this experience (with residential schools) and we hear the stories quite a bit.”

Bertsch says Gabriel was invited to attend the Calgary performance but had to decline because he is touring Europe.

The Calgary Civic Symphony Presents New Blood Dance takes place June 15 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. Tickets run from $40 to $60 and are available at

The show’s net proceeds will be donated to Indigenous registered charities for their work with residential school survivors.

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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.