Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory taps into fear and humour for mask dance

Her mesmerizing work with throat singer Tanya Tagaq has sparked a new creative phase

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      When the Straight reaches Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory at home in Iqaluit, she’s just spotted a musk-ox skin move in the wind, on top of her packed camping gear. The artist is taking a break from packing up for a snowmobile trip with her husband and three kids to their cabin for the weekend.

      The Greenlandic mask dancer is very much at home in the Nunavut capital. But she is also keen to take Inuk traditions out into the rest of the world, as she will when she presents her mesmerizing art form this week in performances with her collaborator, friend, and artistic soulmate, throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

      In the show, she’ll be transformed by the ancient dance called uaajeerneq that’s by turns frightening, sexual, and hilarious. Bathory will be unrecognizable, her face covered in sinister black, cut through with red and white markings. Her cheeks will be puffed out with big wooden beads and her short hair will stand wildly on end. Her teeth will flash and her eyes will blaze. The performance is the perfect fierce, otherworldly complement to Tagaq’s vocalizations.

      “It’s shocking and challenging to people,” the affable artist says of uaajeerneq. “You get to be more of yourself with a mask. It’s a very sexual, idiosyncratic dance—and it’s sexual because it’s important to celebrate our base humanity. All different genders are there: male, female, both. It’s in between, it’s neither, and it’s something to celebrate—that’s a very deep value.

      “It also plays with the idea of fear, and that is also something every human being experiences. You must be able to live your life in equanimity so you can face a situation where you could panic—and that could be everything from a polar bear ripping through the wall of a tent to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.”

      Bathory adds that the dance, once banned by Christian missionaries in Greenland, also pays homage to ancestors, whose bones are represented by the white lines on her face. And it has so much comedy that she describes it, in part, as a clown act: “As ridiculously sexual and fearsome as it is, you really have to break it up with humour,” she explains.

      Artistic and political sparks fly from Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory's performances.

      Bathory, whose mother is Greenlandic and father was English, was introduced to uaajeerneq when she was a young teenager growing up in Saskatoon. “I spent my young years in Saskatchewan and it was a stressful environment, as you know from today, as far as racism,” she says. “I was 13 and, of course, going through all the hormonal changes of puberty, et cetera. And my mother and [performance artist] Maariu Olsen recognized I needed something tangible to work on as a young woman and a young Inuk. They pretty much threw me into performance alongside them.”

      Since then, Bathory has put her own, contemporary spin on the rare dance that saw a revival in the 1970s and ’80s.

      “Of course, when you’re dealing with themes of sexuality and fear and humour, you’re breaking boundaries,” she says. “I make sure I move through an audience in a way that they accept and consent. It’s very much not a verbal thing, but it happens once we make eye contact. It’s scary for everybody. A lot of mask dance is the reaction of the audience as I work with them.”

      Hooking up with Tagaq, with whom Bathory appeared in the haunting video for “Retribution”—a howling indictment of environmental destruction—has sparked a new creative phase for both artists. (The album, Retribution, is up for a Juno Award for best alternative album.) It seems only natural the pair should come together: both push classical Inuk art forms forward in sometimes controversial ways; both are outspoken advocates for Indigenous culture and women; and both are mothers raising their families in the North. Their fearless, instinctual styles play electrically off each other on-stage, as well. Bathory calls their shared approach “reaching in”.

      “Both of us have many, many years of performance. Because we both work with an improvisational method, if she makes a certain sound it can propel me in a certain way, or sometimes I push her voice with what I do,” Bathory explains, adding: “We hang out on social media. We’re both mothers and we both have extremely intelligent, strong children. We experience that together and we solve that together—and really that’s our preparation.”

      Something magic happens when Bathory and Tagaq share the stage. But political sparks inevitably fly, too.

      “As people, we are not survivors of colonization, but have survived through all methods to make sure we don’t exist,” she emphasizes. “Our art forms have been banished by missionaries for so very long. Even the way I move as an Inuk woman and show my body is a political act. And Tanya’s noise is a political act. It’s about identity issues, feminism, and the drive to find the strength from within.”

      Tanya Tagaq and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory are at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts’ Telus Studio Theatre from Friday to Sunday (March 16 to 18).