Unikkaaqtuat brings North and South together in an acrobatic new take on traditional Inuit arts

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      As the son of anthropologists, Guillaume Ittuksarjuat Saladin spent a lot of time growing up on a remote island north of the Arctic Circle—in Igloolik, the Inuit hamlet perched between the Canadian mainland and Baffin Island. His memories of the midnight sun and heading out on the land with elders are idyllic to this day.

      Saladin’s last family trip there was at 15, and he didn’t return again for nine years, in 1998. By this time, he was a student of Montreal’s National Circus School, teaching workshops in the community.

      “I realized I had been following in my parents’ footsteps all those years—like footsteps in the snow,” the artistic director of Igloolik’s Artcirq tells the Straight during a lunch break at a circus gathering in Quebec. “And I saw a very different world.”

      The adult Saladin was struck by the social problems and other fallout from colonization that had beleaguered the community, and the number of teens who needed new possibilities. And so the performing-arts collective Artcirq was born. The troupe has grown to take on everything from a performance at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games here in Vancouver to appearances at last year’s prestigious Venice Biennale.

      Artcirq has earned artistic acclaim, but its success goes far deeper than that. “Being Inuit—this has to go back in the ladder of priorities, and travelling with your own culture is very meaningful for the youth,” Saladin explains.

      Now the collective has taken on its most ambitious project yet: Unikkaaqtuat, a large-scale coproduction with Montreal circus innovators the 7 Fingers (who brought the hit cirque-cooking spectacle Cuisine & Confessions here in 2017) and Iqaluit’s Inuit-owned film-production company, Taqqut Productions. The show blends acrobatics like stilt-walking and aerial silks with vivid animated projections, Inuit storytelling, and traditional drumming and throat singing.

      Unikkaaqtuat  features vignettes that tell the many origin stories in Inuit culture.
      Alexandre Galliez


      Like Artcirq’s work, the acrobatics in Unikkaaqtuat draw largely from the traditional games of Inuit culture— juggling, high kicking, and blanket tossing. “I think in every culture you have physical games and celebrations,” Saladin observes. “It was kind of normal in my mind to adapt techniques and give new life to Inuit traditional games.”

      Driving that physical play are the vivid video illustrations of Inuit founding myths created by Inuk artist Germaine Arnaktauyok, who hails from the same corner of Nunavut as Artcirq. (Unikkaaqtuat means “the old stories”.)

      Elsewhere, performers portray the rabbits, polar bears, ravens, huskies, and other animals that figure in the tales.

      Everyone involved has been aware of the importance of a project that brings North and South together, Saladin explains. “We always knew that this process was meaningful: being in the South, how can we take time for the North?” he says, drawing parallels to the Truth and Reconciliation movement. “Especially because this is Inuit companies and southern companies getting together for the betterment of Inuit culture.

      “It is hard because everybody thinks through their own eyes and the North and the South are very different,” he admits. “But for all those communities in the North, we are showing it is possible. They are people that have a very different understanding of seeing the world.”

      What makes Unikkaaqtuat unique is that it tells its stories through those northern eyes—sometimes through an Inuktitut language that is left untranslated. Saladin encourages audiences to open themselves to the unknown—something he learned to embrace as the child of anthropologists, he says, but also as someone who has come to realize art is its own universal language.

      “I think confusion is part of every cultural exchange, and us in the South, we don’t allow confusion,” he observes. “Not having answers makes us uncomfortable. We live in a square world and we want the right answers to everything.

      Performers take the form of some of the Arctic Circle animals that populate Unikkaaqtuat .
      Alexandre Galliez


      “In the North, everything is a circle; there is no just ‘yes’ or just ‘no’,” he explains. “With Unikkaaqtuat, we wanted to respect the grey zone in the world.”

      Bringing circus first to the North and then back to the South may not hold all the answers, but for Saladin, who’s been at this for so many years now, it’s a good start. As he puts it,

      “Circus is just one way. I don’t want to impose a view. Nothing is yes and nothing is no. Everything is maybe.”

      The Cultch and DanceHouse present Unikkaaqtuat at the Vancouver Playhouse from Wednesday to Saturday (January 22 to 25).