An Artcirq, 7 Fingers, and Taqqut production. A Cultch and DanceHouse presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Wednesday, January 22. Continues until January 25
Although this production from Canada’s Far North contains acrobatics, it would be entirely misleading to expect some kind of epic Inuit circus. That’s because, thanks to a certain touring megacompany, that term might make you think the show is about glitz and razzle-dazzle, when its biggest strength is that it feels so movingly real, even intimate.
That’s not to say this coproduction by two northern companies (Igloolik’s community-based Artcirq and film studio Taqqut Productions) and one southern one (Montreal’s 7 Fingers) doesn’t hold some transcendently beautiful moments. At one point ghostly souls become the northern lights dancing across the night sky; two women dangling upside-down from silks vividly evoke figures sinking through the frigid blue depths of the Arctic Ocean; and two hunters use small orange flames to chase a human-size rabbit in the dark. The projected animated drawings of well-known Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok add to the mystical feeling, with their stylized figures in amauti parkas and mukluks, narwhal-women, and flames glowing against the 24-hour dark.
But here’s betting those weren’t the only moments that caused the audience to jump up for an extended standing O on the opening night of this stop on the show’s cross-country tour. The response probably had just as much to do with the authentic pride that comes across when its young Inuit performers beat their walrus-skin qilaut drums, hold each other arm-in-arm to sing ancient throat songs, listen to an elder tell a story in Inuktitut, and pull off traditional games like the one-foot high kick. And with the unspoken fact that it’s a small miracle that those traditions have survived. In the finale, when the entire cast turns to us to sing while Joshua Qaumariaq strums the guitar he used earlier as a kayak paddle, it feels authentic, generous, and profound in ways so much overproduced culture doesn’t.
The show’s transitions could flow better, especially regarding the framing device of a modern-day Inuit man (Levy Tapatsiak) stuck in a southern hospital. As for the untranslated soundtrack of an elder telling the creation myths, you don’t need surtitles to feel the wonder of women turning into sea creatures, ravens and crows creating the sun and moon, and huskies becoming stars in the sky. (You can easily scan the short stories in a display in the Playhouse lobby beforehand.) Expect macabre touches and ample humour, too.
More than anything, Unikkaaqtuat feels like a gift from the North—a sharing that not only redefines, once again, how “circus” arts can be used, but adds to the ever-growing wealth of original storytelling emerging from Canada’s Indigenous voices.