Unikkaaqtuat: a gift from the North

The Cultch and DanceHouse are presenting Unkkaaqtuat at the Vancouver Playhouse.

This raft doesn’t always stay afloat. (Photo by Alexandre Galliez)

Unikkaaqtuat, which is billed as a circus, is a sincere and generous gift from the rich traditions of several northern peoples. From my southern settler perspective, some of the show is gorgeous and some of it is boring.

In its framing device, Levy, a young Indigenous guy is hospitalized because he’s experiencing severe abdominal pain. A young female relative brings him a cassette tape of stories from his grandmother, but the tales on the tape actually come from her dad, Levy’s great grandfather. As Levy drifts in and out of consciousness, these origin stories come to life.

This frame is clunky in that requires too much setting up and striking of Levy’s hospital bed, and its pay-off is perfunctory: when Levy recovers after immersing himself in his heritage for 75 minutes, his doctor declares, “Sometimes it’s not the body that’s sick.”

But there’s beauty in the storytelling. Artist Germaine Arnaktauyok contributes illustrations that combine traditional imagery with a contemporary design sense and end up feeling like images from the best picture book ever. Neil Christopher and the folks from Taqqut Productions Inc. have animated Arnaktauyok’s illustrations, so we see a hunter and his dogs chasing a polar bear through the night sky; women sinking down, down, in icy ocean water; and human spirits dancing in the northern lights.

The music throughout is fantastic. Joshua Qaumariaq sings with the soulfulness of a balladeer — even when he’s floating past in a kayak, using his guitar as a paddle — and Christine Tootoo has an angelic tone and exquisite pitch.

One of the most memorable sequences for me is also one of the simplest. Terence Urayak sounds a huge, round, handheld drum, flipping it back and forth as he moves to the beat. Tootoo and Charlotte Qamaniq sing a haunting traditional song. The moment is so expansive and so meditative that I felt like I’d been given a glimpse of the northern landscape.

The circus elements are more problematic for me — because I’m a jaded southern consumer. I have seen a whole lot of phenomenal circus performances — from Cirque du Soleil and several smaller companies. I have been so thoroughly dazzled so many times the I’m going dazzle-blind: if you’re not swimming through a tank full of sharks with your hair on fire, I’m just not going to be impressed.

Two circus companies, Artcirq from Igloolik in Nunavut and The 7 Fingers from Montreal are among the collaborators on Unikkaaqtuat. The 7 Fingers created Cuisine and Confessions, one of the most astonishingly acrobatic shows I’ve ever seen. Here, their impact is more muted. Marjorie Nantel is very good on the aerial silks, for instance, but how many times have we seen aerial silks?

Inuk performer Charlie Gordon does an aerial number on a rope. And Levy Tapatsiak, who’s playing Levy, does some athletic high kicking that is, I think, an homage to a traditional northern contest. On a human scale, these feats are impressive; I couldn’t come close to mastering either of them. But they’re being presented in a context in which the familiar scale is superhuman.

The myths are told in Inuktitut, and there’s obvious integrity in that choice. There are explanatory panels for all of the myths in the lobby. And, of course, it’s a pleasure to throw one’s self into confusion and pure association — for a while. But, with my limited grasp of what was going on, I couldn’t find a sense of accumulation or reward in the episodic tales. At least 20 minutes before the conclusion, I found myself looking for the resolution of Levy’s story — because I knew we had to get to it before the evening could end.

In saying this, I don’t mean any disrespect to the artists of Unikkaaqtuat. There’s a whole lot of skill and generosity in their offering. These artists also want to build cultural bridges and the companies involved have asked critics — including southern settler critics — to respond to their work.

Contextualization is tricky. I wonder what the exchange prompted by Unikkaaqtuat might be like if it gave its non-Inu audiences a different sense of scale, if the show gave us a clearer understanding of the importance of the myths to the people who are relating them, and if the terms of its presentation encouraged us to perceive the performers as ordinary humans rather than superhumans — if the framing of the story was fuller, in other words — and if the terms of the presentation were more immersive.

UNIKKAAQTUAT Script, artistic direction, and staging by Patrick Léonard, Terence Uyarak, Guillaume Ittukssarjuat Saladin, Neil Christopher, and Germaine Arnaktauyok. Co-produced by Artcirq, The 7 Fingers, and Taqqut Productions. Co-presented by The Cultch and DanceHouse at the Vancouver Playhouse on Wednesday, January 22.  Continues until January 25. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Margaret keane says:

    Hi Colin
    Enjoyed your review of UNIKKAAQTUAT which I also saw last night. That being said, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the performance on many levels. I’m certainly not as jaded as you sound – I don’t have the opportunity to attend as many events as you do, and I don’t write revues – ‘tho I must admit I do share my reactions and criticisms – good and bad – with anyone willing to engage with me on the topic.
    Coming from a country where the old myths and legends have always been an important part of my identity I had no problem buying into the landscape of the stories presented.
    Growing up in Ireland my first foray into Irish History in Elementary school was an introduction to the old myths. My early years were steeped in stories of the Fir Bolg, Thuatha De Danaan, Cuchulainn, Fiona Mac Cuall, and the Deise. From there we went on to explore the more practical stories of the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the Chronicles of the Kingdoms of Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht, all governed ultimately by the High King, seated at historic Tara.
    I think I know where my deep rooted sense of my Irishness comes from. I admit to still holding on to my manner of speaking in spite of spending more than fifty years in British Columbia.

    I read all your reviews – I live on Vancouver Island so I don’t get to see a great many of the performances reviewed, but that never interferes with my enjoyment of your critiques.

    Thank you

    Margaret Keane

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