Unikkaaqtuat – A theatrical sharing of Northern Indigenous stories

The production amalgamates circus, theatre, music and video. | Photo by Alexandre Galliez

Unikkaaqtuat shows for the first time on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations from Jan. 22­–25 at the Vancouver Playhouse.

For Vancouver, this has been one of the few productions featuring Inuit theatre and artists, and people are anticipating its arrival.

“From what I’ve been hearing back from the Indigenous communities who’ve been contacted is that they are really excited about this production coming here,” says Lisa Mennell, Communications Associate at The Cultch.

Stories to share

Unikkaaqtuat means old stories in Inuktitut. In the past number of years, there has been a concerted, collaborative effort to collect and document stories through artistic renderings as well as retell founding stories from Northern communities. This production amalgamates circus, theatre, music and video performed by a collaboration of Inuit and non-Indigenous artists highlighting 12 of these myths and stories.

With movements and effective costuming, the performers
portray animals. | Photo by Alexandre Galliez

“When founding myths are about to be forgotten that means the culture is in danger,” says Guillaume Ittukssarjuat Saladin, co-artistic director and founder of Artcirq.

Some of the stories recount the origins of night and day, characterized in a dance between
a rabbit and raven – the rabbit likes the dark because he can hide, but the raven needs light to find food. Another creation myth presents the origin of death. Mountains, according to lore, were created when giants starved to death. With animated movements and effective costuming, the performers portray the animals, from rabbit and raven to polar bear and huskies. These animal characters figure prominently in the stories.

“In the south, we always try to understand too much,” says Saladin, who is also a Montreal-area circus artist and performer in the show. “Here the audience has a chance to feel the north, to focus on what it is to be there.”

When the performance begins, the audience is immersed in darkness echoing northern life at this time of year. However, before it gets too uncomfortable, the lights come on to an opening scene where a young man lays in a hospital bed. This is where the storied adventure begins.

“We are here to share and give everything we have. You will feel the melody of Inuktitut.” says Saladin

Behind the scenes

Artcirq, 7 Fingers and TaqqutProductions, in collaboration with Germaine Arnaktauyok’s guidance and her mythical drawings, form the travelling performance, Unikkaaqtuat. Partially funded by the National Arts Center, the production made its debut in Ottawa at the new Indigenous Theatre and it will tour to Nanaimo, Vancouver and Yellowknife. Then they are hoping to come back to Toronto and Montreal closer to spring. For the future, it is Saladin’s wish that they bring the theatrical troupe and the stories on a small international tour with a preference for New Zealand, where the Maori people reside.

“It is important to keep the old stories alive,” he says.

Meanwhile, Saladin embraces each moment to explore any growth opportunity for the touring company. During the interview, he mentioned Artcirq had arrived in Montreal to be part of Cirkaskina – National Social Circus Gathering. It is one of the first national gatherings of 150 youth from Nunavut to Vancouver.

Artcirq brought 60 youth from the company to collaborate with other Cirkaskina youth for collaborative circus performances in Montreal. One of Artcirq’s guiding principles is to facilitate Inuit youth and provide access to universal vehicles of creativity and communication to express themselves through performing arts, music and video to further promote social wellness. The Inuit performing arts collective has a mission to bridge traditional Inuit culture to its larger global community.

“In the end, Unikkaaqtuat is a sharing of the north and its stories. Collaboration is so important because, by ourselves, we cannot survive,” says Saladin.

For more information: www.thecultch.com.

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