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Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613

Northern Lights: An Inuit circus troupe brightens the stage at the National Arts Centre

By Danny Globerman on January 9, 2020



Running away from home to join the circus has been the stuff of many a childhood dream. But when that home is a frigid hamlet on a remote island in the Far North, reaching the circus can require a pretty long and improbable journey. Still, that hasn’t stopped young people in Igloolik, Nunavut. In fact, far from a dream, they’re making circus life a reality… and they don’t even have to leave home to do it.

Though the land beneath Igloolik may be frozen, it has been fertile ground for the cultivation of Artcirq, an Inuit circus and performing arts collective. The group was established there in 1998 by locals with the help of Guillaume Ittukssarjuat Saladin, a circus performer from Montreal who spent his first 15 summers in Igloolik with his anthropologist parents only to be drawn back to live and work in the community as an adult.

A trio of acrobats present their version of an Inuit creation story in Unikkaaqtuat. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

In the years since, Artcirq has easily surpassed expectations, entertaining audiences from Stockholm to Timbuktu, performing at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and at Windsor Castle for Queen Elizabeth, and forming the subject of a documentary film.

Marjorie Nantel, an acrobat with The 7 Fingers circus company, performs in Unikkaaqtuat. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

Now it is taking the stage in Ottawa with a show that’s breaking new ground; its most elaborate and significant project yet.

“Not at this level for sure,” says Terence Uyarak, the Co-Artistic Director of Artcirq commenting on whether the group has ever tried to reach so high. “Never at this level.”

Multi-media, cross-cultural

Uyarak is talking about Unikkaaqtuat, the multi-media production enjoying its world premiere at the National Arts Centre as part of the Indigenous Theatre’s inaugural season (the NAC’s National Creation Fund contributed $225,000 to the production). It’s the result of a five-year, cross-cultural collaboration between Artcirq, The 7 Fingers circus company from Montreal and Iqaluit’s Taqqut Productions film company. It weaves together acrobats, actors and musicians along with projected illustrations by renowned Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok.

The acrobats of Unikkaaqtuat perform the Inuit creation story of how ancient residents capsized an island, drowned and thus introduced death to the North. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

“To my knowledge, it hasn’t been done before.”

“To my knowledge, it hasn’t been done before,” according to Patrick Léonard, the Co-Artistic Director of The 7 Fingers. “I would say we’re pioneers in terms of creating a show involving Southerners, Inuit, creating it all together. I think we’re pioneers in doing something so substantial.”

Old stories told a new way

Unikkaaqtuat is an Inuktitut word meaning “the old stories” and over the course of 90 minutes, the 10 acrobats (7 of them Inuit) plus actors and musicians interpret a dozen creation tales integral to Inuit beliefs and lore. The members of Artcirq have told many stories with their art, but this is their first show devoted solely to telling their own.

“It’s incredible,” says Artcirq’s Uyarak. “It’s a big privilege for me because I’m so proud of my (Inuit) culture and always we have been doing southern stories or a little mix of our stories and someone else’s stories. But this time they took the time to honour our beginning-of-time stories and it’s a big privilege.”

Terence Uyarak, the Co-Artistic Director of both Artcirq and Unikkaaqtuat, onstage at the National Arts Centre. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

Not that developing the work was always easy. With three different companies involved, there were inevitably differing artistic visions. What’s more, telling the stories of a particular people needs to be approached delicately. High-impact staging concepts and cultural sensitivity aren’t always compatible.

“One particular thing with Inuit culture is they’re not people who stand up and say ‘Here’s how I see it’,” explains 7 Fingers’ Patrick Léonard. “They’re going to be very quiet, listen and then when they do it, that’s when you realize ‘You’re not doing what I kind of asked. Why?’. They say ‘Well I don’t feel it this way. I think it’s more this way.”

Patrick Léonard, Co-Artistic Director of both The 7 Fingers and Unikkaaqtuat, at the National Arts Centre. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

Lessons beyond the theatre

Léonard learned to adapt. But navigating the culture differences took patience, understanding and respect on the part of everyone involved. No surprise then that as Canada struggles with matters of reconciliation involving its Indigenous peoples, Unikkaaqtuat may offer lessons that extend beyond the walls of the theatre, even if Léonard stresses that wasn’t his original intent.

“Me, I really do it because I fell in love with a bunch of friends up there and their interest in sharing more of who they are. My goal really is to work with them and create something we’re all proud of. If this friendship can bring more knowledge to the South of who these people are, I’ll be the happiest man on earth.”

“Everyone in the world comes from a very long way,” add Artcirq’s Terence Uyarak. “We are in this age when we say let’s move forward. Let’s not forget the past, but let’s not stay stuck in these painful memories. I feel we are ready as a world to allow each other to express how we feel and a big part of it is that Inuit as a whole are being accepted in the South more than ever before. That’s incredible.”

Unikkaaqtuat runs at the National Arts Centre’s Babs Asper Theatre from January 9–12, 2020 before embarking on a four-city Canadian tour of Nanaimo, Vancouver, Camrose and Yellowknife. Tickets cost $15–65 online and at the box office.