The premise behind the Canadian Gothic, and most of Canadian literary criticism when it first started in the 1960s, is that white settlers were—and are—scared of everything. Northrop Frye distilled that fear into his garrison mentality: Canadians build little garrisons to protect themselves from the vast and terrifying land they’ve settled. What generally made those forests, plains, and tundra so terrifying was, of course, Indigenous people. Not that they were ever trying to be terrifying, but settler anxiety has been our bread-and-butter for a while.
However, up in the Far North, the Inuit practice an art form meant to be terrifying. It’s hard to watch the mask dance of uaajeerneq without being afraid, whether you’re an Inuk or a settler. And in Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, a Great Canadian Theatre Company production in collaboration with NAC Indigenous Theatre, you get the chance to see uaajeerneq practiced by a modern master, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory.
Uaajeerneq is a performance art form with a long history. It was suppressed by the Church and colonialism, before being revived in the 1970s. Laakkuluk views performing uaajeerneq as both artistic and political. The art form itself is both terrifying and erotic (yes, a bit of an odd combo) with a great dose of humour thrown in. In fact, it’s meant to allow children to explore fear in a safe environment, while also giving them a lesson in sex education. The art form is used as sex-ed in one Iqaluit high school.
But uaajeerneq is only one part of this show from Inuk performance artist Laakkuluk and Toronto-based queer theatre-maker Evalyn Parry.
The show is itself a combination of things: part storytelling, part concert, part interactive conversation, part performance art. The multi-disciplinary approach results in a sometimes uneven show that can feel like vignettes have been stitched together.
Also prominent in the show is cellist Cris Derksen from Tallcree First Nation in northern Alberta, who provided haunting live music, and Elysha Poirier, who designed the video projections that are integral to the show.
Along with a conversation, Kiinalik also features songs, although not so many as to make it feel like a concert. This is another point in which the show feels somewhat uneven. The songs feel sketchy, half-finished, and often stop for a bit of dialogue before half-heartedly starting up again. An extended exploration of Stan Roger’s classic “Northwest Passage” touches on Parry’s roots in folk music (her father, David, was a member of folk group Friends of Fiddler’s Green) and southerners’ relationships to iconic Arctic adventurers.
One question this show raises is: why does it have to be performed by two people? And more importantly, why couldn’t it just have been an Inuit show? The answer to that actually lies in the show.
Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is not a bad meditation on Canada’s curious relationship to the Arctic. Near the end, Laakkuluk and Evalyn Parry debate representation. Normally, an Indigenous person in a show is THE Indigenous person, meant to be representative of an entire group. We see this with many other ethnicities too. Yet Parry recalled feeling like the representative southerner at a performance in Iqaluit. Even in a southern performance in Ottawa, Parry still feels like the representative—maybe even more so than Laakkuluk.
Through Laakkuluk, the audience sees the North, and though she’s not a sole representative, she nevertheless demonstrates the living cultural and artistic practices of the Inuit, such as uaajeerneq, face tattoos and mythological storytelling. And through Parry, we experience the North really as an experience—not a place where one lives, but a place where one goes. The Arctic is an adventure to southerners. Parry is our lens to see that; Laakkuluk, living proof that challenges that.
Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (1233 Wellington St W) until Sunday February 9, 2020. Tickets cost $39–55 online and at the box office and the GCTC is also offering a $15 ticket welcoming the Indigenous community.