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

Theatre Review: Unikkaaqtuat at the NAC—until 01.12.20

By Jennifer Cavanagh on January 11, 2020

Unikkaaqtuat: Dazzling cross-cultural journey through myths and legends

Opening the second half of the NAC Indigenous Theatre season is the ambitious Unikkaaqtuat that blends visual art, theatre, music and circus in a homage to Northern legends delivered almost exclusively in Inuktitut.

Anchoring the legends is a young Inuit, Levy, recovering in a hospital in the south. Clearly alienated, Levy is comforted by the receipt of cassette tapes in which his grandfather relates the “old stories” or unikkaaqtuat legends of the north. The founding myths are brought to life through atmospheric performances and video projections in a collaborative project that incorporates stunning imagery, circus, athleticism and live music in a celebration of Inuit culture.

The legends are interspersed with Levy’s hospital experience, dipping in and out of his condition, his dreams, visits with a northern relative and brief interactions with staff. The central narrative around which the legends and performances orbit is a triumph of simplicity of which established circus teams could take note.

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.

Attempting a cooperative effort between three companies: ArtCirq of Igloolik, Taqqut of Iqaluit and les 7 doigts from Montreal; is a risky premise but the results are surprisingly seamless. The varied styles are skillfully anchored to the core narrative which keeps the storytelling accessible while the visuals and performances flow naturally to fill in any blanks that could be lost in translation. That Inuktitut is the leading language and the recorded myths mimic the oral tradition by which the old stories were originally shared creates a satisfyingly immersive premise further enhanced by musical performances that swing from playful to haunting.

The multidisciplinary acrobatics are exceptional. A ragdoll contortionist on silks paired with a powerful throat-singing duet is heart-stopping beautiful.

The multidisciplinary acrobatics are exceptional. A ragdoll contortionist on silks paired with a powerful throat-singing duet is heart-stopping beautiful. A myth of the earth’s formation caused by a tipped iceberg is accompanied by mesmerizing hand-drawn projections. Shadow-puppet giants bring humour and levity to a legend of which versions span the northern hemisphere. The 10 performers, 8 from the North and two from Montreal, integrate and complement one another with humour, bringing emotions that seem to spring genuinely amongst the artists. The acrobatic physicality of the southern artists is matched by the control, strength and coordination demonstrated by their northern counterparts in playful routines that incorporate Inuit high-kicking, trampoline and tumbling.

The urban setting, pacing and contemporary flavour of the performances provides the perfect bridge to deliver these ancient stories in a meaningful, respectful fashion. Highlighting diverse companies and northern artists, Unikkaaqtuat is an impressive, unprecedented and fully captivating collaboration that deserves the widest of audiences.

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. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. $15 ‘All My Relations’ tickets are available to all self-identifying members of the Indigenous community throughout the Indigenous Theatre season. Tickets are available online and at the box office.