Guillaume Ittukssarjuat Saladin has a suggestion for audiences attending the upcoming world premiere of Unikkaaqtuat (meaning to tell stories), an all-ages show which opens the second half of NAC Indigenous Theatre’s inaugural season. The cross-cultural production fuses circus, theatre, music and video, spotlights Inuit artists and is rendered mostly in Inuktitut.
“In the south, we always try to understand,” says Saladin, a Montreal-area circus artist and co-creator of/performer in the show. “Now you have a chance to be lost and to feel the north without translation, and I think that’s the nicest gift you can do for yourself because we always try to understand and understand in 20 words. And that sucks.”
Opening up to other worlds is pretty much what happens to the young Inuit man who’s the pivot point of Unikkaaqtuat.
Recovering from surgery in a southern hospital, he listens to an old recording of his grandfather telling a series of founding myths from Nunavut and Nunavik. The myths are brought to life by the show’s actors, musicians, acrobats and video projections, providing comfort to the young man by helping him reconnect with his traditions and identity while stuck in a foreign environment.
The north, says Saladin, has been flooded with southern media and stories, “so it’s about time old Inuit founding myths resurface… for young people to reconnect and rediscover their own past, their own stories.”
Saladin, who was raised partly in Igloolik and who studied at the National Circus School in Montreal, co-established the Inuit circus troupe Artcirq 22 years ago to help northern youth develop creative skills as a way of dealing with a bleak existence that was driving some of them to dangerous acts and even suicide.
“Young people wanted to adopt southern ways of living in an environment that wasn’t appropriate,” he says. “You’d have boys in T-shirts doing skidoo races when it was -50C and girls wearing short skirts.”
Knowing the central role of storytelling and art in traditional northern culture, Saladin and his circus school pals saw Artcirq as a way to provide tools for self-expression to young Inuit. Seeing their peers thrive in circus arts would inspire other youth to believe in themselves as well.
As an example of the cascading effect of success, Saladin points to the swelling presence of northern performers on “the big stage,” including musicians like the Jerry Cans, Riit and, tragically, 26-year-old Kelly Fraser, who took her own life just before Christmas.
The broadening profile of such performers, says Saladin, “is very powerful and touching to me because young teenagers have people to identify themselves with.”
Along with Saladin, Unikkaaqtuat’s five-person creative team includes Inuit illustrator Germaine Arnaktauyok, who created the video content, and Patrick Léonard, co-artistic director of The Seven Fingers, a circus arts group which tours internationally.
“From the beginning, it was very important that we do it in collaboration,” says Léonard about the show, which was developed with support from the NAC’s National Creation Fund.
“I’m not going to tell you it was super-easy, because we have our own way of telling stories… There are so many details which, from a white guy’s point of view, seem non-relevant but for them it was a super-important moment and we needed to show it. We really had to listen to what they had to say.”
Complicating the situation was the fact that the Inuit artists came from all over Nunavut and Nunavik. They may have brought the same founding myth to the table, but each had its own local variation and required respect as the show was being built.
Léonard says the show also needed to respect the Inuit take on circus arts.
For instance, a quamutiq, or sleds, is incorporated for acrobatics.
Inuit are very physical people, he says, and even youth who don’t hunt have great strength and agility. Consequently, there’s also plenty of climbing on each other, sometimes in pyramid fashion.
Ensuring safety and pleasure for the performers in a circus arts show like this requires everyone to work closely together, says Léonard. There’s potential danger involved, so everyone has to have everyone else’s back.
“I would say also, and this is the same thing in the south, whenever we do circus with people who are not circus people from the start, trust is really important — to create this trust. I think that’s the thing they benefit from most. And, of course, after they can bring it to other things in their life. I think the world will go forward if we really start working together.”
Unikkaaqtuat is in the Babs Asper Theatre, Jan. 9-12. The $15 ‘All My Relations’ ticket is available to all self-identifying members of the Indigenous community throughout the Indigenous Theatre season. For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca