On a knife edge with Kiinalik

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Parry bring north and south together in Kiinalik. Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh

Had a northern and a southern artist, each unknown to the other, not both signed up for an ocean expedition a few years back, we might not be seeing them (this week) at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in a co-production with the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre.

That’s where Toronto singer/songwriter Evalyn Parry and Iqaluit, Nunavut-based storyteller/dancer Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory are performing Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools. The Dora Award-winning show, a concert-cum-conversation, explores the complex north-south relationship through the lenses of colonial history, culture and a changing climate.

The two women hit it off in 2012 as artists-in-residence aboard a ship filled with climate-change scientists (“a lot of so-called experts on the Arctic who were all white,” says Bathory with an edge to her voice) that travelled up the Davis Strait from Nunavut to Greenland with stops at communities along the way.

Bathory, an Inuk mother of three who was raised in Saskatoon, says she signed on for the opportunity to meet Inuit youth from across the Arctic and so that other young people could learn more about Inuit homelands.

Parry, a queer theatre maker and artistic director at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, signed up because she’d been researching the Northwest Passage (a reinterpretation of Stan Rogers’ song of the same name is part of the show) and pondering questions of colonial history and what the north means to southerners who, like her, had never been there.

They saw each other perform, liked what they witnessed, and eventually cooked up the show. “It grew out of friendship,” says Parry in a three-way phone call between Ottawa, Toronto and Iqaluit.

Back in Toronto after the trip, Parry was thinking over what she had come away with from the voyage and how to do a show about it. But she soon realized that to do that from her perspective only would be to replicate the very thing she was trying to vanquish: An image of the north that ignored the viewpoint of its traditional inhabits. When she learned Bathory was in town, she invited her to brunch and the slow work of building a show began.

With the two artists more than 2,300 kilometres apart, the project was “pretty ambitious,” says Bathory with a laugh.

“We had this very tenuous connection through Skype and video and voice chatting on the Internet,” she says. “We had very long, intricate conversations, which is why we call the show both a concert and a conversation.”

The process, while less than easy, produced a storehouse of potential content for the show, says Parry. “The reason the show is as substantial as it is partly because the topic we’re digging into is so substantial, but also we were both bringing a lot of material to the table — we’re both artists with pretty robust practices of our own. Then it was a matter of smashing things together, editing.”

“Killing some of our darlings,” adds her co-creator.

Parry’s role as artistic director gave her access to resources that, combined with fundraising, brought Bathory to the south and Parry and other team members to the north to work on the show. It previewed in Toronto and subsequently premiered in Iqaluit.

When it was performed in the north, the show proved to be an especially emotional experience for both artists, says Bathory, and audiences felt their own experience validated by the performance.

Parry was struck by how much less formal and bound by theatre conventions the audiences were compared to their southern counterparts.

“In the show, we sing a song in Inuktitut, sort of a lullaby that’s well known in the community, and everyone joined with us when we performed it in Iqaluit.”

The show, accompanied by Cree-Mennonite cellist Cris Derksen, is not all lullabies.

It includes a disruptive Greenlandic mask dance by Bathory, who’s made it a cornerstone of her artistic practice. When Parry saw her perform it on that Arctic voyage, “It really blew my mind and gave me a wonderful introduction to who Laakkuluk was as an artist. I said, ‘I want Buddies audiences to see this because it’s challenging and hilarious and different.’ I’ve seen lots of transgressive things on the Buddies stage but never anything like Laakkuluk’s performance. What it does is, it moves all these ideas from something we’re talking about into a feeling in your body.”

“It’s a very in-your-face performance because it pushes people’s boundaries,” says Bathory.

Adds Parry, “It feels like we’re doing the work we’re meant to be doing when the audience is unsettled by the performance, (which) disrupts this colonial history we’ve received.”

The two agree that audiences shouldn’t expect a tidy resolution to the issues raised in the show, that what they’re seeing is a difficult conversation about a place, a people and a tangled history.

Says Bathory, “I love that many people leave with more questions than they came with, that they look at the stereotypes they thought were true about the Arctic, the Inuit, the kinds of conversations we’re allowed to have.”

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is at GCTC Jan. 22-Feb. 9 (preview Jan. 22; opening night Jan. 23). Tickets: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196, gctc.ca

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.