The Far North is both home and unknown to Canadians. An expanse of cool white that sculpts and covers, smooths and hides. To experience it, is to examine what home means to you but if you’re not able to travel to the Arctic you can still taste the complexity of the region and its people, on the stage.
Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, written and performed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Parry presents the story of two women who meet on a voyage between Nunavut and Greenland. An Inuk woman with family ties to both regions and a queer white woman living in Toronto.
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In the first collaboration between The Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) and The National Arts Centre (NAC) Indigenous Theatre, the audience travels through the Arctic and beyond as two cultures, two identities, meet and share their stories.
The audience are invited to participate, sharing their own travels through the North. I speak about visiting Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories and a google map is pulled up so that we can all see each others travels.
This multimedia aspect created by Elysha Poirier, a video artist and animator, changes throughout the show and includes images of ice, Inuit hunting techniques and towards the end, city scenes of Toronto.
The show’s all female creative team also includes beautiful accompaniment by Cree-Mennonite cellist Cris Derksen.
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Parry’s love of folk songs, inspired by her father, swell a feeling of patriotism that is then challenged as one well-known tune is pulled apart and the assumptions of the “savage north” dismantled.
While Bathory’s haunting throat singing pulsates through the theatre, I am reminded of a performance I recently enjoyed by PIQSIQ, at the International Indigenous Tourism Conference in Kelowna, British Columbia.
One scene that stayed with me hours after the performance was when Bathory scraped lines and dots onto a projector with an ulu, a traditional Inuit knife. My mind tried to find some pattern, some secret message in that design until she revealed the significance of her tattoos.
Banned by arriving missionaries a century ago, these beautiful markings are being rediscovered and celebrated by Inuit women and here help to focus the audience on what’s to come next. In a poignant moment Bathory tells us that Inuit women often tattoo their legs so that when their babies are born, the very first thing they see is art.
The ulu, an essential Inuit tool, must be sharp to be effective and the name of the show Kiinalik is a reference to the ulu “having a face” which means it is kept sharp for purpose.
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The tattoo markings represent many life stages and important traditional stories including the legend of Sedna, goddess of the sea. Her father, furious with her for leading them both into dangerous waters throws her overboard.
As she clings on to the vessel, he hacks at her fingers which fall into the waves and are transformed into the sea creatures below. Lines etched on women’s fingers are a tribute showing where Sedna was cut.
The most magnetic part of the performance begins when Bathory produces makeup and a mirror and applies black and red paint to her face. She is transformed into a visceral work of art, plunging the audience into a fearful frozen state, we cannot look away.
People react in startlingly different ways as she climbs and crawls through the audience. Some help, they hold her hand as she clambers over them, and they play into a shared fantasy, passing a ball of light between each other.
Others are intimidated, overcome with embarrassment at the raw sexual energy, the implied violence and the unmasked pain that explodes from her in labor-like cries and screams.
Afterward she removes her makeup, becoming again her beautiful self and explains that this experience is a Greenlandic mask dance, known as Uaajeerneq. It explores three themes of fear, sexuality and humor. Bathory says she gives it permission to evolve and change each time.
The audience have experienced discomfort. That’s important. Confronting colonialism and big social issue topics of justice and erasure should be uncomfortable. Sitting in this tension is growth.
We wipe tears away as we offer a standing ovation and shuffle off someplace warm to continue this crucial Canadian conversation.
Kiinalik: these sharp tools runs in Ottawa from January 22nd, 2020- February 9th, 2020.