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kiviuq Returns: photo national Arts Centre English language theatre

Kiviuq  Returns  is a collective work  produced by Quaggiavuut,  a Nunavut-based arts organization that has also worked in Banff with dancers, choreographers and technical staff.  Singers, musicians, story tellers, dancers, actors, painters, set and costume designers, and all manner of artists interested in exploring the re-imagined journey of the legendary Kiviuq , the great northern figure who represents all life as he returns  through the whole Arctic territory, have come together to share each other’s artistic talents and create an extraordinary event that is danced, spoken and sung, mostly in Inuktitut.

The stories are retold first of all by four Elders, whose faces and voices are projected on a screen upstage. The story is then illustrated by the group of seven actors/musicians/singers who play out the legends on stage. At times there  are screens where we see images of water, flowing currents, great swelling waves and elements of air blowing through the stage as actors are transformed into various animals who have important roles in the  development of Kiviaq’s return. At first glance, we realize that the music and the human voices have enormous importance in portraying the world that emerges from these tales.  The singers breathe heavily, taking on the movements of the wind, the sounds from the sea, the echoes from the animals and all manner of living creatures that move about on this land and seascape. 

Actually, what evolves on stage soon becomes very clear, but it might have been even clearer if the staging had included a single surtitle to mark each of the key events that announced the beginning of the four stories setting out the movements of Kiviuq’s life. The structure for the theatre performance was created from four of these stories, but each movement involved a different encounter with an important animal or a mythological creature from the sea. In this sense, as a non-speaker of Inuktitut, I had some difficulty making the transition between each story. Not that one expects a linear narrative, which would have been against the whole form of this work, but since new events are constantly taking place, it would have helped if a surtitle had suggested the new relationship between these creatures and Kiviuq, who was depicted in each segment by a different actor or a musician. They were all mentioned in the program, but it would have been much more useful to have a short surtitle visible on the stage: How the orphan was transformed into a seal by her   grandmother who has shamanic powers;  how a beautiful arctic Fox removes her skin and Kiviuq falls in love with her; how   Kiviuq seeks a wife from among the animals and rejects them because their beaks are too long or they smell too much; how Kiviuq is terrified by the bee woman scraping a skin; How the storm conjures up  the Sea Woman and we hear the poetic song  in English by Taqralik Patridge telling us how  water is so important  in this northern world.

It is all accompanied by throat singing, drumming and much choreography, and it paints the powerful portrait of a great mythological world of creatures, human and animal, who are all related, who all communicate with each other, and who are all under each other’s transformative powers.

Theatrical moments are also unforgetable, for example when the  grandmother cracks the orphan’s head on the surface of the water after he has found the head of a seal and made it into a mask before being transformed himself into a seal. That event was violent, it showed the power of the animals, of the shaman, and how Kiviuq survived because he had been nice to the orphan and had not mistreated him. Kurri Panika was one of the figures who became Kiviuq with his beautiful guitar playing and lyrical voice that would seduce any creature on this earth. Christine Tootoo has a most enticingly poetic voice and recited /chanted the song of the Sea Woman,  whereas Pakak Innuksuk became the raven and then joined the sounds of his world by manipulating his drum and dancing or floating on the stage. .

Looee Arreak’s costumes were lush and conjured up the world of the spirits just as the sound and music design were vital for our initiation into this collective soundscape that drew us into its  midst.

This performance was also conceived by the group to draw attention to the fact that Nunavut has no local Performing Arts Centre, and the group feels it is imperative that the Inuit people  reclaim their own stories that explain their world through such performances. In most cases, the young people do not even  know these stories and such events will give them a chance to learn about their own origins and the development of their past.  What we come away with after this amazing   example of collective performance is the fact that Canada is an immense colonial creation that was named by the English and the French – the settlers who came to live on this land.

The Inuit were like all the other native people who were already here and who were then defined by those intruders and finally set up in territories and artificially defined spaces that only served to allow the Europeans to better control the people on the land.”?   The whole difficulty of what we call “Canada” comes to light now as we have seen through all those performances presented by the NAC this year:  the revolt of the Metis, the question of the residential schools, the difficulty of defining the territory of “Canada” when it involves a language that moves far beyond the “Canadian” boundaries such as Inuktitut across the North Eastern Arctic and way beyond Northern America. The bigger question seems to be, why are we all still so ignorant of all of this history?  Why haven’t we at last discovered that we are all part of this enormous movement of people which goes far beyond our limited concept of ‘Nation”, which means absolutely nothing here.   The National Arts Centre has had the courage to  open its space to all those who have never come into our Canadian  theatres  and show us all those people who are truly part of this enormous territory that still remains to be identified and understood by all of us.

I would like to thank NAC English Theatre and all the other sectors involved for showing us that we never really knew who we were.