Nunavut is the only Canadian province or territory without a performing-arts centre – and Kiviuq Returns, a new show from the Arctic theatre company Qaggiq on tour in the south, shows why it needs one.
This inspired Inuit collective creation had a single performance in Toronto this week at Living Ritual, an international Indigenous performing-arts festival presented by Kaha:Wi Dance Theatre, after a brief tour to Banff, Alta., Iqaluit and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
Performed by a corps of unique performers with talents you won't find south of the Arctic Circle (theatrical throat singing, for one), it has that strong sense of larger purpose often absent from theatre – and deserves to be further developed at home and seen more widely.
From January to March of this year, the creative team visited elders across Nunavut known as the Inumariit – which the company describes as the "last Canadian Indigenous people to have lived their lives traditionally on the land."
They told them stories they had heard as children in igloos or sealskin tents centring on the legendary Inuit hunter Kiviuq – a character who appears in Arctic lore from Alaska to Greenland and whose journeys have been compared to Homer's Ulysses.
Many of these tales had – along with traditional drumming and dances – been banned by missionaries and the Canadian government in the past. They were in danger of disappearing – so the "return" of the title is not a sign of a superhero sequel, but of reclamation and decolonization.
Kiviuq's adventures have an appealing grotesque quality – and are performed by the seven-person cast with a self-aware cheekiness that seems as if it's an organic version of the "two-way theatre" aesthetic that Tim Carroll is currently trying to cultivate at the Shaw Festival.
The show begins in a camp where a young orphan girl (a charming Natashia Allakariallak) has her sealskin ball taken by a pair of bullies. Her grandmother (Lois Suluk) consoles her while she cries – and then, where this takes a distinct turn from after-school special into Inuit mythology, tells her how she can exact her revenge: transform into a seal and drown the men who teased her while they are next out at sea.
This is not easy – in order to change from human to sea animal, the orphan will have to have her head dunked in icy water until she learns to live underwater, a scene that startles even on a dry stage.
Kiviuq (played at first by Kurri Panika, who has a heroic look to him; later, the role rotates to others) is the only one to survive this at-sea slaughter by seal – as he had been kind to the orphan earlier.
In the next story, however, he's less of a gentleman. Lost in the wilderness, he encounters a fox – who has set up camp with a fire like a human and hung her fur outside a hut to dry – and decides to eat her food and take her coat. When she protests, he tells her he will only return her fur to her if she promises to be his wife.
In the staging here, Kiviuq woos the fox by playing the guitar – and singing a call-and-response indie-rock duet with her. It's an odd, otherworldly scene that, like much of the show, is very funny and yet has a sense of woundedness at its centre. "When you take my fur, you take my dignity," the fox, played again by Allakariallak, sings, with a charming Regina Spektor-esque lilt in one of the play's few English lines – suggesting, perhaps, that its message has larger resonance.
Other stories that follow have to do with Kiviuq's courtship or marriage to other Arctic animals – but I must admit I didn't fully understand them until I read synopses. The language primarily spoken through most of the show is Inuktitut, and proudly so.
There were no English surtitles at the performance I saw. I hope if Kiviuq Returns returns, it might consider them.
There's room for them: Each of the stories is introduced with a short video of the elder who passed it on to the creative team, projected onto a scrim made to look like a stretched seal skin.
There's other fine use of moving images that swamp the stage with icy seas. (Jamie Griffiths is listed as the scenographer; Richard Manitok as the projection assistant.)
In order to develop a show with these types of technical elements, not overly complicated by any means, the cast had to rehearse in spaces in the south – first at Queen's University in Kingston and then at the Banff Centre.
In addition to putting on a show, Qaggiq – which is associated with the Qaggiavuut performing-arts society – is advocating for a theatre space at home.
It seems like a worthwhile cause to get behind in the south – after all, we've used the images of the North in our "Indigenous" theatre from its origins. The Canadian Players, one of the pioneer professional performing-arts organizations in Canada founded originally as a spinoff of the Stratford Festival, produced a famous "Eskimo" King Lear in 1961, the first time William Hutt played the title role before he went on to own it on multiple occasions at Stratford and in the TV series Slings and Arrows.
And this year, the Stratford Festival is producing The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy – a play set over 400 years in the North with a largely Indigenous cast directed by Reneltta Arluk, the first Inuit artist to direct at the Stratford Festival. Let's build the building up there so Inuit can see it.
Kiviuq Returns tours Nunavut in August (Qaggiavuut.com).