"The only time I feel okay is when I'm on the land, at home." Tanya Tagaq, legendary Inuk throat singer, is not talking about Brandon, Man., where she now lives, but about the North, where she is from, the place that informs her work and her life in every way.
Because of that, Tagaq was recently asked to collaborate on a new soundtrack for Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty's 1922 silent film that was both pioneering and problematic – it was an early documentary, but with staged elements. Nonetheless, it offered a rare view of life in the Far North.
Nearly 100 years later, Canada's Arctic is a little more accessible than it was, and it may seem less mysterious to southern Canadians, but a great divide remains, says Christopher Morris, creator of Night, a play set in Pond Inlet. Coincidentally, Morris's Night and Nanook of the North with Tagaq singing live are currently touring across Canada, independent of each other. And both are appearing at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver.
Tagaq, who is from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, was a child when she first saw Nanook of the North. She was fascinated and proud to see her people on the screen, resilient in the harsh natural environment, but she was also uncomfortable – even as a child – with the cultural insensitivities and ridiculous untruths in the film: the stereotype of the primitive but happy Eskimo. She recalls being particularly incensed by the scene in which Nanook tries to bite into a record album.
She didn't see the film again until the TIFF Bell Lightbox commissioned this soundtrack as part of its First Peoples Cinema retrospective. As an adult, Tagaq once again felt annoyed – and exhausted – with the old stereotypes, but she was now in a position of power. "The appropriated appropriates the appropriator," is how PuSh artistic and executive director Norman Armour describes it.
Tagaq brings her anger, intensity and joy to her live performances. "I'm a real punk at heart, and I protest what I don't like through my songs during the show," says Tagaq, 38. "And I also celebrate what I do like."
She improvises live, performing with violinist Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin to a soundscape created by composer Derek Charke. And it becomes not just about her confrontation with stereotypes, but a communion with her own people.
"If it's a good performance and things are very real and very good," she says, "I have a sensation like I can feel my grandmother and my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandmother, just fading slowly, slowly, slowly. And then I can feel my children's children and my children's children's children. … It's like we're driving on a highway, a dark, dark highway. You can only see what the headlights allow you to, but you can sense that there's a road ahead of you and behind you. That's the kind of feeling I'll get if it's a good show. And it's safe and it's reassuring and it's beautiful and it makes me not afraid to die, and it makes me not afraid of anything."
Morris, a Toronto-based playwright, director and actor, brings to his project a keen awareness of being an outsider in the North. In his play Night, a Toronto anthropologist travels to Pond Inlet with the bones of the grandfather of a teenage Inuk girl. Good intentions face uncomfortable realities during the around-the-clock darkness.
Morris, still fascinated with information he'd heard as a teenager linking suicides in Scandinavia to the winter darkness (later debunked, he discovered), wanted to write a play about the impact of that darkness on people who live in Arctic regions. He travelled to both Iceland and Pond Inlet for workshops, but the issues in Nunavut emerged as the most important stories to tell.
"A lot of the experiences – what the youth were going through there and the strange relationship Canada has with Inuit and Nunavut – emerged and that seemed like the most important story to tell," Morris said this week from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, where the show was being staged.
While the darkness was not the culprit, suicide emerged as an essential part of the story, too. "When you're in the North, basically every single person you meet has been affected by suicide," Morris said this week from Kugluktuk, where he was preparing for a performance.
Morris, 39, says performing the work in Iqaluit was the most powerful theatre experience he has ever had, and the post-show audience talk-backs in the North have been hugely rewarding. That doesn't mean everybody likes it. Some have called the play baloney, and there's been some anger, particularly over the discussion of suicide, which some believe should stay a private matter. But the question of cultural appropriation, Morris says, has come up only in the South.
The play has two endings; in the North, the Inuit youth in the audience are addressed directly, with a powerful call to arms. It didn't make sense to end the play that way elsewhere, says Morris, who through this profound experience has determined that the relationship between northern peoples and Canadians elsewhere is complicated, precarious and strange.
And, along with their artistic merits, that is why works such as Night and Tagaq's take on Nanook need to be programmed into festivals such as PuSh. "I think it's really key that we have an understanding, an appreciation for what's happening up there and the lives that people are living," says Armour. "To give voice or to spotlight it I think is extremely important. The question of the North and the rest of the country's relationship and the rest of the world's relationship to it is not going away at all."
Night is in Cape Dorset Jan. 31, Thunder Bay Feb. 6 and Peterborough Feb. 24.Tanya Tagaq sings live to Nanook of the North in Calgary Jan. 28, Edmonton Jan. 30 and Vancouver Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.