I came out of the matinee of Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic in an altered state of reality. It’s new but it’s old, it soothes you even as it challenges you. They set the bar very high for what’s to come in 2019.
See it if at all possible.
Created by The Qaggiq Collective, directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, produced by Qaggiavuut! and presented in the main space of Tarragon Theatre, I experienced the story as an epic in every sense.
Kiviuq Returns is based on legends shared by elder storytellers.
The performance is partially enacted by six actors (Keenan Carpenter, Vinnie Karetak, Avery Keenainak, Charlotte Qamaniq, Christine Tootoo and Natar Ungalaq), and partially re-told by the elders speaking to us on video. When we see them all gathered for a group shot near the end as the live performers kneel in homage, I was reminded of that beautifully sentimental moment near the end of Return of the Jedi (speaking of epics): also a gathering of wise elders. At times Kiviuq reminds me of clever Odysseus of the Odyssey or Aeneas of the Aeneid, a hero seeking to get home. We see storms at sea killing everyone but the hero. We encounter monsters and lovers.
The entire show is in Inuktitut. I am reminded of opera in the days before surtitles. One would read the synopsis and one listened carefully . While it’s much easier in Italian or German, where one often has phrase & sentences one recognizes, this wasn’t difficult really. The structure of the presentation was such that we regularly came back to a reading by one of the elders, when the lights would come up somewhat, allowing us to check our programs and in effect to know what was coming.
The director’s note recapitulates a theme I’ve heard before (for instance in Jeremy Dutcher’s album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa ) about the need to reclaim one’s linguistic heritage as a response to cultural genocide:
Inuktitut is the language of Kiviuq Returns. Let it wash over you. Look for the intent, listen for the emotion, hear the cracks of smiles, the lines of sorrow. Feel the corners and curves of our holophrastic way of speaking. Close your glottiss around the sounds “qi-qu-qa” and hiss without using your teeth for “lli-u-lla” Inuktitut is a river; it flows from a lake that is our histories and dreams, it bends around the land that is our daily lives, hardships and joys and it pours into the ocean that is the working of our minds, our creativity. With this performance we immerse you in our language..Inuktitut.
By being together in this theatre, we have all engaged in an agreement: you agree that it is vitally important to hear and see Inuit theatre professionals working in their own language and we agree to work hard on expanding our use of the language, reclaiming the space it has always taken in this place called Canada. As a group of Indigenous people who have faced the theft of our lands, culture spirituality, music, stories, histories and language and who rage against the colonized pull of suicide and loss, we wrap ourselves in the practice of Inuktitut theatre. Our repeated actions on stage are healing. Our connection between our elders and young people is deepened. Humour balances our sadnesses. This play creates safety like the blocks of sod that insulated the houses of our ancestors.
—Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory
I love that the director’s note proposes a kind of contract with us, that our attention at least would suggest that we agree that their language is important to hear, as a project to reclaim what has been lost.
I would solemnly agree.
There is much beauty in this performance. Several images are engraved in my memory, unforgettably powerful. The six performers will hold your attention.
There are at least two things to mention from my classical – opera background.
1-The voices are doing amazing things that we don’t usually hear in the classical realm. More than once, I found myself asking “how do they do that?” Some of it is inevitably related to the way they phonate and speak, but even so, wow. When I recall performances by Tanya Tagaq I am hungry for more, wondering what else these voices can do.
2-The genre of the performance feels something like opera, at least in the broad sense that Robert Lepage used, when he called opera “the mother of the arts” (or some phrase like that), although I don’t think it matters what we call it. Dance, music, singing, masks & theatre all work together in Kiviuq Returns.
And it’s clear when I google Qaggiavuut that they merge tradition with new theatre in exciting ways.
As part of today’s Toronto audience eating it up I know that there’s a genuine appetite here, a hunger to see and hear more.