Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic, created by the Qaggiq Collective (a non-profit society dedicated to
strengthening Inuit performing arts in Nunavut) and currently playing at the Tarragon, is a wonderful, unique
theatrical experience – performed entirely in the Inuktitut language. If you are interested in theatre, or in Inuit
culture, or simply want to enjoy some unusual entertainment, you should not miss this production!
“I don’t know Inuktitut,” you say. “How can I enjoy it?”
Surprisingly (or maybe not) the play is very accessible. There is a detailed scene by scene guide in English in
the program, also available on line so you can read it before attending.
More important, the scenes themselves are vibrantly clear emotionally and theatrically. We can feel a child being bullied by peers, a man in love with afox-woman, a raucous scene in which animals express their sexuality, and a man needing to escape a fierce
attack on his life. Dance, music, costumes, lighting, and the actors’ expressions and gestures, as well as their
words, convey these experiences, drawn from epic legends of the Inuit hero Kiviuq.
The play is directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, and performed by a company of six actors taking on
various roles. Bathory’s program notes ask us to “Let (the language) wash over you. Look for the intent, listen
for the emotion, hear the cracks of smiles, the lines of sorrow. … Inuktitut is a river; it flows from the 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.”
One of play’s highlights is a dramatic reading of “The Sea Woman Poem,” written in English by Taqkralik
Partridge and then translated into Inuktitut by Looee Arreak. The reading sounds like music and rushing
streams: we feel water’s life-giving power and sweetness, and also the pain of pollution. Arreak also designed
the costumes, which beautifully depict the shape-shifting of humans, animals, and spirits in this world of light
and dark, ice and melting.
Qaggiq developed the production by talking to Elders in various Inuit communities, gathering and learning
their stories. They have transformed some of the tales into a coherent performance, while not losing the flavor
of story-telling during long, cold winter nights. Bathory says it is vitally important for the company to reclaim
their language and culture, healing the pain of colonization: Inuit language and ceremonies were legally banned
for many years, and this has had lasting personal and social repercussions. I was fortunate to attend a pre-
show talk by two of the creators and performers, Christine Tootoo and Vinnie Karetak. They emphasized the
value of hearing the Elders’ stories and performing in Inuktitut, both for themselves and for their audiences.
The company, based in Iqaluit (capital of Nunavut) tours in small Inuit communities, often including students
in workshops and performances. This opens up opportunities for youth, showing them they can have careers in
acting, lighting, sound, etc.; parents and grandparents also appreciate the reclaiming of language and culture.
Tootoo and Karetak also described the value of performing in cities across Canada (e.g. Banff, Kingston,
Toronto), to give the rest of the country a look at the Inuit experience
The play is performed on a bare stage, with a series of scrims that serve various roles: sometimes showing an
Elder telling a story; sometimes showing scenery – ice breaking, or arctic flowers – and sometimes giving the
actors a screen to hide behind. When an Elder speaks, the actors gather to hear her voice, drawing the
audience, too, into this circle of listeners. Jamie Griffiths, projection designer and technical director, and
Rebecca Picherack, lighting designer, have created lighting, visuals, and stage design which are highly
professional and yet not intrusive or over-technical.
The play is episodic, with scenes of Kiviuq’s adventures loosely joined by a repeated dance/chant, in which one
actor playing Kiviuq passes the role to another (showing how people pass knowledge and tradition to each
other). Chris Coleman’s sound design adds haunting, varied notes to the production, including the “Fox Song”
music by Agaaqtok Etak & Avery Keenainak. Music is an integral part of the play, beginning with the opening
sound of a large drum. The story includes humour, tension, love, fear, imagination, physicality. I sensed that all
the actors felt tremendous joy in their work, both the excitement of creativity and skill, and, even more, the
chance to tell their own story in their own words, and share this with the audience. They work beautifully in
ensemble. In addition to Tootoo and Karetak, there are Keenan Carpenter, Avery Keenainak, Charlotte Qamaniq,
Natar Ungalaq. Scarlett Larry is Stage Manager, assisted by Natashia Allakariallak. Jerry Laisa is understudy
and running crew. Participating Elders are Miriam Aglukak, Susan Avingaq, Madeline Ivalu, and Qaunaq Migigak.
There is still no actual theatre centre in Iqaluit for Qaggiq and other groups to use; I hope this changes soon.
Congratulations to the Tarragon for showing us such a different world, encouraging its growth and vitality, and
letting us join together in a creative spirit.
Kiviuq Returns is at Tarragon Mainspace through January 27.