Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Tickets to see Tanya Tagaq + Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory are a hot property just now. Those who have scored seats to the third and final instalment of Canadian Stage’s Voices³ concert series have secured a precious experience where Kalaallit performance artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory (or Laakkuluk) performs the pre-Christian Greenlandic art of uaajeerneq (mask dancing), alongside mesmerizing throat singing by multi-award-winning Inuit vocalist Tanya Tagaq.
This is at once a traditional, contemporary and futuristic performance — and a phenomenal pairing. And it is virtually sold out.
Would-be-audiences can try their luck an hour before showtime, and take their chances that a handful of tickets may become available, but these “are not guaranteed” Canadian Stage’s website unequivocally warns.
Those lucky enough to score tickets can expect a powerfully different experience. Throat singing and uaajeerneq require lithe flexibility of throat, voice, face, and the entire body — and uaajeerneq also employs highly physical movement to invoke storytelling. It combines dance, theatrical mask performing and mask painting, plus the performance of varied expressions that explore fear, humour, sexuality and the body. Those unfamiliar with mask dancing must put aside the aesthetic associated with many Eastern and Western narrative dance forms. You will find no patterned choreography, flowy costumes or ankle bells here. The movements of uaajeerneq are elemental and rooted in symbology. Laakkuluk’s performance face is startling: painted black with some red, and distorted by a stick stuffed inside her cheeks. While this face is captivating, it arrests the eye while concealing her natural features. In so doing, it unmasks her entire physique, transforming her body into her vehicle for conveying – and provoking – emotions, ideas and stories.
The description of the show calls it “exquisite and unnerving”. “Unnerving because it is not designed to be a beautiful walk down the garden path,” Laakkuluk avers. “It can be scary, ugly, dark, angry, supernatural, beastly, base as well as being enlightening, uplifting, striking and wonderful.” Audiences members can anticipate the possibility of coming into physical contact with her: a reciprocal experience that adds the tactile to the emotional and cerebral. The idea is that through this kind of confrontation with emotions often considered taboo, audiences can learn how to react and respond to these emotions when they occur in real life. “Uaajeerneq is just as much about the mask and the dancer as it is about how the audience interacts with the performer,” she explains. “It’s a visceral art form, and you don’t understand it until you have experienced it firsthand.” In Laakkuluk’s view, she and Tagaq have created their eponymous show with “serendipitous accuracy”: “We are both improvisational performers, and we both reach into the same feminist, bloody, shiny, dark, guttural, Inuktitut dreamworld to create our pieces. Tanya is a vocalist, and I am an embody-er that traverse in similar spaces.” In addition to their collaborations on stage, they together created the video for the title track of Tagaq’s acclaimed fourth album Retribution.
When asked why she chose uaajeerneq, Laakkuluk shakes her head: “Uaajeerneq chose me.” She was born in Saskatoon to an English father and Greenlandic mother. It was her mother, along with another Greenlandic artist named Maariu Olsen (one of the founders of the modern form of uaajeerneq) who “very nearly foisted it” on Laakkuluk when she was 13. She apprenticed with them as they discussed and performed the art form, so she credits her mother and Olsen with the insight to understand that “I needed something meaty to bite onto in order to define myself both culturally and individually, especially in a racially-charged environment like Saskatchewan. And I sure have bit into it and never let it go!” And the upside of this tenacity is that she has become Canada’s foremost practitioner of this increasingly rare artform.
Uaajeerneq is not Laakkuluk’s only art. She is also a writer, poet and founding member of Qaggiavuut! Society, a Nunavut-based non-profit arts organization that develops and nurtures Inuit performing artists, and is working to fund a performing arts centre for Iqaluit (the only provincial, state or territorial capital city in North America without one). That said, uaajeerneq is the impetus and praxis for her multidisciplinary artistry. Yet still more important is her role as mother of three children, which she lists ahead of “writer and performer” on her bio on the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance. All three children understand uaajeerneq at their age-appropriate levels, she notes. “I do not hide any aspects of the performance or discussion of the performance from them – they glean what they can and want from it, and their understanding evolves as they grow up. They all dabble in the face paints, the movements and the sentiments, and all find ingenious ways of getting a rouse out of me, making me laugh and play with them. They are proud to be a part of such a rich practice, and always watch me and the audience intently when they see me perform.” Her one wish is that in time, they can see more of what she does. As with this show in Toronto, performing often takes her away from their home in Iqaluit, so they can not often “see what it is like to put together a show, work on a stage, and interact with other artists.”
When asked why uaajeerneq, throat singing and spoken word make such a compelling combination, she offers a humble and personal response. She is “honoured” that people find her unique combination of performances compelling.“That is just what emits from me”, she asserts – as though she releases, rather than creates, the potent mixture of emotion, theatricality, dance and story with which she has become synonymous. Her humility belies the enormity of her talent. Her presence fills a room and stirs the mind, yet – rather than feed her ego — she defers to a lesson taught to her by her parents: “as a performer, I cannot dictate what audiences will take away from what I do. It is the audience’s thoughts and choices to make themselves.”
This Toronto run has proven as popular as the sold-out run Tagaq and Laakkuluk just wrapped up at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts ahead of their engagement at Canadian Stage. This means that most of the Toronto audience – tickets purchased some time ago – knows exactly who they are. It remains to be seen how many lucky individuals will be given the chance to join them just before showtime. What seems certain is that all will take away the memory of a powerful, challenging and unique experience.
News You Can Use
What: Voices³: Tanya Tagaq + Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, featuring Tanya Tagaq (vocalist), Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory (Greenlandic Mask Dancer), Christine Duncan (vocalist), Jean Martin (drummer), Jeffrey Zeigler (cellist)
When: On stage until March 24, 2018; Run time: 70 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto ON
Info and Tickets: Canadianstage.com or 416.368.3110
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya