Kiviuq Returns: This myth is a hit

Kiviuq Returns: This myth is a hit
Kiviuq Returns stars Natar Ungalaq, Keenan Carpenter, Avery Keenainak, Charlotte Qamaniq, Christine Tootoo and Aqaaqtoq Etak.  (Jamie Griffiths / jamie griffiths photo)

Created by the Qaggiq Collective. Based on legends as remembered and shared by Miriam Aglukkaq, Susan Avingaq, Madeline Ivalu, and Qaunaq Mikigak. Directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. Until Jan. 27 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave.

Pre-show land acknowledgements are tricky, and often criticized for falling short of their apparent goal and acting as lip service to an intimidatingly long and complex history of colonialism and injustice. But sometimes they perfectly set the tone for the proceeding production, as happened on opening night of Tarragon Theatre’s presentation of Kiviuq Returns, created by the Nunavut-based Qaggiq Collective and produced by the Inuit arts company Qaggiavuut (meaning “come and celebrate” in Inukitut).

The director of Kiviuq Returns, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory (whom Torontonians will recognize from her award-winning performance in the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre production Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools , now on tour and returning to the city this summer at Luminato), took to the stage in a beaded shrug and sealskin heels, holding a five-month-old infant girl, the daughter of musician, actor, and now Kiviuq stage manager Natashia Allakariallak. Williamson Bathory, an Inuk performer based in Nunavut and Greenland, spoke about the presence of this northern production in the south and the ongoing violence against Indigenous people committed by the government (ending with the current Wet’suwet’en conflict in B.C.). With the child in her arms, Williamson Bathory embodied this land acknowledgement, the culture that productions like Kiviuq Returns is promoting, and future generations that will continue after her.

With this framing, it’s easy to see Kiviuq Returns as a performance but also as a cultural offering from the north to the south, and an intergenerational communion between the cast, crew, and the elders that provided the stories told onstage. Kiviuq, as explained in a thorough program synopsis that helps orient audience members who don’t speak Inuktitut (the language of the production), is an eternal wanderer in Inuit culture, and this production enacts five stories about this hero. It’s fitting that this traveller forms the centre of this production, which has journeyed here to Toronto.

The stories feature a cast of six — Keenan Carpenter, Vinnie Karetak, Avery Keenainak, Charlotte Qamaniq, Christine Tootoo and Natar Ungalaq — who play human, animal, and spiritual characters who come across Kiviuq’s path. The program notes that Inuktitut has no separated genders, so though Kiviuq is referred to as a male, there are no defined casting choices in that regard or in anything really — between male and female, real and mythic, human and animal, past and present.

The creators even often resist a moral dichotomy, positioning Kiviuq as honourable and decent in a story about a bullied orphan who is transformed into a seal to seek revenge, but soon he’s bawdy, lusty, and superficially judgmental against a group of cave animals who try to woo him. At another point, he’s foolish in opposing a terrifying bee woman. Finally, he’s loving but frail as his family of geese fly away without him.

In these stories, told by the Inuit elders Miriam Aglukkaq, Susan Avingaq, Madeline Ivalu, and Qaunaq Mikigak on video projections (by Jamie Griffiths, who fills in square frames with beautiful shots of a northern landscape — no ice included — making them look like their own moving pieces of art) before the actors perform them, we see a spectrum of emotions: fear, violence, grief, despair, love. They’re made more poignant by more contemporary additions of a movement piece performed by Qamaniq and a poem by writer Taqralik Partridge recited by the cast, as well as a throat-singing trio with Qamaniq, Tootoo, and Keenainak and ensemble drum dances.

Resisting straightforward interpretations feels almost revolutionary inside one of Toronto’s major theatres, especially when Canadian playwriting has often felt dominated by English and American traditions that aim for a realistic style. For a southern audience, this could feel underdeveloped or awkward, especially with the show’s lewd sense of humour or shocking moments (a mystic teaches her seal-granddaughter how to hold her breath by dunking her head in pee), but it reaches a moving finale.

After a movement sequence of ripples and echoes, the cast of Kiviuq Returns bids farewell to their hero with a song about family, legacy, and continuation. Ungalaq, the evening’s first Kiviuq, takes up the role again — the oldest actor on stage, he’s marking the cycle that these characters continue to follow over generations. Just like Williamson Bathory holding the little girl to begin the play, we see how these stories will continue, evolve, and surpass all of us sitting in the theatre together.
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