Unikkaaqtuat continues at the Vancouver Playhouse until January 25.
Unikkaaqtuat continues at the Vancouver Playhouse until January 25.

In the groundbreaking multi-media production, Unikkaaqtuat, a remarkable assemblage of musicians, acrobats, actors, singers, drummers, and scenographers, transports the audience to the Arctic and the legends that lurk there. If this newly-formed partnership between The Cultch and DanceHouse is anything to go by, there’s a richly enlightening multi-cultural future awaiting Vancouver theatre-goers.

The entirely immersive experience of Unikkaaqtuat begins with a starry, so starry Arctic night sky that reaches beyond a frozen white landscape. The unique sounds of silence fill the senses, drawing the listener into their beauty.  So powerful. So majestic. So awesome – in the word’s truest sense. The stars start to pulsate to the rhythm that haunts the scene and an eerie song echoes around the theatre from offstage.

When the song ends, the three ice shapes that lie centre stage are swept away and replaced by a blue-uniformed hospital ward. A cheerful nurse greets the youth absorbed in his head-phoned music. He ignores her till she removes the phones to record his vitals.  His uncle’s father’s wife’s brother’s sister, otherwise known as his cousin, visits and resolutely talks with the patient in Inuktitut until the attending doctor gives up and leaves.

The youth’s cousin delivers a letter from his grandmother. It tells of the founding myths of his ancestors. She wants him to know them. Honour them. Remember them.

As they unfold through song, dance, music, drumming, acrobatic feats of skill and endurance, screened illustrations of simplicity and beauty, echoed by the costumes worn by the performers, the young man learns his identity and is cured of his illness.

The expertise of this cast of some twelve or so performers from Nunavut, Quebec and Ontario, is beyond measure. Their ensemble work is unselfish and synchronized.  Countless heart-stopping moments punctuate the action, though none more than the appearance of a polar bear lumbering through the snowdrifts. His pelt, taken from a live polar bear shot in self-defence thirteen years ago, is inhabited with such integrity that he appears real.

The co-creators’ conscious choice to use the Inuit language exclusively  – apart from the colonial hospital scenes – not only enhances the rhythms and music of the spectacle but adds authenticity to the twelve myths portrayed. It also marks the contrast between Inuktitut and the language of the colonizers. And it adds comedy, conflict and insight when the sick young man’s cousin refuses to recognize the English spoken to her during her hospital visit.

Perhaps a few legends and acrobatic repetitions could be sacrificed to move the storyline forward, but every Canadian should see this spectacular new interpretation of Inuit culture.  It is a great pity that the Inuit in Nunavut and Nunavik can’t see it in a theatre as well equipped as the Vancouver Playhouse. Undaunted, the Unikkaaqtuat team has adapted this production to fit the school gymnasiums that are available, in the absence of a performing arts centre, in Iqaluit. Perhaps it’s time for some of our more well-heeled Canadian brothers to step up and remedy that.

There is little doubt that performances such as Unikkaaqtuat will enrich the Inuit community as much as they will the Vancouver one.

Anyone wishing to read the translated myths, with illustrations, can find them online at The Cultch website.

Unikkaaqtuat co-created and co-directed by Neil Christopher, Patrick Léonard and Terence Uyarak. An Artcirq, The 7 Fingers (Les 7 doigts de la main) and Taqqut Productions co-production presented by The Cultch and DanceHouse. On stage at Vancouver Playhouse (600 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until January 25. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.