“Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools” is a Modern Arctic Gothic
“Throngs erupted in cheering and chanting for hours, zealously celebrating the historic NBA team.”
“’I’m living a dream’: Raptors victory parade takes over Toronto,” CBC News, 2019
“The Arctic trails have their secret tales/ That would make your blood run cold.”
“The Cremation of Sam McGee,” Robert W. Service, 1907
“Having learned that [King George VI’s] children in the north, were in want of articles of merchandise… he had sent us to search for a passage by the sea.”
“Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of a Polar Sea,” John Franklin, 1820.
We the North.
The North has always captured the Canadian imagination. It is wrapped up in our cultural and national identity. To a certain extent it is a valid assertion of our identity. Canada is one of the northern most nations in the world but being ‘more northern’ than other countries does not equate to ‘the north’. Currently running at the Great Canadian Theatre Company and co-produced by the National Arts Centre and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Company, Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools (created by Evalyn Parry, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Erin Brubacher, and Elysha Poirier with Cris Derksen) is a play that delves into the complicated relationship between Canada and the Arctic. It is a visceral and evocative piece that uses theatrical, musical, and storytelling devices to challenge the colonial narratives that construct our understanding of the North. Leaning in to the romantic and gothic conventions like the sublime (a surreal and emotional response to awe inspiring natural landscapes) or the uncanny (an uneasy response elicited when you are unsure if you are viewing something human or inhuman), both of which have long held sway over artistic and literary renditions of the Arctic, Kiinalik is beautiful and unsettling, juxtaposing the real North with the imagined North.
The North represents the sublime: a wild and untamed land, a harsh and unforgiving landscape, violent snow and howling wind. It is isolating, both grotesque and beautiful, representing an experience that is difficult to reconcile with the human consciousness. At least that is what the poets of the nineteenth century believed as Arctic exploration and the quest for the northwest passage reached its height. Kiinalik works to break down that romanticized, aestheticized vision of the north, stripping it bare to reveal a real, beautiful, and diverse north. Yet it is not always a smooth and flowing performance, and it brings up a sense of unease and intrusion that go beyond the boundaries of performance.
Artistic Director Evalyn Parry, of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, teams up with Inuk Artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory for this multidisciplinary performance. Telling stories and singing songs out of a historical and chronological order, Kiinalik’s main focal point revolves around the story of how the performers met on a ship traveling across the arctic. It is their point of connection, a shared experience and understanding about the arctic. Both Parry and Bathory reveal parts of their autobiography and their respective cultural histories of settler-colonizer and Inuit.
Parry’s explanation of Canada’s history of northern expeditions and exploitation stems from a song imbued in their childhood – Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage. Rogers’ song in particular is only one folk song about arctic exploration but truly the search for the northwest passage was a moment in history that helped to construct Canada’s identity as a concept and a nation. For many (myself included), this song is the first encounter with Canada’s relationship with the North. Waterways like the Davis Straight, or the Beaufort Sea become familiar through the artist’s lyrics, and in turn, seemingly familiarize the whole of the arctic.
In his book of music, Stan Rogers: Songs from Fogarty’s Cove, Rogers remarks on a performance in Calgary where, after hearing Northwest Passage, a woman said “My God, he’s written a new national anthem.” It is a bold statement, and one that becomes more uncomfortable when you break down the lyrics as Parry does in Kiinalik. Like the 19th century poets and artists who created renderings of the Arctic, Rogers’ song paints the North as “a land so wild and savage,” bringing back imagery of the sublime: a landscape so awe-inspiring and uncivilized. Parry and Bathory present the arctic as beautiful but they juxtapose it as well, contrasting the beauty with a sense of unease developed through startling images and physical dance moments.
Parry and Bathory share a stage backgrounded by two screens jutting out at angles meeting in the middle to make a vague “V” shape. These screens project images of arctic landscapes, topography, nervous systems, and various other photographs. Paired with the projections, Parry’s voice, Bathory’s throat singing, and Chris Derksen’s cello arrangements create an eerie and ethereal environment.
In Ottawa, where Inuit and Indigenous cultures are only starting to make their way to the forefront of community stages, Bathory’s throat singing is an unfamiliar, perhaps even un-settling (that is, un settling the settlers in the audience) but a welcome (and necessary) addition to the traditional Western music canon. Moreover, this jarring combination addresses the inherent tension between colonial and Inuit understanding of culture, home, and the Arctic. Bathory extends this sense of unease beyond sound and into visuals when they begin to speak in an Inuit language about the recipes that sustain a life within the Arctic Circle. The projections morph into a slideshow of slain seals, fish, and polar bears. Eyeballs, offal, and fat stain the screens, illustrating the harsh realities of hunting and self-sustainability which acts in stark contrast to the soft music that is first presented to us.
As the exploration of the self and the arctic continues, the play begins to shift into the uncanny (more on that a little later). The border and boundaries that are initially established appear to melt away as the performance becomes stranger and more unnatural. The borders are first entrenched through Kaitlin Hickey’s set design which subtly divides the space. The clear meeting point of the screens delineate the center of the stage, visually separating Parry and Bathory. Blocks of ice about 15cm in height casually line the end of the stage creating a subtle divide between audience and performer: a divide that is played with many times over the course of the play.
As the performance continues Parry and Bathory switch sides and meet in the middle just as their stories begin to intertwine more and more. The barrier of ice that separates the performers and the audience is also consciously abandoned. First, Parry and Bathory cross to have a frank conversation with the audience: crossing the barrier to tell the stories that brought them together to create this play. They even implicate the audience into the conversation. With Google Earth projected on the screens, they ask “How far North have you been?” encouraging a conversation between audience members and allotting the opportunity to share your personal travel history with the room as various locations are highlighted on the projected earth.
‘The uncanny’ is a psychological explanation for the feeling that comes when something feels strangely familiar while simultaneously creating a sense of unease. It’s like looking at a porcelain doll: mimicking the human form, it is familiar, but its lifelessness is unsettling. Along with the sublime, it is one of the markers of Gothic Literature and of the original Western stories regarding arctic exploration.
Kiinalik plays with the uncanny as well. Breaking the boundary of “play-space” and audience, Bathory enters into the audience performing a pseudo-traditional Greenlandic mask dance. Painting her face black with red creases and stuffing small balls into either cheek to contort her face her movements become finely tuned like a panther stalking its prey. This dance plays with the base nature of humans: namely sexuality. The mask dance, which emphasizes a sense of the uncanny through the altered face and movement, is startling and climatic, playing into the aesthetic preconceptions of the Arctic that have long portrayed it as “a land so wild and savage.”
Bathory descends into the audience, getting closer and closer to its members until they fully invade the personal spaces of the viewers, gyrating and touching their genitalia while standing over patrons. Beyond a sense of uncanny, or playing with boundaries and space, this dance calls into question consent. Specifically, consent of the viewer. Parry and Bathory begin the play explaining that at some point during the play Bathory will perform a mask dance and enter into the audience. Building in an option to say no to the passive participation, Bathory says that if anyone feels uncomfortably close, they can put their hand out and she will move away.
This is a fair warning to give an audience when a performer will walk through an audience but because of the deeply physical and sexual nature of the performance this warning is not sufficient. As with all discussions about consent in sex the onus to seek active consent should rest with the instigator rather than, as in this situation, the passive audience member without the context to intelligently choose to consent. The audience should be given the option to consent, rather than the requirement that they opt out if they feel uncomfortable. Opting out also acts as a way of outing people who are uncomfortable, making it difficult to actually say ‘no’ to the situation because of the pressure put on them to consent.
It is disappointing because the mask dance is one of the most intriguing and captivating moments in the performance, but the insensitivity goes beyond the uncanny, beyond the active unsettled feeling meant to push the audience to think more. Beyond a lack of care for the audience, it is indicative of larger problems with the play. It is an enchanting, collaborative performance that is romantic and enthralling but when you look below the surface it is a little off kilter. Kiinalik is advertised as a conversation yet it feels rehearsed and robotic, not the fluid and easy exchange of ideas that natural conversations are comprised of.
Kiinalik is supposed to create discomfort following in the footsteps of Brecht. It is supposed to create a sense of unease that forces you to reanalyze your preconceptions and world view. Yet at times it goes too far: beyond a subtle discomfort, breaking the contract between audience and performer. While Bathory’s mask dance is what drives the play and provides the most fluid and uncut performance of Inuit identity, the transgression of the barrier between performer and audience undermines its goal. While the mask dance is a performance of sexuality, forcing the display of sexuality onto audience members without real care or warning breaks down the trust the audience places in the performers and can also negatively affect members of the audience in their own lives.
Kiinalik is a mesmerizing multi-disciplinary work of art, but its intentions are not always clear. Reaching into the 19th century gothic themes that first introduced the Arctic to Western readers, Kiinalik doesn’t fully break away from those stereotypes the West has placed on the Arctic, keeping a romanticized vision of the north. There is an incongruence between the spoken message and the evocative message. While it is a valuable lesson on arctic life and history, there are glaring issues, both aesthetically and physically that undermines its power as a piece of collaborative and performative conversation between Inuit artists and Western settler-colonizers. It is ultimately disappointing because it has the potential to bring Inuit culture south of the Arctic circle, but its jumbled vision and betrayal of trust has stilted it.
Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools
January 22 to February 9th at the Irving Greenberg Centre
Created by Evalyn Parry, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Erin Brubacher, and Elysha Poirier with Cris Derksen | A GCTC and National Arts Centre Indigenous Theatre co-presentation of a Buddies in Bad Times Theatre production
Written by Sarah Haley
Edited by Caitlin Gowans and Brie McFarlane