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Canadian Inuit Theater Troupe Breathes New Life Into an Old Legend

With “Kiviuq Returns,” Nunavut’s Qaggiavuut Society brings to the stage an ancient story of a wandering hero in an effort to preserve a part of their culture that was nearly lost.

Written by Peter Varga Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The cast of “Kiviuq Returns” perform the Goose Dance at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.Donald Lee, Banff Centre

Inuit peoples across the Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland, share similar folklore and legends, and in Canada, tales of a never-ending odyssey of one character in particular appear to weave through traditional Inuit lore more than any other.

A Nunavut-based Inuit artists’ association is tapping into that common vein – the epic stories of the sea-faring Arctic traveller Kiviuq – to launch a theatrical production that promises to revive Inuit legends and keep the traditional stories from being forgotten.

“There are so many different stories about Kiviuq, and the life’s lessons he carried,” said Vinnie Karetak, one of three actors playing the Inuit hero in the performance. “It was easy for us to choose who we would do the play about.”

The Iqaluit-based writer-actor-director for Inuit-language television and theater is a founding member and current chairman of the Qaggiavuut Society, which has adapted a small selection of Kiviuq legends for the stage as “Kiviuq Returns.”

Recent generations of Canadian Inuit, including Karetak, know very little of those legends, which are part of a storytelling tradition that faded as the Inuit gave up their way of life on the Arctic landscape to settle in communities and adopt the ways of southern Canadians.

Karetak and fellow members of the Qaggiavuut Society, an association of Inuit performing artists based in Nunavut, are looking to preserve the Inuit legends, starting with “Kiviuq Returns,” the group’s first major theatrical production.

“Kiviuq is a major legend for Inuit, and those stories were hidden from younger generations of us for many, many years,” Karetak said. “We’re trying to revive them, and allow people to hear them again. So we called the play ‘Kiviuq Returns’ because he’s coming back as stories in our lives.”

The production’s greater goal is to demonstrate Nunavut’s breadth of talent in the performing arts – and to lobby for the creation of a professional performing arts center in Nunavut, which is the only Canadian territory or province without one.

The play reenacts five stories of Kiviuq, adapted from a compilation of tales Qaggiavuut collected from traditional Inuit storytellers, forming a compact hour-long performance of song, dance and music in Inuktitut.

Like the stories Inuit elders used to tell children, the play portrays a fantastical world in which humans and animals carry equal weight as characters and interact on equal terms, said Ellen Hamilton, Qaggiavuut’s executive director, who cowrote the play with Karetak and Taqralik Partridge.

Kiviuq is a seafaring character of the Arctic who travels by kayak, gets lost during a great journey and goes through a series of adventures as he tries to find his way home, under the guidance of a “sea woman,” Hamilton said.

Along his way the hero encounters various animal characters, good and bad, some lovely and others fatal, such as a “bee woman, who basically tries to turn Kiviuq into soup,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “A lot of it is performed though Inuit music and song.”

The performance made its debut at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta on June 10, after Qaggiavuut writers, actors and directors put in three months’ work adapting and rehearsing a tight selection of stories.

Because Nunavut has no professional theater facilities, the society’s artists went south to choreograph and rehearse the play at theaters and rehearsal halls in Kingston and Banff. Queen’s University’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston and the Banff Centre allowed Qaggiavuut to hone their production to professional standards, thanks to cutting-edge equipment and added direction from world-class choreographers and instructors.

“We were using projectors and scrims [translucent screens] as part of our setting, and other equipment to work with, to make the performance more magical,” Karetak said.

Actors Vinnie Karetak, left, and Lois Suluk rehearse a scene of “Kiviuq Returns” with Kuuri Panika at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. (Donald Lee, Banff Centre)

The project first took root when Hamilton headed up the collection and compilation of Inuit legends from elders identified as traditional “storytellers” and “knowledge-keepers.”

The society uncovered hundreds of stories about the hero Kiviuq, many of them identical, from elders in completely different communities in Nunavut’s Baffin region in the east and the Kitikmeot region to the west.

“It just jumped out at us that Kiviuq is really well known,” Hamilton said.

Looee Arreak, who collected and interpreted the stories from interviews with knowledgeable elders across the territory, said storytelling is an uncommon ability that few elders can share, even if they know the traditional Inuit legends.

The talented few “can tell a story from beginning to end with details, and singing in between, with animal noises and sound (effects) that keep you attentive,” she said.

“There are other elders who are not real storytellers, but they hold knowledge. So there’s a difference between knowledge-keeping and really having the gift of being a real storyteller.”

“Kiviuq Returns” aims to reproduce the storytellers’ vision, complete with traditional costumes designed and crafted by Arreak, and with brief screen projections of four storyteller elders delivering excerpts of the five tales portrayed on stage.

Qaggiavuut will take the performance to the Alianait Arts Festival in Iqaluit, July 3, and to communities throughout Nunavut in the following weeks.

The cast and crew will then take it to professional theater stages in Ottawa and Toronto at the end of July, starting with performances at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on July 21 and 22, followed by the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on July 26.

July’s performances in Toronto and the Canadian capital will also serve to rally support for a performing arts center in Nunavut.

“We’re the only territory or province in Canada without one,” said Hamilton, “and Iqaluit is the only capital city without a performing arts space.”

Nunavut’s lack of a performing arts center also stands in stark contrast to Greenland, its Arctic neighbor, which has stage facilities for theatrical performances.

“We’re actually using Kiviuq to show what we can do if we have space to perform and create new work,” Hamilton said. “To show how amazing it is to create beautiful theater and what a great experience it is for those people who actually have a performing arts space.”

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