Unikkaaqtuat transports its audience into Inuit stories

On Tuesday, January 24th, an audience gathered at Vancouver Playhouse to catch the opening night of the too-brief run of Unikkaaqtuat—Inuktituk for “The Old Stories.” This enthralling retelling of Inuit creation stories was created by Artcirq, the 7 Fingers, and Taqqut Productions. The show is at once ancient, ethereal, and deeply personal. Although scheduled to run in Vancouver for only three days, Unikkaaqtuat will continue to tour the country. An opportunity to see this mystical production is not to be missed.

Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation gave the land-acknowledgment and drummed a Squamish welcome song with a winking joke that, rather than canoes, he was welcoming the luxury cars parked outside. 

Unikkaaqtuat opens on stars twinkling above icebergs—the projected background shockingly effective at creating the feeling of the endless night sky. The staging is simple and remarkably transportive, with minimal props. Projection is used to perfection, creating a northern star-filled sky, the aurora borealis, and the beautiful paintings of famed Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok.

A voice-over forewarns the audience that the show presents a cultural exchange, and as in all cultural exchanges, there will be things you do not understand. This disclaimer is warranted. Except for a few brief scenes that occur “in town”, all of the dialogue and voiceovers are in Inuktitut. This show doesn’t trip over itself to try and make sure you get every detail or compromise on the importance of preserving these stories in the language of their origin. Despite not understanding all of the stories, as an embarrassed monoglot, I found it liberating to let go of expectation and just absorb the beauty of the sounds and images. It is the difference between being welcomed in, instead of catered-to. 

The old stories are framed through a young Inuit man, Levy (Levy Tapatsiak), who has been admitted to the hospital with mysterious pains. When a relative brings him tape recordings of his grandfather reciting old stories in Inuktitut, the audience journeys through time to when the world was new. Through Levy listening to his grandfather, we too see the creation of night and day, the origins of death, the raven and the rabbit, a hunting party becoming constellations in the night sky. Characters in striking costumes flip and tumble across the tundra and through the oceans, with puppetry and aerial acrobatics reminiscent of a northern Cirque du Soleil. 

The healing power of these creation stories is borne out within the play—as the doctor (Gisle Henriet) wryly notes, “Sometimes it’s not the body that’s sick.” The larger message is clear: telling the old stories is the path to healing and empowerment of indigenous people, and to the enrichment of Canada through uplifting its myriad traditional cultures. The beauty and connection of these stories make a compelling case. 

Incredibly, in order to create this performance of northern stories, language, and culture, The 7 Fingers company had to come south. Iqaluit is the only Capital city without a dedicated performing arts space—in fact, there is no dedicated performance space in all of Nunavut. In the North, Unikkaaqtuat is performed in churches and school gymnasiums. According to the artists, this does not lessen the explosive joy that their show has received in the northern communities. 

Learn more about the Qaggiavuut Society and its mission to create a dedicated performing arts space in Nunavut.