It was an off-chance meeting between Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Parry aboard a cruise ship headed to Greenland, Laakkuluk’s maternal homeland, that sparked a friendship (and collaboration) forged in the history of Canada. For the touring performance of Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, they paired up to show how their individual experiences could represent two different cultural perspectives (Evalyn grew up in Toronto) in a poignant yet comedic collaboration. Although they may live worlds apart, they realized they are more the same than different, and both challenge their respective internal conflicts.
On stage, Laakkuluk first described the disparity between passengers on the cruise ship: few Inuit among hundreds of scientists studying climate change. Evalyn further described how odd it was to perform in a hotel that still honours Martin Frobisher, the man who “discovered” Baffin Island in 1576. Their individual narratives bounced off each other against a backdrop projection showing the scenic beauty of the Arctic Ocean and Iqaluit, with set design by Kaitlyn Hickey and supplemented with live cello music by Cris Derksen.
While the show had already debuted in Canada, this opening in Iqaluit, where Laakkuluk now calls home, was significant and heartwarming. It played before an audience of urban Inuit, the very people who have been impacted by the colonialism of Canada and who themselves are now remembering the old ways of Inuit, such as tattoos, storytelling and performances.
As part of her narrative, Laakkuluk explained how the title came to be: kiinalik is a term used to describe the ulu as “having a face,” indicating that it is sharp. Evalyn, who is the artistic director at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, added that she wasn’t sure how the show would fare in Toronto, in front of a largely lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer audience. Evalyn told the personal story of how her father, a singer, often brought her to festivals as a child. She spoke about how Stan Rogers’s popular Canadian song “Northwest Passage” described the region as “wild and savage.” Evalyn then sang her own, revised version of the song, as a gift of her culture.
Halfway through the show, Laakkuluk began telling a story of how her mother’s passion inspired her to learn uaajeerneq—a Greenlandic performance that weaves together Inuit stories and beliefs to pass on to the next generation. As she described the times when she was growing up with her parents, Laakkuluk began placing black paint on her face and balls in her mouth. Thereafter, she began her powerful and mesmerizing dance, with lyrics in Inuktitut and Kalaallisut, which only those familiar with the languages could understand. She then danced around the stage, seemingly in a shamanistic trance, pulling us into another world altogether. At times, Laakkuluk performed sexual scenes that, when viewed through the lens of an imposed Western religion, may have made some members of the audience uncomfortable. The audience laughed giddily in nervousness, spooked at how close to them the tuurnngaq would come.
At closing, Laakkuluk explained how she hoped this dance encouraged youth to understand that they are in control of their bodies, against the threat of sexual violence Inuit now face daily. Evalyn added that she hoped this would empower youth to feel safe in their sexual identities. Avery Keenainak, Charlotte Qamaniq and Christine Tootoo then joined to sing “Breathe It In,” which offered a calm, soothing end to the show.
In their work, Laakkuluk and Evalyn show us that we can coexist, and move forward together, if we are brave enough to confront ourselves and acknowledge our similarities and differences. Through Kiinalik, Laakkuluk and Evalyn help us understand how to peel away the awkwardness, the uncomfortable realities and the painful clashes, to chart a new path through friendship and mutual respect and to strive for harmony and peace.
Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is on in Toronto from June 12–16, 2019, as part of Luminato.