Fade in from black, to a body of water in the Arctic Circle. In silence you sway with the ebb and flow of the water, navigating your way through the ice floes as they drift in and out of your path, and it is in that moment that the music begins. At first it is soft and ethereal, but as the locations and actions in front of you change so does the music. Over the course of the next 79 minutes the music effortlessly transitions between moments of serenity to rhythmic and guttural sounds. When a soundtrack such as this is created by the voice of single human being, it’s safe to say this isn’t your average movie theatre experience.
On May 4 hundreds of ticket holders gathered in downtown St. Catharines at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre’s Partridge Hall. For a special one-night-only event Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq would be taking to the stage at the St. Catharines venue for a unique performance, pairing the Inuk throat singer’s expansive vocal abilities with a screening of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 silent-docudrama “Nanook of the North.”
The film is highly influential, serving as an early structural template for documentary filmmaking to follow, as it chronicles the hardships faced by the titular Inuit hunter Nanook and his family as they attempt to survive off of the Hudson’s Bay Region’s harsh arctic climate. But as influential as the film is, it seems to be equally controversial.
During an interview with CBC, the often soft-spoken Tagaq voiced her concerns with the events shown in the film explaining, “Even though I have no doubt in my mind that Robert Flaherty had a definite love for Inuit and the land, it’s through 1922 goggles … They put [in] a bunch of bullshit happy Eskimo stereotypes.”
Despite her concerns with the depiction of Inuit in the film, Tagaq feels it’s perfect for the improvised soundtrack she and her band create at each performance. “It’s really nice because I can take my frustrations of stereotypes all over the world and take that energy and put it in sonically. I reclaim the film.”
On the current DVD edition of the film, a traditional orchestral score is used. While it is effective and true to the musical accompaniment typical for the time period, Tagaq’s performance showcased her ability to “reclaim” the film for herself.
Most notably, scenes that are played for laughs, such as one where Nanook bites a gramophone record at a trading post (despite Inuit persons being aware of them at the time), are altered in Tagaq’s live performance. The scenes’ previously light and upbeat soundtrack are replaced with darker and more foreboding sounds, in a way wordlessly indicating their inaccuracies and harmful nature.
Whether it is an audience member’s first or fifth time watching this film, Tagaq's performance turned the film into an entirely new experience. Tagaq's improvised soundtrack changed the film's meaning and evoked an entirely different emotional response from the audience with this new blend of sound and image.
It appears that the performance was met with a positive response by audience and staff members alike, as indicated in an interview with Sara Palmieri, Programming & Marketing Manager at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre.
During our discussion she spoke of her thoughts of Tagaq and audience member reactions stating, “I personally am a fan of Tanya’s, I think she’s really compelling, and the work she's been doing over the past many years … it’s kind of life changing. People walked out of the theatre, and it kind of was like their bodies were buzzing.”
It appears that the Performing Arts Centre hopes to continue this trend of electrifying performers taking to their stage during their 2017/2018 season, with their lineup to be announced on May 31 and June 1.
While the venue doesn’t adhere to a specific formula for the performers they book, in terms of country of origin or genre of music, they’re always looking at what is going on in their own backyard, highlighting Canadian performers from a wide range of genres.
But with 2017 marking the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, Palmieri believes that their upcoming performances will lead to important discussions. “Throughout our season next year, there will be lots of really great indigenous performers from Canada and from beyond in our programming. Because this is part of Canada, the things we put on stage need to reflect the world we live in. And sometimes it’s not the most mainstream, and sometimes it’s hard conversations, but what better place to do that than through the arts?”
For more information regarding the First Ontario Performing Arts Centres upcoming season, please visit firstontariopac.ca.