Reality is the illusion.
We cannot find our true selves unless we escape reality—dig our fingers into our flesh and unravel it, our spirits left without the cages crafted by our bones, the chains woven by society’s pressures and expectations.
The calling to step into the past and into ourselves was ignited by none other than internationally acclaimed performer Tanya Tagaq. The Inuit throat singer was not the gatekeeper or the guide-—she was there to unleash her power onto those placed to hear her on April 23 at the Kay Theatre in The Clarice Performing Arts Center.
This is not like a review I’ve ever written before. She did not sing one familiar track from her three albums, and there was no pause from the exquisite talents of percussionist Jean Martin or violinist Jesse Zubot in the hour and fifteen minutes they exposed their hearts on the stage.
Each of her shows are completely improvised, the energy of the audience and the environment fueling Tagaq, guiding her to the stories, to the messages that demand to be known.
I didn’t know what to focus on—the fluid arm movements Tanya made as she sang, the ocean of inspiration that overcame Martin as the drums wailed or the projection of the “documentary” Nanook of the North by director Robert Flaherty, a controversial film whose soundtrack Tagaq uses in her performances.
Before she began to sing, Tagaq explained the film, revealing all the scenes were staged and the stereotypes of Inuit people were on full display. Describing her visit to the Smithsonian, she asked, “Where’s the Indian with the computer?” hinting at the stale image of indigenous peoples as people of the past, not of today or of the future.
But through Tagaq’s growling and prowling the stage, she howled her existence. The power of her people, how very real and intense is their lives, molded by the profound power of the Arctic.
Although her singing was improvised, it was also in tune with the images displayed in the film. I could feel a whirlpool starting to form and I was impatiently looking for its face, where in the act was she going to let it loose and it ran free during the walrus scene.
A group of Inuit men were dragging a walrus they captured to shore, pulling on the harpoon, bringing it to them. Tagaq, with her bottomless sense of awareness, mirrored that motion, her feet firmly planted on the ground and squatting, heaving the body toward her.
She alternated between the growls of the hunter’s elation and power to the wail of the beast, the “Tiger of the North,” its cries piercing the pregnant air, letting the ocean taste its spirit once more.
There was a moment where the lights dimmed and she couldn’t be seen. I finally spotted her curled up at the front of the stage, contently wrapped in the shadows and hearing the wide spectrum of her voice—from guttural cries to whispers, to a cackle that pierced my chest like a hurricane.
The intimacy and connection between her, Martin and Zubot was breathtaking—the trifecta, each as experimental in their art as the other, completely in tune with what the other wanted, the roads that wanted to be explored.
They took us to the tundra, where the wind froze us, licked our humanity, Tagaq’s haunting lullaby making us unaware that we were not prepared for the harsh conditions.
They plunged us into the sea, where the waves happily possessed our lungs, Tagaq’s ethereal incantation navigating us to the seals souls.
I heard some people around me laughing, mocking, skeptical.
With a grin on my face, I realized they had no choice but to continue to listen to Tagaq; they had to sit there while the mystery and magic of the Arctic soaked them to the bone, crumbling their expectations to how a woman should move, to how a woman should act, to how an Inuit woman should sing and display her culture.
Inuit throat singing was banned for over 100 years and its revival is passionate, violent, vibrating the pillars of history, engulfing the centuries of oppression, soothing the crying wounds of the land and the people, painting over the scarred flesh of marginalized communities.
A messenger of the earth and of her people, Tanya Tagaq is unapologetic.
She wants you to know that she is still here.
Her people are still here. They are surviving and are no longer voiceless.
Featured Photo Credit: Tanya Tagaq. (Photo Courtesy of Ivan Otis)