Review: AALAAPI at Ada Slaight Hall, Daniels Spectrum

Documentary-based experience celebrates the beauty and mundanity of Nunavik life

By: Jun. 09, 2023
Review: AALAAPI at Ada Slaight Hall, Daniels Spectrum

“It’s too bright. I close my eyes.”

In AALAAPI, presented by Native Earth Performing Arts and Le Théâtre français de Toronto in association with the Luminato Festival, a bank of stage lights shines directly at the audience,  dazzling us like sun on snow, then gradually resolves into projections of one of the fourteen villages of the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, the homeland of the Inuit, or, more specifically, the Nunavimmiut.

AALAAPI is a freewheeling, installation-like exploration of what it’s like to belong to the communities in these remote northern areas, which celebrates both the beauty and mundanity of day-to-day life. Presented in three languages (Inuktitut, French, and English) with French and English surtitles, the 80-minute show is a multisensory experience, including projections, recordings, throat-singing games, and the smell and taste of freshly-baked cinnamon-sugar bannock.

The word Aalaapi itself is a term meaning “choosing silence to hear something beautiful,” and, as such, the show places much importance on the act of sitting and listening, both during the experience itself and the frank talkback afterward.

At the same time, there’s not a lot of silence here, whether the sound is provided by the ever-present radio, which works to connect the northern communities to each other, the whistling wind of punishing weather, or the interviews with several young women from the region, many of whom have travelled to Montreal to experience a different world, and to study everything from education to dental hygiene. The show originated from an idea by Laurence Dauphinais and Marie-Laurence Rancourt; Rancourt and Daniel Capeille directed the original documentary. The Dauphinais-directed staged version has the slow, deliberate pacing of a nature walk, combined with the fuzzy-edged feeling of a dream.

Everything takes place over the backdrop of a flat house that stretches from wing to wing, by set designer Odile Gamache. The house’s flat exterior forms a space for the projections and surtitles (it is sometimes difficult to see the captions when they are projected closer to the floor as subtitles). We can look inside through its two small windows, which give a tantalizing peek inside a three-dimensional living room/kitchen, with a table, sink, radio, and wood-paneled walls. It’s here that we meet Ulivia (Olivia Ikey) and Nancy (Nancy Saunders), watching them as they naturalistically go about their day-to-day lives, cooking, watching TV, and helping the neighbour tie down a boat before it blows away in 100-kilometre-per-hour winds.

There’s a lot to experience in the show, which strives to emphasize the diversity of young Nunavimmiut women. Ulivia wears more traditional clothing and makes earrings, while Nancy’s ensemble is store-bought winter gear. Some of the women studying in the big city can’t wait to go home and be with their families, seeing freedom as having a loving community and a babysitter for the evening; some are tempted to stay in Montreal, preferring the freedom of anonymity and the chance to do whatever you want. One even admits that she can’t imagine what freedom really is.

It's important to note that there isn’t a particular narrative arc or story to AALAAPI; it really is more of an installation or stream-of-consciousness experience with documentary footage than it is a play, with a unique pacing and structure. It’s also important to take it as it comes with an open mind; if you wait for something to “happen,” you’ll probably get bored. I admit that occasionally I found myself wandering mentally or getting impatient; at the same time, it was a good chance for me to think about why that was the case, and then let myself be charmed by one of the line-animation-style projections (by Camille Monette-Dubeau) or the ease and closeness between the two women behind the window. If you instead dedicate yourself to listening and letting the sensory nature of the show wash over you without drifting away, you’ll probably learn something.

You’ll learn things like the descriptive meaning of the names of towns, some of which have changed with conditions such as famine, or, as an interviewee speculates, because colonists couldn’t pronounce the original word. You’ll learn about a theory of five generations on a cycle of satisfaction in their traditions, from pride to enforced shame and then back to pride, with a question of what’s to come next. You’ll learn the song of the goose and of the mosquito. And you’ll probably have a chuckle over Nancy and Ulivia’s movie-watching choice, and some of the ruder stories the speakers tell about the antics of Tuurngait (spirits).

Always feeling self-aware, the show gets more meta near the end, as the audience is invited to take more of a participatory role, invited in to the communal aspect of the stage. This jokingly meta, artistically self-conscious aspect is fun and contrasts with the “found footage” feeling of the rest of the show in an interesting way, but I found myself wishing for a clearer purpose and reasoning behind it to warrant its inclusion.

To hear more about the show’s purpose and goals, though, stay for Saunders and Ikey’s talkback after the show. In it, Saunders reminds us that, while they are delighted to share, not every Inuk person wants to be a cultural ambassador; for the audience of those who do, it’s worthwhile to choose to carefully listen for something beautiful.

Photo of Nancy Saunders and Olivia Ikey provided by the company

2023 Regional Awards


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