UQQUAQ, THE SHELTER created and performed by Geneviève Pepin and Laurentio Q. Arnatsiaq. Presented by Theatre Centre and Native Earth Performing Arts at the Juxta Studio (409 Front East). Opens January 17 and runs to January 21, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15. 416-534-9261, 416-531-1402. Rating: NNNNN
Despite being developed in Vienna, Geneviève Pepin and Laurentio Q. Arnatsiaq's performance and video installation could only have originated from the opposite ends of Canada.
A mash-up of French and Inuit cultures, Uqquaq, The Shelter was designed by Montreal choreographer Pepin and Nunavut video artist Arnatsiaq to showcase the meeting of their different Canadian identities.
"Some people say it resembles a love story," says Pepin, who's wary of likening her work to a romance-in-progress. "But it is really about the respect and love of two cultures within one country. It's the journey of these two people, their histories and their life together."
The two artists met in 1999 after Pepin was convinced by her students at Montreal's National Circus School to travel to Iglooik, Nunavut. Pepin was entranced by the local arts scene and began collaborating with Arnatsiaq, a former hunter who moved into video art, editing films like Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner).
"Our first project was in 2004, and suddenly we were invited to Vienna to start working on Uqquaq," explains Pepin. "We thought it would only last one performance, but we've been doing it everywhere from France to Calgary for two years."
The show is set up as a work-in-progress. As audience members trickle into the installation's barren space, Pepin and Arnatsiaq have already begun to interact. The two eventually build a hut out of sealskin ropes and wool while looping videos of Montreal flash in the background against the pulsating beat of Inuit drumming.
"The show has a definite structure, and we have to respect it. But there is improvisation, too," Pepin says. "The installation changes every place we go. Just like our own cultures and identities, the shelter's structure is always affected by the different environment of each city's space."
During initial rehearsals, the pair were careful to avoid "melting" their two cultures into one. Instead, Pepin says, they knew each of their performance styles and identities had to remain unique.
"It's us up there on stage, showing how both our lives came together," she says. "We did not want to dominate the other. We come together in the end, yes, but we still respect each other."
The audience is also free to explore the show's space as the two perform, Pepin rhythmically gathering yarn while Arnatsiaq delivers a story in Inuktitut after chewing sealskin rope.
"As the cultures are explored, Laurentio and I also get closer to each other and to our environment," says Pepin. "But the performance revolves around the shelter, how we can live together, both in my Canada and in his."
While Pepin finds something new to enjoy in each performance, she's still surprised the two manage to successfully complete the shelter.
"At the end of our first-ever rehearsal, the shelter was horrible. It fell completely flat on the floor," she laughs. "But we're grateful to have performed the show for so long. It's a bit strange, but life is always bizarre."