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Tupiq Arctic Circus Troupe: Circus for social change

Kuujjuaq & Montréal, QuebecKuujjuaq & Montréal (Quebec)

Story Seeker: Blanche Israël
People interviewed: Christopher Angatookalook, Tupiq ACT performer; Véronique Provencher, Manager
Interview held: July 23, 2021

The Tupiq Arctic Circus Troupe (Tupiq ACT) is a multidisciplinary group of professional Inuit circus artists from the region of Nunavik in Northern Quebec. The group came together at the Cirqiniq Program, an eight-day circus arts camp offered by the Kativik Regional Government to teens in communities across Northern Quebec since 2009. In 2018, a group of Cirqiniq graduates formed Tupiq ACT, an all-Inuit circus troupe that splits its time between Montreal and Nunavik. Tupiq ACT’s mission is to promote Inuit culture through contemporary circus, to highlight the depth of Inuit culture, to challenge assumptions around the North/South divide, and above all, to present Inuit youth with positive role models.

In early 2020, Tupiq ACT became a partner in the Pirursiivik Greenhouse and Social Art Project (Pirursiivik meaning “a place to grow” in Inuktitut), which aims to promote healthy eating habits in the North. Tupiq ACT’s contribution to the Pirursiivik Greenhouse and Social Art Project was to develop a social education element – helping to shape attitudes towards food among Inuit youth. The troupe was tasked with developing a circus production for kids that would offer a fun vehicle to promote increased vegetable portions within the traditional Inuit diet, which focuses on wild meats, fish, and foul. The production included Inuit legends and games, clowning, and juggling.

The Innovation: Pivoting the art form and staying true to the language

When the troupe could not tour the circus production to Nunavik as planned, it decided to convert the live production to a film production.

The group’s first step was to engage contributors with the necessary experience to go digital. For example, the troupe hired technicians who had experience filming circus specifically, but quickly learned that the change in the presentation format would require a pivot in the artistic approach. “With film, you have to do the same thing many times to get different camera angles,” says Tupiq ACT Manager Véronique Provencher. “It has to be structured differently than a circus performance.” Having a strong team of experienced technicians behind them allowed the artists to adapt the performance to film confidently.

The film was created in the Nunavik region’s dialect of Inuktitut, in keeping with Tupiq ACT’s mission to offer learning resources in a language that the community recognizes.

The Challenge: Embracing learning curves

The switch from live performance to film was complex for the troupe, involving: a period of physical reconditioning for the artists who had not trained in over six months; creative workarounds of the tight COVID-19 restrictions in Quebec; dealing with mask-wearing while performing challenging circus stunts; and learning about film production from scratch.

Tupiq ACT performer and administrator Chris Angatookalook embraced the shift to the new medium as an opportunity to try video editing, which involved a significant learning curve and a lot of time. “It’s definitely something I am going to have to learn from scratch, to find the software that works for me. I am learning the basics.” This being said, Chris emphasizes that he enjoyed the challenge: “I had a blast doing it. I want to start doing it more regularly. Our development is something I personally want to document, edit, and put out there.”

Minnie Ningiuruvik hovers over (left to right) Michael Nappatuk, Charlie Makiuk and Saali Kuata

Though Tupiq ACT had no experience with filming circus performances before the pandemic, the artists, who are all between the ages of 20 and 30, chose to lean into the pivot to film as an opportunity to showcase their creativity. “We definitely had a bit more freedom doing it on video,” says Chris. “When you do circus live, you have one shot at getting it right. But when you do it on video, you can fix it, take two minutes to breathe. You can play with it – get a wide shot, do a repetition at a different angle or with a different camera lens. It gives you a lot more creativity.”

The artists’ curiosity and willingness to learn also helped when it came to an oft forgotten aspect of video: subtitling. “We try to keep things in our language – Inuktitut from Nunavik – as much as possible. We had subtitles underneath in French and English so that people could follow the story.” However, this process posed its own challenges. The subtitling was first done from Inuktitut into English, and then from English into French. This meant that by the time the French subtitles were uploaded, certain descriptions no longer corresponded accurately with the video content. “That in itself was interesting, because the way we speak in Inuktitut is specific and doesn’t always translate. It was quite a learning process and required a lot of reviewing,” says Chris. Having the artists directly involved in the digitalizing process allowed corrections and changes to be made, so that viewers were getting a true translation of the intention of the instructional content, not just a strict translation of the words.

With the artists in lockdown in Montreal, the troupe had to navigate heavy COVID-19 restrictions, including performing with masks and defining a small bubble of artists and staff. “Space rental was quite a puzzle because a lot of spaces had a lot of restrictions where we could not work as a team in the space,” says Véronique. “We had to find a space that could accommodate us as a bubble with masks, which required quite a bit of reflection.”

Through many challenges, the artists brought a characteristic resilience and a can-do attitude to the project that defined the way that they navigated the difficult pandemic year, and life in general. “Resilience is a big thing for these guys,” says Véronique. “They are resilient from their past. They have all experienced traumatic experiences and have risen from it. They kept their spirits up through whatever was happening.”

The Financials: Putting dedicated staff into grant writing and partnerships

Tupiq ACT had secured grants from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ) before the pandemic, so the key focus for the troupe was to build on its early-stage momentum. The organization hired specific people to generate new revenue sources, including an administrator who focused on forging partnerships and a grant writer who helped them secure two production grants and organizational development grants from Avataq Cultural Institute and CALQ.

Juggling with Tupiq

Before the pandemic, Tupiq ACT had forged a partnership with One Drop Foundation, a circus-focused social art foundation that is the brainchild of Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté. This enabled the troupe to remain active throughout the pandemic, even at such an early stage in its organizational history. In addition, new partnerships and clients emerged through the pandemic. For example, the circus arts festival La TOHU reached out to invite the troupe to perform. This and other performance opportunities will allow Tupiq ACT to bring in performance fees to compensate and raise the profile of its artists, as well as to supplement its grant income as the company continues to grow.

The Takeaways: Leaning on core values and community

Tupiq ACT’s approach to pivoting during the pandemic is a model of how to apply traditional Inuit ways of knowing to contemporary contexts. Centering its approach around its community’s values allowed the troupe to stay grounded through a tumultuous time. “COVID was a platform that showed how we have to adapt to the environment all the time as people,” says Chris. “That environment includes not just the physical world; it also includes social media.”

Chris and Véronique also identify Tupiq ACT’s robust partnerships as a core element of its success. “To a lot of youth wanting to start a project: find good partners,” says Véronique. “This was a key thing for this organization: to ask for help and to be reliable.” Tupiq ACT was able to achieve success during a difficult time because it insisted on delivering on its pre-pandemic promises to its partners, even when circumstances had drastically changed. This is proving to be a good investment in the company’s future.

The company acknowledges its social and political context, with Indigenous arts being in the spotlight, especially in the North. “Our organization is receiving a lot of positive attention right now,” says Véronique. “The next years will be exciting.” The troupe kept its focus by prioritizing the needs of its artists. The project, says Véronique, “was a great way to work together, to be together as a team, despite the various measures that had to be taken to make it happen. It meant a lot to everyone’s mental health.”

Chris offers sound advice for a tumultuous time: “Even when you can’t find your next step, take that step anyway and see where it takes you.”

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Work created as part of a STEPS Public art project. Source: STEPS Public Art.Image of 4 photos placed in a grid showing art work. At top left is a box with several bright red wires, top right is a box with colourful cards attached to an electronic device, bottom left is a gallery with a small screen hanging from the ceiling with 2 eyes at eye level, and bottom right is a room with several electronic wires and sculptures. Exhibits as part of the Diversity through Access to Technology and Art Mentorship program, in partnership with Arts and AccessAbility Network Manitoba - Poolside Gallery (clockwise: Helga Jakobson, Erika Lincoln, Reva Stone), 2019. Photos by Kelsey Braun.