Arctic circus – Inuits, Guillaume Saladin and Isuma Productions

Liz Arratoon
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The harsh conditions of the Arctic Circle make it a difficult place for teenagers to grow up, especially as traditional Inuit values decline. Liz Arratoon meets the man trying to make a difference through circus

There cannot be many artists who would willingly give up the bright lights of showbusiness to move to the Arctic Circle. But after touring with Cirque Eloize for three years and performing in its show, Nomade, almost 500 times – including a run at London’s Barbican Theatre – that is exactly what Guillaume Saladin is going to do.

In 1998 he set up the circus project Artcirq in the tiny Inuit village of Igloolik. Saladin explains: “I started it after two of my old friends committed suicide, to try to prevent further young people doing the same. I want to give them career opportunities and a purpose in life.”

The 32-year-old French Canadian has returned every year since then to teach his students more and help them put on shows.

Now Saladin has been asked by the village to spend a year in Igloolik running the community centre where they train. He says: “I will schedule next year’s activity for ten artists that will end with the shooting of a movie I devised with the film-maker Marie-Helene Cousineau. The movie will end with a show that we’ll present to other local communities and later tour abroad.”

Saladin will create a foundation with these ten but, each week, assisted by the kids, he will provide open workshops for the community and is delighted to be giving back knowledge from local people to local people.

“I’ll be bringing in other circus people to provide speciality workshops,” he says. “As well as skills such as juggling, acrobatics, Inuit straps, unicycling and trapeze, the kids also have a chance to learn lighting, set building, costume, dance, theatre, acting, writing and video-making.”

It is Saladin’s unique upbringing that lies behind the scheme. His parents are anthropologists and his father spent almost 50 years working in the Arctic as an expert in Inuit shamanism. Although born in Quebec City, Saladin spent much of his childhood in Igloolik and was baptised by its queen and given the Inuit name Ittuksardjuat. That name relates him to a family with whom he stays whenever he goes back, so he feels strongly linked to the community.

“I was raised in Igloolik and spent every summer there until I was 15. When I was 24 I went back. Before going to circus school in Montreal, I studied to be a sociologist and decided to finish my degree with Isuma Productions, which was shooting the film, Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, in Igloolik.

“I realised then that there was a dark side to life there that I never saw when I was young. Kids are lost in the generational gap. There is a loss of meaning in their lives. The elders still have the old knowledge but the kids are disconnected. There are so many images coming at them from the TV but it has no meaning for them. There are no local role models. That’s why Isuma Productions is trying to create Inuit stars with its movies. Artcirq is trying to do the same thing at ground level.”

Before Artcirq there were an average of four or five suicides in Igloolik every year, a serious problem local residents had debated for years. Dramatically, 12 months after it started, they celebrated a suicide-free year.

But it remains a bleak place for kids. The island is surrounded by ice for eight months of the year with temperatures falling to -60°C in January, when there is no sun.

Saladin explains: “Life is either very high, very strong, then suddenly, very dark, deep, violent, with a loss of meaning. Kids there need to find themselves as teenagers.

“Traditionally men were hunters, women were mothers. That’s still the same in Igloolik but not many people are hunters anymore. Lots are just like teenagers anywhere. They have lots of energy, they listen to hip-hop and always ask, ‘Yo, what’s up?’. The answer is always ‘not much’ and it’s that ‘not much’ that causes the problems.

“They are stuck on an island, stuck in a village. Everywhere is a dead end and it’s flat, flat, flat. Just gravel and tundra. But everyone is an artist inside and trying to express themselves, sometimes by drugs or alcohol. We’re trying to bring back another way of expression. Another possibility.”

Saladin is passionate about Artcirq and determined to preserve its heritage.

“It’s important to combine the circus skills with traditional dance and music. Last summer we recreated an old legend in a month. It made me realise how willing the kids were and how good they are. We’re trying to find the roots of circus in Inuit culture. Through that we’re trying to bring meaning and not lose everything from the past.

“Our goal is continuity. Artcirq is not a little fire that will burn for a month and then go out.”

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