Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North is one of those shows. The setup is straightforward: The Canadian singer Tagaq—accompanied by a drummer and a violist—creates a live score to Nanook of the North, a silent film that follows an Inuit hunter, Inuk Nanook, and his family as they struggle to survive in the vast, frozen expanse of Northern Quebec.
The 1922 "documentary"—many of the scenes were staged—is a deeply complicated film. It provides a window on a fascinating way of life and features undeniably captivating images of survival in an inhospitable landscape; but it's very much a window constructed by the director, who chose to stage scenes of "happy-go-lucky eskimos" frolicking in the snow and wrestling like dogs over scraps of seal meat.
At the beginning of the show, Tagaq introduces herself and provides some context for her work. (Given the language artists usually use, I was surprised to hear such plain speech at TBA.) Tagaq draws from the Inuit throat-singing tradition, but her work is resolutely contemporary, grappling with issues of representation and appropriation. This intro also gives the audience a chance to hear Tagaq’s speaking voice—a pronounced contrast to her ferocious, otherworldly singing, which thrums and keens and growls.
Taken as a whole, the show is less like watching a movie with a live soundtrack, and more like watching Tagaq respond, in real time, to Nanook of the North, a film that's simultaneously a testament to the resilience of Tagaq’s ancestors, and a racist farce. Her responses—conveyed through feats of vocal virtuosity that I don't think I have the vocabulary to adequately describe—range from soaring, triumphant pride to utter fury. In one of the more chilling moments in the live performance, during a scene where Nanook is shown biting into a phonograph record, marveling at the foreign technology, Tagaq begins gutturally snarling the word “colonizer,” powerfully highlighting the subtext of the “friendly native” fantasy being enacted onscreen.
In an interview with the CBC, Tagaq spoke about that moment in the film:
Yeah, like, “Look at these savage people that have no idea what this is, oh isn’t that funny, they don’t know.” And it’s like yeah, why don’t we take someone living in England and put them on the land and laugh at them for dying in the cold? “Oh, he’s being eaten by a bear.”
Tagaq doesn’t just perform with her voice: She’s fully physically engaged, dancing and moving as she summons bone-chilling sounds from deep within her body. It’s an endlessly compelling performance, marrying tradition with the tools of contemporary performance to reflect powerfully on history, appropriation, and identity.
There's one more chance to catch the show tonight at 8:30. (Details here.) Don't miss it.