Ropes bind cultures in The Shelter

A man in mukluks crouches down and sets to work chewing on a piece of sealskin. He’s softening the hide so it can be used as a pliable cord.

A man in mukluks crouches down and sets to work chewing on a piece of sealskin.

He’s softening the hide so it can be used as a pliable cord.

He is actually sitting in a warehouse in downtown Whitehorse, but looks like he has been plucked from an Arctic outpost.

And, in a way, he has.

Laurentio Q. Arnatsiaq is a hunter from Igloolik, Nunavut.

Today he’s chewing the sealskin, but not to lash supplies to a sled as his Inuit ancestors may have done.

He’s making the cord for a symbolic purpose — to bind his culture to that of his partner, Genevieve Pepin, a dancer originally from Quebec.

The pair are in Whitehorse this and next week performing their multimedia piece called Uqquaq, or The Shelter.

They’re set up in the Boys and Girls Club warehouse on Sixth Avenue. The room is chilly and dark, and it smells like earth.

Strings and cords strung from pillars and poles crisscross the room and box in the stage.

As Arnatsiaq chews, Pepin works tirelessly weaving their cords together. She deftly pulls her white, grey and black Quebec-made wool over and around his sealskin cords.

Meanwhile two video projectors hanging from the ceiling take viewers from a lonely campfire on the ice-packed Arctic terrain, to a busy festival in downtown Montreal and back again.

The 35-minute performance uses sound, video, dance and, most strikingly, sculpture.

It’s theatre in the round; viewers are welcome to take a seat, or take a stroll to see the piece from all angles.

In the background Arnatsiaq’s great aunt, a woman he calls “granny,” sings a traditional song in Inuktitut.

“She’s singing about how there were people before us trying to survive,” he explains. “We are looking for something but we don’t find anything.”

“For us, there is something alive in the music,” Pepin adds.

In 1999 Pepin was teaching dance to youth in Igloolik and she needed help building a set.

Enter Arnatsiaq.

A hunter by trade, Arnatsiaq became interested in media after seeing his actor father on the big screen and was asked to collaborate as assistant editor on Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

Arnatsiaq and Pepin met and became partners in art and in life.

Soon afterwards, he traded in his rifle and harpoon for a camera and moved south to Montreal.

A few years ago, he made the film that accompanies the performance, The Eyes of Laurentio: Two Islands.

And the pair was invited to create a piece for the North/South Lab in Vienna, Austria, where they performed an early version of The Shelter.

“In the beginning we were putting strings everywhere and we kept getting tangled up,” said Pepin with a laugh.

After, they were invited to France. And after performances in Montreal

and Regina, they honed it into its present form.

Now the pair live in Montreal, but sometimes Arnatsiaq misses the small Nunavut town where he

grew up.

He misses it most when he knows his family is out hunting, says Pepin.

Back in the warehouse, Pepin and Arnatsiaq are nearing the end of their performance.

Arnatsiaq takes broad powerful strikes at the drum’s surface and the sound reverberates through the sparsely furnished room.

Then he takes Pepin’s hand and they dance together — their arms clasped around each other’s waist as Neil Diamond plays.

Nearby, the sculpture they’ve completed together out of sealskin and wool looks like a house.

Shows continue today at 5 p.m. and from June 26 to 30 at 5 p.m. in the Boys and Girls Club of Whitehorse warehouse at 6206 Sixth Avenue.

It’s part of The Longest Days Street Fair that will see buskers, musicians, artists and artisans invade the streets of downtown Whitehorse over the next month.

For a complete line up visit www.longestdays.com.

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