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UMS Artist in Residence Update: Tanya Tagaq and the Poetry of Ecojustice

Editor’s note: Russell Brakefield is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Russell attended UMS Night School: Constructing Identity, featuring Taylor Mac and Tanya Tagaq, as well as Tanya Tagaq’s performance with Nanook of the North. Below is his response to the class and performance:

In her conversation as part of the UMS Night School’s series Constructing Identity it became apparent to me that Tanya Tagaq, in addition to being a well-renowned Inuk throat singer, is also a poet. Her work, she said, is interested in better representing the intense relationship her people share with the land. “The land eats us the way the city eats you,” she said. “Even our thread comes from sinew. We have a diet of souls.” What language, I thought. What voice! What purpose!

UMS Night School Session 3

Pictured from Left to Right: Clare Croft, Taylor Mac, Tanya Tagaq, Jim Leija at UMS Night School.

The first issue of Poetry Magazine in 2016 carries with it the enigmatic theme of Ecojustice. In the introduction to the issue Melissa Tuckey writes that Ecojustice poetry “lives at the intersection of culture, social justice, and the environment. Aligned with environmental justice activism and thought, Ecojustice poetry defines environment as the place in which we work, live, play, and worship.  It is poetry born of deep cultural attachment to the land and poetry born of crisis. It is poetry of interconnection.” This then—it seems to me—is the poetry of now, art that is essential, art that is necessary. Or perhaps this is the poetry of the perpetual now, evoked over and again in the ever-changing rush of violations against the environment, against marginalized peoples, the coupled plague there.

No matter the exact definition or the flourish of devastations that necessitates a genre such as Ecojustice, I’d like to place Tanya Tagaq and her breathtaking Nanook of the North performance squarely under this distinction. And her performance clarifies something else that I believe is crucial for art using this term—this performance was not only important but also transformative. It asked of its audience to feel as much as it asked of its audience to know. During her conversation for the UMS Night School Tagaq discussed her interest in inviting her audience to breathe, to leave the theater breathing in the experience of her people. She discussed her hope that this bodily reaction to her work would juxtapose with what the audience saw on the screen and disrupt what they knew already about the film Nanook of the North.

Tanya Tagaq 5 by Pedro UsabiagaPhoto: Tanya Tagaq. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The 1922 documentary is a spectacular work of art on its own, but it is also deeply afflicted with the stereotypes of its time. The film follows an Inuk man through his daily life in the Canadian Arctic. Often thought of as the first full-length documentary, the film was the source of an influx of dramatic ethnographic documentaries in the twentieth century. A New York Times review of the film from the year of its release praises filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty’s skill and innovation, which allows Nanook’s life to be “filled out, humanized, touched with the humor and other high points of a recognizably human existence. Thus there is body, as well as dramatic vitality, to Nanook’s story.”

But despite these groundbreaking cinematic achievements, this film also serves as a lasting reminder of the sneaky hand of history, the way people and places were routinely misrepresented or exploited in the name of art and entertainment by a dominating class of public artists. As a lasting and widely disseminated piece of art, the film perpetuates cultural insensitivity in the way that much popular culture of certain time periods does. Even as an effort of recording the practices of a people on the edge of displacement, the film raises questions for the artist and the archivist that harken back to the earliest conflicts with anthropological involvement.

Tanya Tagaq’s performance responds to both the positive impressions of the film and the negative. She embrace’s Nanook of the North for its representation of the hardships of life for her people. She draws connections between the landscape that is depicted so vividly in the film and the rich heritage and power of her people. But she also calls attention to the way the movie wrongly depicts Inuit culture, the stereotypes represented there, the omissions made out on the ice.

Her Nanook of the North performance combines traditional throat singing with other vocal textures, breath work, and movement. Tagaq’s performance is visceral, athletic, and jarring. And the performance does something the film cannot do by itself. She is not simply saying, look at this thing that is both beautiful and deeply flawed. She provides, in her accompaniment, a filter that accounts for cultural context. She provides a filter for our renewed sense of duty towards people, landscapes, and the relationships between the two. She makes art that ruptures the intellectual response to colonial fallout and instead invites audiences to re-read and re-feel the film. She invites us to breathe.

tanya tagaqPhoto: Tanya Tagaq. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I’m drawn to the idea of Ecojustice in part because it attempts to collapse the gulf between intellectual and emotional response. It also attempts to collapse the gap between social issues and issues of ecology. It is about connectivity. Somewhere amidst the heartbeat of Tagaq’s performance— drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot add a wild soundscape to the piece—I found my attention divided between the music and the film. I was drawn back and forth between the film and Tagaq’s winding, dramatic performance. I felt myself giving over to her incredible vocal work and at times needed to close my eyes. Tagaq was representing everything at once— the beauty and hardship of her people, the injustices there, the wreck of the land, her own place in the history of all this.

This performance made me thankful for the poets I read in my youth, poets like Wendell Berry and, more recently, poets like C.D. Wright. These poets, like Tagaq, showed me the potential of art to speak to the mistakes of history and the troubles of now. This type of work offers artists an opportunity to reclaim the past and unwind it, unfold it.

All art is a form of translation and all translation is a form of theft. And yet here Tanya Tagaq translates the miswritten story of the past and reaches into future, into the violent landscape of possibility we call innovation.

Interested in more? Follow the adventures and process of other UMS Artists in Residence.

Watching Sankai Juku: How do we stay vulnerable to art?

Editor’s note: Russell Brakefield is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Russell saw Sankai Juku, the Japanese Butoh dance company. Below is his response to the performance.

In my writing life there are sometimes moments of terrible silence, moments where nothing comes. That old fear settles in—that I will never write another poem again. I tell my students that these moments pass. Stick with it, I say. Find a routine that works for you! Or I tell them to go out and experience other art. And alone in my office I try to reassure myself as well. I read. I go to the museum. I see a show. All things pass. This too.

But worse than this feeling of unproductivity is the occasional emotional silence that accompanies it, a feeling that I am unable to receive art, let alone make it. I feel, in these moments, as though my relationship to the world has been fractured. I stand before a gallery wall and tilt my head. I shuffle to the bar before the show ends. I leave stacks of books abandoned. In these moments, I can’t rightly see the world around me and therefore can’t carve out a place within it. I’m no longer capable of wielding the broad axe. But these are the bad times, and I’m often lifted from this watery stupor in surprising ways. As part of the UMS Artist in Residence program I recently attended Sankai Juku’s UMUSUNA: Memories Before History, and it pulled me up from underneath.

In the opening piece UMUSUNA, a single dancer works over the stage. He moves back towards a string of sand filtered through the ceiling. The music is subtle, arresting. The dancer’s limbs lift in a controlled strain. Two pans hang on each side of the stage, the stage itself then some sort of balance. Throughout the show the pans lift and sag—the themes of being and time hang delicately behind the dancers. The performance is punctured by movement. The dancers move slowly, sometimes so slow and with such rigidity that it is difficult to watch. But as the performance unfolded I found myself deeply engaged. The dancers pushed slowly through each piece, some barely lit, some blown through with primary color. One piece featured dancers gaping at the sky, their movements semi-synchronized. Another featured dancers in the fetal position and swaddled in white. Each body shifted and lurched on the stage like an ultrasound or an ex-ray of an egg. From my place in the audience I shifted as well and language uncorded suddenly inside my skull.

sankai juku

In her essay Goodbye to All That, Joan Didion talks about being young and therefore more open to emotional experience. “When you twenty-two or twenty-three,” she writes, “you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.” She is talking about New York City, standing on a corner eating a peach, falling in love with the smell of trash and lilacs. But somewhere beneath this is an argument that art too is best experienced by the young, the wild at heart. I don’t buy into the idea that art is best consumed by the young or—despite what pop music tells us—that the best living is done in our twenties. But I do wonder what the trick is to staying open in this way. How do we continue to experience art as though we are finding it for the first time? How do we, as another writer puts it, work to hold tight the basic truths we know? I often return to an image of my younger self devouring books in a university library, writing frantic verse. I’d never go back there, but I would give a lot to still feel that truth so well—that if I ever stopped writing I might cease to exist.

I’m embarrassingly uninformed about dance, but in preparation for the show I did some reading on Sankai Juku and Japanese Butoh. The internet told me that the term Butoh means “dance of darkness,” and I seemed to understand the essentials— avant-garde, slow movement, etc. But when the show started I was drawn intensely and immediately to the control of the moments on the stage, to the colors, to the stage setting. And the work seemed to correlate so directly with my own aspirations on the page as well. Later, scribbling at my desk, I would revel at the rigid, protracted movements I’d witnessed and how they seemed to implore a sense of torment, a disruption. I was enamored with the way the dancers enacted a sense of control and formal acuity while also attempting to disrupt, to deepen the resonance of the themes inherent in the show—origins, time, self, etc.

The poet Carl Phillips writes, “this resonance can be frustrating for the reader who wants experience to be translated; but poems tend to instead transform, not translate […] their business, as it were, is to transform experience so that our assumption about a given experience can be disturbed and, accordingly, our thinking about that experience might be at once made more complicated, deeper, richer.” UMUSUNA worked towards this type of transformation. Here language was the body, the bodies collapsing together in poem. Meaning was both separate from and dictated by form, afforded by form and challenged by it. I was encouraged by this performance to embrace form as an opening, as a sort of awakening, and a type of time travel. In the audience and after the show, I felt rattled. I felt in some small way that I was being re-formed from the pieces of the writer I had previously been. I felt bent back to the moments in my life where I was most vulnerable to art.

sankai juku


I read in the program, as the lights dimmed and the performance began, that UMUSUNA is a word that relates to one’s birth place. But more than that, the program reports, “Umusu embodies the concepts of everything and nothing, existence and nothingness. Na evokes the land, the ground/soil, and one’s native place.” I thought about where I come from. I thought about my native place in art, in life. As the single dancer from the first piece left the stage, the performance opened to a frantic second piece. A group of dancers spun across the sandy plates on stage, everything tinted red. The music raged. The dancers separated and linked up again. I leaned forward in my seat. In that moment I may not have been thinking of my work—of poetry or writing or form or influence—but I felt deeper parts of myself sliding open. I felt time go wobbly. I could say that it is simply through new experience that we awaken again and again to ourselves and our potential as artists. This show affirmed that for me, sure. But perhaps I will also be forced to reexamine my understanding of form and the role it should play in my writing. Maybe to push form to the forefront of the work and let subject and theme bow to it, maybe this can help unwrap the cold heart, tow out the muse from where its buried deep in that native place, keep us young, restore our faith.

Photos of Sankai Juku are courtesy of the artist.