Artcirq: An Arctic Circus

Why a Francophone circus performer moved to Igloolik, Nunavut to build a troupe at the top of the world

IGLOOLIK’S COMMUNITY POOL IS A CONCRETE PIT littered with lumber scraps and a peculiar number of legless foosball tables. It has the chilled air of a cellar and the oppressive lights of a prison. It also happens to be the only place for circus practice. The instructor is 36-year-old Guillaume Saladin, a francophone acrobat who is flitting around the pool with the haste of someone unprepared for guests. Still in his coat, he kicks aside rubble to make room for a few battered gym-mats. The members of Artcirq materialize in unhurried clusters. Twenty-one-year-old Abraham Ivalu is the first to show. The contortionist and acrobat wears saggy jeans and a trucker-hat over a bandana, gangster style. He and Guillaume exchange a loose handshake that pulls them into a hug. They haven’t seen each other for a month; Guillaume has been vacationing back in Quebec. Following a hectic year of performances in West Africa, southern Canada and France, he prescribed a break so the troupe could “reflect and focus on its priorities.”


Photo by Pat Kane

Reena Quiliqtaliq appears next in the doorway, wearing all black but for her striped-pink gloves. “Gui!” she yells to Guillaume, who is beaming like a father reuniting with his children. Reena runs and hoists herself into his arms, sitting there for as long as his grasp holds. Next comes 16-year-old Jenny Attagutsiak – with the cheekbones and lips of a model – and her quiet boyfriend, Joey Amaaq. Their two-year-old daughter, Brianna, Artcirq’s youngest member, pokes out of her mother’s amauti with wide, curious eyes. Guillaume dances around the baby yelling, “Bonjour! Bonjour!”

It’s like the first day back at school; everyone’s giggly and getting used to each other again. Then Joey casually starts juggling, and a willowy guy named Jimmy Ava Qamukaq tries out his rusty backflips. Jenny and the also-pretty Nikita Ungalaq fold themselves backward like leggy insects. The rest are climbing on each other – first Reena on Guillaume, then Guillaume on Abraham. Guillaume is strong and lean, his body sculpted by years as a pro circus performer, a guy who, while lying on his back, can lift a person straight up by the bottoms of their feet. Abraham is small and wiry, so he falters a little when Guillaume steps onto his shoulders, ankles to ears. With Guillaume crouched on top, Abraham raises himself until they’re both standing to form a human totem pole.

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Just watching Guillaume at the centre of all this is exhausting. He doles out attention to everyone equally, in that big-brotherly way that makes even tough guys feel special. The youth are enamored with him. They talk to him like he’s one of them, not, as one performer puts it, “just another white guy from the south.” Unlike the sweep of well-meaning southerners who come here to work, then leave when the experience wears thin, Guillaume has burrowed into old roots. As a kid he spent summers here with his dad, and as an adult, he’s returned – at first intermittently, then full-time since 2005, when he moved to Igloolik to cultivate his budding circus. Since then, Artcirq has taken its show to the world. They’ve attracted glowing press, most of it marvelling at the novelty of these Inuit circus kids. Some of them had never been on a plane, and it’s safe to assume most wouldn’t otherwise have left Igloolik for the wider world, or felt such wider purpose.

Since he founded Artcirq nearly a decade ago, Guillaume’s aim has always been to pull young people from the grips of apathy and despair – to “ignite fires,” as he puts it – in a place that has little to offer its youth, where suicides happen yearly. The troupe has never lost anyone, though there have been brothers, sisters, friends. But Guillaume is aware of – perhaps driven by – the possibility that it could.

GUILLAUME SALADIN is a towering man with a shaved head and perpetual five-o’clock shadow. Because he’s bald and sometimes wears a long, frizzy goatee, one of Artcirq’s members, Sol Uyarasuk, thought he was “a bad American” the first time he saw him performing on the street. When I first meet Guillaume in Igloolik, he’s smoking on the steps of his shack, wearing a muscle-shirt, jeans and puffy red slippers that look like moonboots. Up close he’s disarmingly handsome, his eyes warm and framed by long, arched brows.

Inside, his shack is dim and sweltering. The house is about 50 years old and heated by an equally old oil-stove that’s difficult to regulate. There’s no running water. For a washroom there’s a honeybucket. For furniture there are a couple of ratty couches. For cooking there’s a hotplate, toaster-oven and bar fridge. The walls are decorated with kids’ drawings and sun-bleached clippings about Artcirq. Against one wall is an ailing Kurzweil keyboard, which helps Guillaume unwind when life in Igloolik wears on him.

This morning, as with all mornings, he’s waking up to classic Getz/Gilberto jazz and a mug of coffee spiked with Bailey’s. “I like to start the day smoothly,” he says. Guillaume will spend most of it behind his MacBook, where he orchestrates everything Artcirq. There are funding applications to check on, the scheduling of their next shows, and keeping up with global contacts. In the few hours I’m here, he gets an email from Mexico’s Cirko de Mente about a collaboration in January, as well as an invitation from the Inuksuk Association, a non-profit in Paris dedicated to Inuit culture.

If you had to choose a place to build a circus from scratch, a remote Arctic community might be your last pick. Getting anything done in Igloolik can be trying. It has the disorganization and sluggishness of the Third World (if you want the keys to the pool, you must track down the guy who knows the guy who has the key), and the opportunism that comes from economic drought (to use someone’s car, you must usually pay an hourly rate).

Everything is broken or on the verge of breaking. Every bit of Artcirq – costumes, spotlights, juggling clubs – Guillaume has had to fly in little by little. Getting just half of the troupe on a plane to Mexico can burn up $40,000, or a year’s worth of fundraising. Constantly wrangling money for travel and salaries is not Guillaume’s idea of a good time; he’d rather be circus-training or hunting seals. But agent-slash-manager is a necessary evil, and just one of his many personas. To Artcirq he is part coach, part cool older brother, part pal. Sometimes when he’s with the whole troupe, he doesn’t seem the adult. Not that he isn’t responsible or together, but he lacks a certain hardness or cynicism that tends to develop in one’s 30s. He breaks out in song. He slips easily into his students’ world because, in a way, it’s where he came from.

To understand Guillaume and his circus, it helps to understand Igloolik. It sits on a rocky desert butted up against the aquamarine coast of a tiny island off Melville Peninsula. For 4,000 years it was where nomads came to hunt whales and walrus. It became a settlement in the 1960s after the usual wave of outsiders swept through, implanting western gods, commerce and sedentary village life. Today the 1,600-person community holds the distinction of being both strongly attached to Inuit culture (many still hunt, everyone speaks Inuktitut) and, oddly, a media hub. Igloolik made the map in 2001, when local filmmaker Zach Kunuk and his production company, Isuma, won acclaim for Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, the first feature-film to be written, directed and acted by Inuit. Igloolik has the only video-training centre in the Arctic, and is headquarters for the Nunavut Independent Television Network.

Despite the balance of worlds new and old, Igloolik, like many Arctic settlements, can be a boozy, violent place where suicides are common. Young people make up 60 per cent of Igloolik’s population, and lots of them are having babies. Many will drop out of school. Some will fall into petty crime, or worse, an unshakable listlessness.

Photo by Pat Kane

Guillaume’s history with the community began long before his circus ambitions. It traces back to childhood and his father, Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, a world-renowned authority on Inuit shamanism. For more than a decade starting in the early ’60s, Bernard made yearly visits to Nunavik (Arctic Quebec) and parts of Nunavut, forming a special attachment with Igloolik. After he and his wife divorced, Bernard brought young Guillaume along on his Arctic trips, which involved spending days with families at their hunting camps. There are many photos of Guillaume – a skinny kid with overgrown limbs and dark, rumpled hair – wearing caribou skins on the tundra. Since he and his father were usually outside of town, they were able to absorb Inuit culture as it had been before government settlement. They learned Inuktitut (Bernard is still fluent and Guillaume’s is making a comeback), went on hunts and became fond of camp life. Life in the settlement, on the other hand, was gloomier, as people adjusted to outside influences. “The Anglicans and Catholics were always throwing rocks at each other,” Guillaume remembers of Igloolik. “My dad was scared for me to be in town.”

Over the years, they became close with the well-known Piugattuq family, whose matriarch, Rose, assigned young Guillaume the name Ittukssarjuat after an esteemed historic leader. In Inuit culture namesakes are a huge deal. They signify a person’s belief in you and what you will become, almost like a foreshadowing of your life. “He was a great leader, a very strong hunter and lots of people are related to him,” says Guillaume. “Carrying his name, I also feel related, like this is my town, too.” Igloolik’s mayor, Paul Quassa, remembers Guillaume’s father – every adult in Igloolik seems to know Bernard. And with the return of Guillaume, Quassa sees a modern-day leader in the spirit of his namesake. “To a certain extent he’s following Ittukssarjuat’s footsteps,” Quassa says. “He is a leader of a different sphere, a leader of youth.”

Guillaume and his father returned to Igloolik most summers until he was 15. The rest of the year, back in his hometown of Beaumont, Quebec, Guillaume went through his own raucous teen years. “I could relate to the youth in Igloolik,” he says. “I wished I had a guy to inspire me – someone to show me great stuff, not just breaking windows.”

In 1998, with help from his dad, 25-year-old Guillaume landed a three-month internship with Isuma that would go toward a bachelor’s degree in animation and cultural research. It was his first time back in Igloolik as an adult. It was also the first year of shooting for Atanarjuat, and Guillaume was learning how to use a camera and conduct interviews. Within a few weeks, two young men killed themselves. Guillaume was deeply affected, shocked both by the deaths and by the gaping absence of youth services that might have helped prevent the tragedies. Though Isuma is a positive, creative force in the community, it does little for youth. Its focus has always been on elders and preserving their history. “I saw that there was really nothing for young people – the youth group wasn’t organized, the youth centre was dead,” he says. “And I saw that lots could be done.” Guillaume wasted no time. With financial help from Isuma, he and half-a-dozen local youth formed a drama group called Inuusiq and produced a one-hour docudrama called also Inuusiq (Life). “It was about a bunch of youth: one believed in the church, one in education, one in hunting, and one in nothing. One of them would kill themselves, and their lives would all meet.” The film project emboldened the group, says Guillaume, “giving us enough strength to somehow keep it going.”

When he returned to Montreal to begin his master’s degree, Igloolik’s grim realities continued to haunt him. But he had his own life to sort out. Early into his sociology studies, Guillaume fell in love with a German trapezist attending the city’s world-renowned National Circus School. Thinking back to that time, Guillaume says, “I thought, ‘This is what I should have done with my life!’” His girlfriend convinced him it wasn’t too late to join the circus, so he collected his nerve, paid the $50 and went to the school’s one-day audition. Unlike the hundreds who showed up from all over North America and Europe, Guillaume was a total novice. He couldn’t even juggle. But the school was impressed with his energy and saw something promising in him. A month later, to his disbelief, Guillaume was accepted. “Since then, my life changed totally,” he says. “The circus was the family I’d always been seeking because it’s all people who aren’t normal, who are from many different cultures. Even though we don’t speak the same language we’re standing on each others’ shoulders, so we’re communicating. That’s when I started dreaming about bringing clowns and circus to Igloolik.”

In 1999, after his first year of training, Guillaume and five circus friends flew to Igloolik on their summer break with the idea to stir its young people. They gave workshops in the community hall using salvaged mattresses and a homemade teeterboard – pretty much a giant teeter-totter that launches trainees high enough to perform a backflip. That month in Igloolik it wasn’t uncommon to see someone juggling on the street or playing the accordion on a unicycle. Riding on the success of the summer, the next year everyone returned, this time with the goal of creating and performing a uniquely Arctic circus show. In preparation, Guillaume organized a 10-day hunting trip on the sea ice so his southern circus mates could get a taste of Inuit culture.

For Guillaume, the cultural exchange was also important for Igloolik’s young people. “Most white people come here for the big salary and that’s a bad example for the locals,” he says. “That’s why I wanted to bring my friends here, because not many white people come with the desire to share. How many people just come to the Arctic to play the guitar in the sunset?”

Even after Guillaume graduated from circus school, he kept returning to Igloolik while on break from Cirque Éloize, a popular Montreal circus and today one of Artcirq’s main financiers. Over his three years as an acrobat with the company, Guillaume performed in more than 600 shows. He saw Mexico, Hawaii, most of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, China and Australia. By 2005, it had all become very tiring, and Guillaume wondered about the effectiveness of his yearly trips up to Igloolik. “If I just do one thing and leave, it has a small impact,” he says. “But if you keep going year after year, you see people growing and then they believe there’s something happening for real – and that’s the point.” That year, Guillaume’s contract with Éloize was up for renewal – another year, another 150 shows. “Either I could continue on the same road or move back to Igloolik and give Artcirq a chance,” he says. “I didn’t think about it too long.”

Artcirq is a fluid group of about 12 core members. Broadly, you could call it an art-based youth group, dabbling in film, music and theatre, but its main thing is circus. They do juggling, clowning, acrobatics, a bit of trapeze, but it’s totally Inuit – the drumming, the throat singing, even the humour. Physically, Inuit seem made for the circus. They are generally short, top-strong, and their joints seem looser, more bendy. As with the circus, life in nomadic times required strength, flexibility and a certain amount of nerve.

Artcirq’s latest show, called Oatiaroi (Wait), is an hour-long theatrical arrangement of skits and acrobatics set to acoustic guitar and throat singing. The opening scene is the troupe hunched forward with their arms behind their backs, clucking to imitate seabirds. They suddenly disband, leaving a pile of shiny, white eggs, which become juggling props for the group of girls who are next to file on stage. When they finish their Inuktitut song, the boys wander back and ham it up for the crowd, pretending to drop their juggling clubs and making up for it with flips and goofy stunts. Then the serious juggling begins. Twenty-six-year-old Derek Aqqiaruq, one of Artcirq’s longest-serving members, faces off with Guillaume. They seamlessly toss and catch each others’ clubs, then move shoulder-to-shoulder and merge their clubs, managing to juggle all six in concert.

The troupe wears white, parka-style coats – which seem too warm for performing – and matching knickers. Their style is stripped-down, without elaborate props or painted faces. (There is one costume, a polar bear made from the actual hide of one that Guillaume killed on a hunting trip when it barrelled into his tent.) “Our approach to theatre and performance is very simple and very human,” says Guillaume. “We don’t have big costumes, we don’t try to make up our face so we don’t recognize ourselves. We’re just us in the most simple way. I think everybody is touched by this simplicity.”

Photo by Pat Kane

This plainness is embodied in the show’s acrobatics segment – human bodies doing quiet feats. First to start are Jimmy Ava Qamukaq and Guillaume, alone on stage, barefoot and bare-chested. Guillaume pulls Jimmy onto his shoulders in one sweeping motion. They show off their “two-man pack” for a few seconds, then Jimmy grabs Guillaume’s upstretched hands and juts his legs forward in the classic gymnast pose you’d see on a pommel horse. Jimmy is eased to the ground and lifted again, this time by the waist, so he’s hovering above Guillaume’s head like a figure-skater and holding on to his arm with just one hand.

One of the show’s most impressive moments is Sol’s “aerial silk,” an acrobatics routine done on two suspended curtains of fabric. Sol’s so slight, he can scale the silk like it’s a pole. Once up high, he wraps the fabric around his limbs and torso in various arrangements which hold him in dramatic poses. “I like that feeling when you’re up in the air,” he says. “Knowing that if you make one mistake, you’ll fall.”

Sol is only 21, but he talks in murky riddles, slow and methodical, like an elder dispensing wisdom. Before Artcirq he amused himself by breaking into houses. He’s now a core member of the circus and one of its five paid employees. He’s been to Timbuktu, Monterrey, Paris, Quebec City and even Beaumont to give workshops at Guillaume’s elementary school. “I’m still trying to get through that I actually went through all that,” he says. “When you get out of Igloolik, you forget about Igloolik, and when you come back to Igloolik you forget about the rest of the world.” I ask Sol if he understands what Guillaume is trying to accomplish with Artcirq. “No, I don’t know,” he says coyly. “All I know is that I love what I do. If that’s why he does it, then that’s all I want to know.”

Guillaume’s motives have some roots in his history with Igloolik, and in the influences of his father, who developed a genuine relationship with his subjects. But Guillaume also credits a kernel of wisdom imparted to him when he was 18. A friend of his mother’s was a believer in taking the hard road, and urged Guillaume to embrace challenge, try the impossible. In life, Guillaume seems to breathe this philosophy. After a decade, his dreams for the circus remain wildly bold. Next year, following trips to Mexico and France, and a snowmobile tour to Clyde River and Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, his plan is to bring kids from the Shipibo Indian tribe in the Peruvian Amazon to Igloolik for circus workshops. A jungle tribe to the polar desert; Guillaume is just fearless enough to try it. “It’s like being in the Arctic,” he explains of his drive. “Sometimes it’s calm and beautiful, then half-an-hour later a big blizzard comes. The only thing to do is not stop; don’t just sit on the snow because you’re gonna die. Even though you can’t see ahead of you, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It will lead somewhere.”