Sylvia Cloutier's childhood was split between two worlds. But whether she was in tiny Kuujjuaq – her home in Quebec's northernmost region from birth to age 8 – or 1,500 kilometres to the south in bustling Montreal, where she lived until age 18, there was one after-school routine she observed in each location. While other classmates were playing sports, she'd rush home with a friend and head to the basement her firefighter father had turned into a playroom. There, Cloutier would slip cassettes into the big sound system he'd installed and "we'd create dances together." The soundtrack to the movie Flashdance was one source of choreographic inspiration. So were Michael Jackson songs.
Fun, mais oui – but for Cloutier the dancing came to represent what today she calls "the path I'm on" – at 37, a fierce dedication to the performing arts and the promotion of Inuit culture, ancient and contemporary. "I always wanted to be creative … anti-stagnant," she says. In the past 19 years, that path has taken her around much of the globe, most famously as a throat singer and drum dancer, but also as an arts administrator, organizer, director, actor, writer, youth advocate and TV producer.
Indeed, it's hard not to see Cloutier – with her Inuk mother, the famous activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2007, and her Québécois firefighter father, Denis – as the quintessence of the syncretistic North-South culture that has developed with deepening and widening intensity in the past 15 years. Fluent in French and English, Cloutier has made homes in Ottawa, Kuujjuaq and Iqaluit (her current residence) and now confesses a hankering to live in Greenland for a year. "I like movement," she said. "I like exploring the world, meeting people, challenging myself. I get inspired by newness. I'm very much like a nomad. I never see myself in one place for the rest of my life or even for five years."
Now, four months after giving birth to her second child, a boy, the path has brought Cloutier to Ottawa. She's putting the finishing touches on Tulugak, a live and lively mix of dance and song (rap included), circus, theatre and storytelling for which she's directing a crew and cast of 28, gathered mostly from Nunavut, Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Greenland.
Tulugak – Inuktitut for raven – is a much-anticipated part of the Northern Scene festival, organized by the National Arts Centre, which has been presenting the arts "scene" of a Canadian region every two years since 2003.
Running now through May 4, the eclectic 10-day celebration, boasting some 50 events, is being touted as the largest assembly of artists from Canada's North ever held outside the Arctic. And among the 220-plus participating artists, perhaps none is a bigger deal than Cloutier who, in addition to directing Tulugak, performed at the opening ceremony Thursday, then sang in concert with three other female aboriginal artists later that day.
Cloutier herself, of course, would pooh-pooh that characterization. In conversation, she speaks of her fondness for "collaborations with all kinds of people." Tulugak is itself highly collaborative. But it was Cloutier, in the spring of 2011, who had the original idea for its lyrical, mixed-media exploration of stories about the mythic, mischievous jet-black bird and its interactions with the human world as a presentation for Iqaluit's eighth annual Alianait Arts Festival. And it was Cloutier, assisted by festival executive director Heather Daley, who assembled the team, organized the last-minute two-day "story circle" that gave the production its scenes and songs, then directed both the next-day dress rehearsal and the world premiere that evening.
As successful as that performance proved to be – "the festival highlight, in fact," says Daley – "we all felt the we needed to take it further," Cloutier said. "And afterwards, we all sort of made a pact [to that effect]." Eleven months later, Cloutier had raised enough money to do a remount in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.
In the meantime, Daley was bringing Cloutier and Tulugak to the attention of Heather Moore, the executive director for the upcoming Northern Scene. The task then became one of "helping this show realize its ambitions," Moore said. That and getting it sufficiently sound structurally and dramatically to ensure it could have a tour-ready life after Northern Scene, possibly even earning a berth in the culture programming of the 2015 PanAm Games in Toronto. To that end, the NAC has poured "considerable money, time and personnel" into the project, including a two-month residency at the Banff Centre where Cloutier, "the epitome of calm," in Moore's words, oversaw its coming together.
"I just want to be an artist," observes Cloutier, "and so I do whatever it takes to sustain my life, make good work and to be true to myself." This has meant many jobs – flight attendant, waitress, contractor, caterer among them – but "it's just not in me to work in an office 9 to 5," she admits. "I tried it."
Cloutier began to teach herself throat singing at 18 and has since used that talent in a variety of settings – including performances with Toronto's Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in 2005 and 2007, the Belgian world-music group Think of One in 2004 and, in 2006, with Montreal's DJ Madeskimo.
While some people may get "nervous" about such mixtures – throat singing was originally done only by women, often at home at night as their children were falling asleep or their men were away hunting – Cloutier isn't one of them. "It's who we are as young Inuit today. I think I have a strong base in how I sing traditionally that allows me to feel confident in expressing myself and experimenting with it. It's like when you learn how to play piano from a teacher: You have a strong base, you can fly away on your own." At the same time, when singing a traditional throat song, Cloutier makes a point of not "mashing it up with something else ... I just want to honour the way it was taught to me."
Cloutier is now turning her thoughts to preparing a show "for and with Inuit women, performing artists, especially singers, celebrating the essence of Inuit women and how strong a role they play in our society." She's buoyed by her work on Tulugak and the unprecedented "encouraging" resources that have been provided for its Northern Scene bow. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing; this is my path," she said as she prepared to hang up the phone and soothe her baby. "I only look forward to moving forward and doing this for a long time."
Tulugak: Inuit Raven Stories, directed by Sylvia Cloutier, has performances at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Tickets: 1-888-991-2787; northernscene.ca.
Northern Scene highlights
Ottawa's Northern Scene features some 50 events, including art exhibitions, concerts, films, readings and theatre performances. Twenty-one of them charge admission and, of these, nine had already sold out, the National Arts Centre (NAC) reported Thursday. Some highlights:
Nanook of the North (May 4, 8 p.m., Mayfair Theatre) Canadian composer Derek Charke, working with vocalist and Kronos Quartet/Bjork collaborator Tanya Tagaq, drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, has prepared a 65-minute soundscape to accompany this screening of Robert Flaherty's silent documentary classic from 1922.
Inuit Ullumi (through May 23, NAC) TD Bank Group began collecting Inuit art in the mid-1960s, a practice it's continued into the 21st century. This exhibition features a range of works in various media by nine contemporary Inuit artists including Annie Pootoogook, Sam Toonoo, Shuvinai Ashoona and Tim Pitsiulak.
Elisapie (May 2, 7:30 p.m., NAC) Juno winner Elisapie Isaac of Nunavik (above) showcases songs of "tuneful pop infused with electronica and folk." Born to an Inuk mother and Newfoundland father, she was adopted at birth by an Inuit family. Joining her on the bill: rising Canadian-by-way-of-Sweden roots-music artist Sarah MacDougall.
The Soniferous Aether of the Land Beyond the Land Beyond (through June 2, Ottawa City Hall Gallery) Alberta-born, Dawson City, Yukon-based Charles Stankievech, nominated for the 2011 Sobey Art Award, premieres a sound and film installation/fieldwork that he assembled from recordings made during a residency at Canadian Forces Station Alert on Ellesmere Island – the planet's northernmost permanent settlement and a signals intelligence station.