Sister Sylvester’s “The Maids’ The Maids” Returns w/ the Working Theater

Photo by Maria Baranova

Photo by Maria Baranova

No rest for the weary, they say. It feels like only a couple weeks back that we were closing our revival of They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain at Under the Radar (according American Theatre, we’re an “always intriguing company continues to create unexpected, challenging work that approaches story and ideas from multiple angles and generates a thrill with unusual juxtapositions.”

Well, we’re already back at work, this time re-tackling our 2014 piece The Maids’ The Maids, which had its first presentation at Abrons Arts Center. We’ve torn the piece apart, reduced the cast, re-written substantial elements of it–basically took all the parts we loved and seek to make them work better. The occasion is an invitation we’ve received to present The Maids’ The Maids as part of The Working Theater’s 2016 Reading Series on April 4. The Working Theater is dedicated to “tell[ing] stories that reflect a diverse population of the working majority, that acknowledge their complexity and oft-denied power in an increasingly complex world, which we hope will unite us in our common humanity.” Which makes us a great fit with their mission. Our “reading” will be a “staged reading,” however, demonstrating the use of objects, movement, and so on, that are so central to the show.

The reading takes place at 6:30 on Mon., April 4 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater at 312 West 36th Street. $10 suggested donation, RSVP available online–with limited seating I suggest you get your ticket soon! Continue reading

Tanya Tagaq’s “Nanook of the North” at Under the Radar 2016

0105x-564After Tanya Tagaq’s appearance with Nanook of the North at the 2015 Fusebox Festival in Austin, I heard from a couple people that it was the sleeper hit of the festival, the piece most people went in to not knowing what to expect and left wowed by. So I was excited to get the opportunity to see it as part of Under the Radar 2016. (It’s worth noting the piece has been performed in New York previously, most recently, I believe, as part of the opening fall 2015 season of National Sawdust.) And indeed, it was surprising and moving and, I think, disturbing in some brilliant ways.

There’s a lot to unpack in the piece, but to begin with, a simple explanation of what to expect. Nanook of the North is an iconic documentary, filmed in 1920-1921 in Northern Quebec by an American named Robert J. Flaherty, following an Inuit family led by a noted hunter, the titular Nanook. Celebrated on its release in 1922, the film earned Flaherty a reputation as the “father of ethnographic film,” and it became, if not the first feature-length documentary, then the first commercially successful documentary, a template followed over subsequent decades by individuals operating in what is known as “salvage ethnography,” essentially an effort to document—primarily through film but also other means—so-called “primitive” tribes and cultures who were increasingly being exposed to elements of modernity, and therefore having their long-time ways radically altered.

While this particular ethnographic impulse has been subject to all matter of criticism over the past several decades (due primarily to its inherently colonialist enterprise), Nanook of the North has been subject to a series of very specific criticisms. For one thing, parts of it were staged, most notably its most iconic and parodied scene, in which Nanook, being shown a phonograph at a trading post, bites the record in an attempt to understand how it works. (In reality, Nanook—whose real name was Allakariallak—was already familiar with phonographs.) Also, Nanook’s wife wasn’t actually his wife, and in the famous walrus hunt scene, they used spears rather than the already typical guns (an admittedly recently introduced tool) at Flaherty’s request.

So Nanook of the North is today recognized as a problematic document. While many have defended Flaherty’s impulse, and contrasted the resultant film and its heroic depiction positively against racist stereotypes of the era, it is also, without a doubt, a document of a white American looking at another culture, and a conscious staging, not of the “authentic Other” but rather of the filmmaker’s own psycho-social construction of who that Other is.

Which brings us to Tagaq. An Inuk artist raised in Cambridge Bay in far northern Canada, Tagaq began exploring traditional Inuit throat singing while studying art in Halifax. After her performances began receiving notice along with her visual art, she wound up receiving an invitation to join Bjork on tour in 2004, which gained her substantial exposure. Since then she’s released four albums blending throat singing with contemporary electronic forms and even, occasionally, hip hop (I particularly dig “Fire – Ikuma,” a collaboration with Faith No More’s Mike Patton).

Tanya Tagaq’s performance of Nanook of the North began in 2012 as a commissioned presentation of the Toronto International Film Festival’s retrospective “First Peoples Cinema: 1500 Nations, One Tradition.” A collaboration with composer Derek Charke, percussionist Jean Martin, and violinist Jesse Zubot, Tagaq’s piece is, essentially, an original and counterpointing musical score performed opposite an end-to-end screening of the silent film. Continue reading