Review by Ann Firestone Ungar
Tanya Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer who, with a band consisting of drums, electrified violin and cello, renders an improvised musical score of primal power with a vast range of sound. This concert accompanies the 1922 silent film Nanook of the North which is widely acknowledged as having paved the way for what we know as a documentary. Some of the scenes are staged, but that is largely academic, given the impact of this visualization of precarious Inuit life lived close to the Arctic Circle.
The film by Robert J. Flaherty (original score by Stanley Silverman, silent here) follows the struggles of an Inuk man, Nanook, and his family as they confront the necessary and therefore constant hunt for food on the sea’s ice floes and on land; as they build temporary igloos with great skill and speed to protect themselves from the ferocious weather; as they trade their hard-won furs for necessities at outposts accessible only by kayak. We see the family’s steely dependence on each other for basic survival, attention of the mother to clean her baby under difficult circumstances, and teaching of survival skills to the young. But it’s mostly the hunger which is constant and drives the whole enterprise. When a walrus or seal is caught and skinned, the family immediately eats the raw meat directly cut from the carcass. To their lean dogs who howl and bare fangs, they throw precious meat, thus maintaining the much needed loyalty of these powerful engines. And all of this, silently presented, the Inuks accept with fundamental grace and often humor.
And it’s cold, very cold. The wind whips the snow covering deep ice which moves and cracks and thins and thickens unpredictably. The winter nights are long, very long.
To this picture Ms. Tagaq brings her magical throat music, wordlessly creating the wind, the ice, the lonely night, the dogs, the agony of the captured walrus and seal, the passion and despair of the free mates of those unfortunate animals. And throughout, the singing and instrumental expression convey the emotional life of Nanook’s family as they live in constant service to survival in this most melancholy of places on earth. The impact of the performance is haunting.
Ms. Tagaq is a deeply expressive artist, a great storyteller, her whole body engaging us gesturally, often moving toward dance. The performance is fierce, and fiercely contemporary. She has been described as punk. She has worked with the Kronos Quartet and Björk.
Ms. Tagaq and her trio appear at The Public Theater as part of the Under The Radar Festival which tracks new theater. Try to catch her very soon.
TANYA TAGAQ IN CONCERT WITH NANOOK OF THE NORTH
WITH: Tanya Tagaq (vocals), Jean Martin (drums), Jesse Zubot (violin), and Jeffrey Zeigler (cello)
At The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10003; tickets at undertheradarfestival.com or call 212-967-7555. January 15-17, 2016. Running time: 70 minutes.