Canada: Close Call for Artcirq at Winter Olympics

Linda Matchan, for the Pulitzer Center
Vancouver, Canada

Two days before Artcirq's scheduled performance at Sunday's medal ceremony at the Vancouver Olympics, something went terribly wrong.

For months, the Inuit circus members had been dreaming of the moment when they'd take center stage at B.C. Place, proudly representing their Arctic territory of Nunavut before the world. "I have no words for this," said acrobat and clown Jimmy Qamuqaq, as he strode past the stadium on Friday, the day of the final rehearsals.

Artcirq1A scene from an Artcirq performance; Photo by Jesse Beecher

Artcirq hails from Igloolik, a geographically isolated village of about 2,000 mostly Inuit people 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. Five of its members were chosen to be part of a collective of 14 performers from Canada's Arctic region doing a half-hour show blending techniques of modern circus with elements of Inuit culture, such as throat singing, drum dancing and juggling. It is a bare-bones performance troupe – their only prop, besides juggling pins, is a real polar bear skin, complete with head, which is a centerpiece of the show. (It now has a zipper and Jimmy wears it.) Dubbed "Nanook" which means polar bear in the Inuktitut language, it has a special significance for Artcirq. It's the product of a near-death encounter with a bear during an Artcirq hunting trip three years ago after it lunged into the tent shared by members Guillaume Saladin, Terry Uyarak, and four others.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Olympic event to the members of Artcirq, credited with bringing hope and pride to many dispirited young people in Igloolik, where drug abuse, poverty, low education rates and youth suicide are facts of life.

Which is why, when the bear went missing late Friday morning, Artcirq flew into a panic.

Artcirq2Jimmy Qamuqaq, clown and acrobat of Artcirq; Photo by Jesse Beecher

It had last been seen that morning at the Olympics Northern House, a pavilion of Northern culture. After a dress rehearsal, the bear was stuffed into a hockey bag, its normal mode of travel when the circus performs outside of Igloolik.

But as they were getting ready to leave for a final dress rehearsal in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb, someone noticed the bear was gone. Phone calls were made. Steps were retraced. Two members sprinted a dozen blocks from the Vancouver YWCA where the ensemble was housed to Northern House and came back looking dispirited. Lame jokes were attempted about bear hunting and bears on the loose, but the reality was that the members of Artcirq were crestfallen. Any other kind of prop could be improvised, but how do you replace an authentic polar bear, with only hours to go before Artcirq's triumphant performance on the world stage?

"Please don't make this worse," Jimmy told the troupe, when ensemble members worried out loud. "I have enough tension already."

There was no place to look but Northern House – again. As the rest of the troupe departed for Surrey, Artcirq founder Guillaume Saladin and hip hop dancer Christine "Lil Bear" Lamothe went back or one more try. This time the hockey bag was spotted behind a door. Christine unzipped it. A snarling bear head peeked out. She kissed it on the nose, and they were off.

Artcirq3A happy ending; Photo by Jesse Beecher