Flying high: Artcirq circus program celebrates 25 years

Igloolik after-school arts program adds music component

Artcirq circus arts teacher Mysti-Maye Kripanik, 13, shows off her skills on the aerial silks in Igloolik’s Blackbox Studio in September. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

By Madalyn Howitt

In a one-room studio nestled in the back of Igloolik’s old curling arena, 13-year-old Mysti-Maye Kripanik is hanging upside down in the air.

The young circus arts teacher is suspending herself in a split, her feet wrapped tightly around two long strips of white silk cascading down from the ceiling.

A few metres below her, half a dozen kids eagerly wait in line for their turn to flip upside down on a second pair of dangling silks, while the occasional thud of feet hitting a cushioned gym mat ring punctuates the air.

It’s a typical scene in the Blackbox Studio, home to a free after-school circus program for Igloolik youth known as Artcirq.

Every day after school from Monday through Friday, students flood the studio to learn circus skills like aerial silks, juggling and clowning, tricks on the trampoline, gymnastics and acrobatics, as well as traditional Inuit games.

Artcirq teacher Levy Tapatsiak, third from right, teaches students in Igloolik’s after-school circus program how to juggle. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

Formed in 1998, Artcirq is celebrating its 25th year in the community, with no signs of slowing down.

“I would have never thought it would last 25 years. We always were going month by month, you know?” said Guillaume Saladin, Artcirq’s founder and co-artistic director.

Saladin grew up part-time in Igloolik and eventually graduated from the National Circus School in Montreal, going on to perform and tour with circuses around the world.

Then in the late 1990s, a series of youth suicides wracked the small Nunavut community.

Saladin and his friends recognized then that with no youth centre, young people in Igloolik needed more access to art and creative outlets.

“Having the chance to travel with circuses around the world, I can see the power of those tools, because it’s like a language, you can communicate with art,” he said.

Saladin and his friends with arts backgrounds began putting together theatre groups and recording the performances to try to reach youth across Nunavut.

“When you feel all alone, that’s when you get desperate. If you can connect with other people and then share and express your reality, it all goes up,” he said.

The theatre groups eventually became Artcirq, which operated in different spaces throughout Igloolik until the group secured a grant and built the Blackbox Studio themselves, Saladin said.

The teachers and co-ordinators of the Artcirq after-school circus program in Igloolik have some fun during a break between classes at Igloolik’s Blackbox Studio on Sept. 6. From left: Levy Tapatsiak, Ashley Akittirq, Mysti-Maye Kripanik, Tylie Arnatsiaq, Shayne Maliki and Keith Irngaut. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

Running full-time since 2005 with support from the Government of Nunavut, the Canada Council for the Arts and Canadian North airline, participants who joined as young children are now helping to teach the next generation of acrobats and performers.

“It’s so nice to see those cycles,” Saladin said.

Program co-ordinator Tylie Arnatsiaq, 28, started off as a participant when he was a child and worked his way up to becoming a trainer.

“It’s a pretty good starting point for everyone for circus groups,” he said when Nunatsiaq News visited the studio in September, just as lessons were restarting after the summer break.

Arnatsiaq, whose favourite circus skill is juggling, said safety is always his top priority when teaching kids some of the complex skills in circus performing.

“A lot of them are not just physically [tough] but also mentally. You get to know your limits,” he said.

The program is split between children 12 years old and younger from 3 to 5 p.m., and youths 13 and over from 7 to 10 p.m. Usually, about a dozen students attend each day.

“I’m really happy to be teaching people circus work,” Arnatsiaq said. “Seeing them smile and having fun is what keeps me coming to work here.”

Artcirq circus arts teachers Levy Tapatsiak (top) and Tylie Arnatsiaq show off their juggling and acrobatic skills in Igloolik’s Blackbox Studio in September. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

“While 25 years is in some ways a long time, it’s also very short,” Saladin said. Now that the group has watched kids grow up in the program and seen the results of their work, there’s even more room for growth.

What’s next for Artcirq is an expansion of the program’s music component. Acclaimed Igloolik musician Terry Uyarak, Artcirq’s co-artistic director alongside Saladin, is bringing a donation of high-quality recording equipment to the community.

Speaking by phone from Montreal, Uyarak said he hopes to have regular jam sessions and opportunities for youths to develop their music skills by playing instruments or practicing traditional Inuit music like drumming and throat singing.

Saladin said Artcirq, which in the past has toured Canada and performed internationally, is planning to refocus on building more connections with local artists and community members.

“We’re trying to perform less around the world and focus more on Igloolik for the needs of the youth there,” he said.

“I think today, there are way more possibilities for young people to develop themselves in Nunavut, but nothing is going to arise all cooked in your mouth,” he said.

“You have to work hard and start today, not tomorrow. Try, fail, stand up, try again. If you learn this, everything you’re going to do in life is going to be a success.”

See below for more photos of the Artcirq team in action.

  • Artcirq circus arts teacher Mysti-Maye Kripanik, 13, shows off her skills on the aerial silks in Igloolik's Blackbox Studio in September. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)
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