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Difference Maker

Bringing circus – and new hope – to a remote Arctic village

Guillaume Saladin left his career as a professional acrobat to help young Inuits in northern Canada form Artcirq, their own performing troupe.

By Linda MatchanCorrespondent / December 22, 2009

Guillaume Saladin (l.) practices a juggling routine with Terry Uyarak in Iqaluit, Nunavut, a Canadian federal territory. Mr. Saladin stayed in Nunavut as a child, with his anthropologist father.

Michele McDonald

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Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada

Four years ago, acrobat Guillaume Saladin had an enviable job as a circus performer. He was a member of the acclaimed Cirque Éloize, an innovative Montreal-based troupe combining circus arts with music, dance, and theater. Specializing in gravity-defying hand-to-hand routines – a cross between handstands and dance – Mr. Saladin toured the world, visiting Europe, China, and the Middle East.

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But when it was time to renew his circus contract, Saladin found himself wavering. The one place he couldn’t get out of his mind was a remote Inuit community called Igloolik, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle in Canada.

The son of two anthropologists, Saladin spent his summers there as a child, accompanying his father, who did fieldwork on shamanism. He had made friends, learned the Inuktitut language, and come to love the tundra landscape he traversed as they visited traditional hunting camps. He was even honored with an Inuit name – Ittukssarjuat – bestowed on him by a matriarch after her father, a respected leader.

But now he was at a crossroads. “Do I tour the world with the same show,” he thought, “or [go] to Igloolik?”

He chose Igloolik, arriving on Halloween 2005 with his suitcases and juggling pins. He knew immediately he’d made the right choice. “Everyone was costumed and masked and playing around ... craziness everywhere around town,” says Saladin, whose accented English reveals his French Canadian heritage. “Very similar to circus.”

Then he turned his attention to Artcirq, the Arctic circus he’d helped launch seven years earlier. Artcirq is a unique artistic hybrid, a collective of young performers who blend techniques of modern circus with elements of Inuit culture, such as throat singing, music, drum dancing, and juggling. In a short time it’s gone from amateurs balancing shakily on homemade teeterboards to proficient jugglers and acrobats who balance atop each other’s shoulders, perform aggressive back flips, and somersault while leaping through hoops.

An Olympic appearance

In February, six members of Artcirq will represent Nunavut at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, part of a 14-member ensemble of Canadian Arctic performers.

The circus is credited with bringing hope and pride to many dispirited young people.

“My life got brighter when I joined the circus because I had stuff to do,” says Reena Qulittalik, an Igloolik high school student. “Before that, I didn’t know what to do.”

It’s an odd juxtaposition – the circus and the Arctic. But Saladin recognized the potential to change young lives in this 2,000-person hamlet, which he describes as “very poor, and at the same time very rich – for the culture, for the land, for the 24-hour sun, and for the energy coming from out of the houses.”
Igloolik is one of the most traditional of the 26 communities in Nunavut, Canada’s largest federal territory. Men hunt seal and caribou much as their ancestors did. Women hand-stitch clothing from the skins.

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