By Cynthia Close, Burlington Writers Workshop
A review of Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s May 14 performance downstairs at FlynnSpace.
A set of drums on the left and a small arrangement of speakers and audio controls connected to an amplified violin on the right was all that occupied the raised platform serving as a stage in the intimate FlynnSpace. There were few remaining seats when I arrived with a friend on Saturday night, so we had to sit on folding chairs on the side wings of the stage. We did not have long to wait before the action began.
As Flynn Artistic Director Steve MacQueen made his introductory remarks, Jean Martin settled himself at the drums and the anticipated star of the evening, Tanya Tagaq, stepped onto center stage, followed by the avant-garde violinist Jesse Zubot.
Tagaq’s indigenous roots were hinted at in a simple long, fringed, figure-hugging black dress topped with a bright red patterned neckpiece that barely covered her shoulders. Her stage presence bridged tradition to the “now.” Having listened to her mind-blowing vocals but never having seen her perform live, I was surprised to hear her sweet, unassuming, young-sounding speaking voice. She was smiling, and addressed the audience directly, but modestly, telling us a simple story about listening to her native Canadian grandmother. She did not prepare us for what was to come except to say that the performance was always an improvisation. They would be tapping into the journey that the music would take them on. She did hint, not a warning exactly, rather forgiving us, the audience, in advance, in case anyone felt they had to leave during the show. It was the only foreshadowing of what was to come.
Martin and Zubot began playing, riffing off each other. Tagaq swayed gently, closing her eyes, as though awaiting some sign from elsewhere that only she could see, hear, and feel. After a while she lifted the mic to her lips, dropped her head, her loose brown hair fell, covering her face and a sound that was not quite human, not quite animal began to weave its way into the rhythmic drumming. She breathed with the violin.
The diminutive Tagaq morphed, almost unperceptively, into something fearsome and unpredictable. She squatted and moaned like a wounded animal, as she moved from being predator to prey. Initially, it seemed that she was speaking to her inner voices in a language that was fleeting, but we strained to understand. Perhaps there was a code and if we listened hard enough, or long enough, the meaning would become clear. As her body stretched into a sensual arc, she sought to pleasure herself, quivering with a joyful burst that dissolved into a childlike twittering.
Her hands and arms were in nearly constant motion, sometimes frenetic, sometimes beckoning the unseen to come closer. She had my rapt attention. I could not take my eyes off her. At one point she stepped off the platform and like a menacing creature threatened the audience, as if they/we were the source of her pain. And then the energy subsided. It drifted away like smoke, and the performance was over. There was a moment of stunned silence while the audience recouped. Then a standing ovation as Tanya Tagaq left the scene.
In his introduction of Tagaq, Steve MacQueen had mentioned something about experiencing suspended time. I glanced at my watch. The performance had gone on, nonstop, for over an hour. It could have been minutes or days. It was definitely a time and place I had never experienced before, but I would willingly go there again.