NORDIC INDIGENOUS VOICES
The Importance of Language and Cultural Heritage
Photo: Gerth Lyberth/The National Theatre of Greenland
- Susanne Andreasen
“It’s not some kind of old tradition - it’s living culture. It’s not something that once was, it’s being used now and, in that way, it has an influence. It’s forever an inspiration and under development.”
The National Theatre of Greenland is a young organisation reaching its ten-year anniversary.
As the only established theatre in Greenland it naturally faces challenges, and yet it is celebrated throughout the country with shows that regularly sell out. Culture is thriving in Greenland and always has been - so why haven’t we seen more of it?
With a rich tradition for drum dance and mask dance, Greenlandic culture embraces a unique combination of artistic expression.
However, the sector faces the challenging situation of retaining and celebrating these traditional formats, whilst also remaining relevant, open and relatable abroad. How does a small Inuit society go about reaching out to the world? In this article, we explore the importance of language, identity and cultural heritage and look more closely into colonial influence in Greenland – revealing a surprising and little-known history.
Here at Cut the Cord, we wanted to shine a light on some of the inspiring companies and artists from the Nordic countries that are working hard to change how Nordic indigenous voices are represented on our stages. As part of our new series focusing on underrepresented voices in the Nordic countries, we have been talking to Greenlandic actor Hans-Henrik Suersaq Poulsen and the Artistic Director of The National Theatre of Greenland, Susanne Andreasen. We wanted to know more about their work, how Greenlandic theatre is growing and the changes that still need to happen.
Tell us a bit about your work - what would you say your organisation focuses on?
SUSANNE: Nunatta Isiginnaartitsisarfia - The National Theatre of Greenland - is a young organisation, but it stands on top of some big shoulders. Next year, we have our ten-year anniversary. We are rooted in and need to have a focus on Greenlandic culture and traditions, and we also need to make theatre that speaks to the present. We are a small organisation, but we are also unique in many ways. We have some big tasks, firstly because we are a national theatre - but also because we are the only established theatre with a venue [in Greenland]. We also have an actor school attached, so we train our own actors. We are the only ones who have an established acting school in the Inuit-society.
We are focusing on being good at what we do and being relevant. That’s what you want to be as a theatre. You want to be relevant, to be able to say something to the audiences, move them or provoke them. It’s not like we are different from anybody else in that matter, but obviously our focus is to make it relevant here, and to be a voice from here when looking out into the world. We are still growing a lot because we are this young organisation.
How would you describe Greenlandic culture and how is this different from the rest of the Nordic countries?
SUSANNE: There’s a lot of discussions on ‘what is Greenlandic?’. We have had this debate because almost 300 years ago Hans Egede, who was this colonial master, came to Greenland.
So in the cultural and arts sector there’s a lot happening. It’s really alive and kicking. It’s big questions we are exploring. It’s ‘who are we?’. Identity, language, culture. It’s big questions we are constantly asking ourselves.
HANS-HENRIK: I think you could say that we are very modern here in Greenland. But then if you look at the smaller villages in North Greenland, like the Thule-area and in East Greenland, people are more connected to their practices like drum dance Thule-style and East Greenlandic drum dancing and mask dance. We also have our ia-ia-songs with the drum dancing, which we get taught here in school. We learn about what we have in Greenland, like nature. You can hear the different styles of singing depending on whether you come from Canada or Alaska or Greenland. We have teachers from different areas, who show the right ways of doing it. I guess that’s one of the things that makes us stand out.
SUSANNE: I come from Denmark myself and have “ended up” here. This is my home now. I am not in any doubt about how strong Greenlandic culture is, whereas I am more in doubt about what Danish culture is even though I grew up there. Maybe the fact that I come from somewhere else makes me think differently, but it does really stand out. It’s obviously also similar in some ways to, for example, the long distances between towns in Norway or Finland. We are very affected by nature here in a way that you aren’t in Denmark. The nature here is on a completely different level. You are constantly affected by it and subject to it in a way that is really healthy for us to feel – that it’s such a big part of us, as people - it’s a different basic living condition.
In which way does this have an effect on the theatre being made, and what would you say is significant about Greenland’s theatre culture?
SUSANNE: All these things that Hans-Henrik is talking about, it’s not some kind of old tradition - it’s living culture. It’s not something that once was, it’s being used now and, in that way, it has an influence. It’s forever an inspiration and under development.
HANS-HENRIK: It’s still growing. Culture never stands still, it’s constantly developing. If we are talking mask- and drum dancing, there’s lots of the songs that are being incorporated into different beats and music videos and are sort of modernised in that way, while still keeping the different elements of the different genres.
SUSANNE: In Danish theatre you often use irony and satire. It’s not like that here. Quite the opposite. There’s a different depth. You dare to be honest. There’s not the distance.
HANS-HENRIK: You say things directly and exactly as they are without thinking about the consequences. That’s how it is. You say what you mean. Done.
SUSANNE: It is very direct. But that’s also very freeing and has a huge quality.
How would you describe the importance of language and identity? How has this been influenced by colonialism?
HANS-HENRIK: When you are starting at the acting school at the National Theatre, you have to be able to speak Greenlandic. It’s compulsory.
In Nuuk, we are trilingual [Greenlandic, Danish and English] - but it’s not always like that on the coast. There, people often only speak Greenlandic and don’t speak Danish and English at all - so it’s very important to be able to perform something there in our own language. And show them something that they have never seen before with theatre.
SUSANNE: It’s important for us, as Greenland’s National Theatre, that it’s the Greenlandic language that we use on stage in our shows and that we understand the quality of it. There’s “only” about 50.000 people who speak this language, and it stands strong in the Inuit society. There’s a lot of other places where they’ve lost their original language and English has taken over - for example in Canada and Alaska. But now we are sitting here speaking Danish with each other, and that’s because we are a multilingual society. That comes from Hans Egede and colonialism. There was a wave back in the sixties and seventies where everybody had to learn Danish - and back then Greenland had the status of a Danish district. So some people have lost the Greenlandic language and are only able to speak Danish - or only speak Greenlandic, or speak an odd combination of the two.
It’s connected with identity, and there are a lot of feelings attached. It’s not easy and straight forward. It has great meaning and we debate it a lot.
HANS-HENRIK: I lived in Norway for a year before starting High School and when I came back to Greenland again, I could barely speak Danish and my Greenlandic was terrible. The only language I was speaking was Norwegian. When I then stated High School most of my friends spoke Danish. I have a background as a dancer, so I thought I was going to go back to Norway to study dance. It was quite a coincidence that I started at the National Theatre, and it was all very new to me. I remember looking up to one of my classmates, who was also from the North of Greenland like me, as he spoke Greenlandic so well. There was a lot of words I couldn’t remember, so I thought to myself “I need to re-learn my language”. I started listening to my grandparents speaking so I could learn the North Greenlandic Thule-dialect. I also started learning the East Greenlandic dialect and the Inuit from Canada’s languages, as their dialect is very different. So I’ve had a lot of language teachers. I’ve also read books, articles and watched videos of, for example, how to build a kayak, or a pair of kamiks or how to sew a parka, and in that way, I’m taking that knowledge and passing it on to others. I love learning about our culture, it’s a big passion of mine.
How is the representation of Greenlandic theatre and artists within the rest of Nordic countries?
SUSANNE: We had an actor who performed at The National Theatre in Finland in a collaborative project. There’s also been a new TV-series released - Tynd Is (Thin Ice) - which is a Nordic collaboration. But there’s very, very little representation. We also have one of the smallest populations in the Nordic countries - I think maybe Åland is a bit smaller. But because we have the acting school, we are growing. It’s also been debated at the National Gallery of Denmark, that they are lacking Greenlandic representation. It feels like it’s the start of something - or at least the debate is different this time. People are also focusing on us in the bigger political picture as well as in other areas. So there’s not a lot represented in the other Nordic countries - but there has been many good examples of great collaborations. Also in other genres, for example, literature. We also have a small, but growing, film industry here. A lot is happening. Actually, there’s always been a lot happening and there has always been a lot of talented Greenlandic artists - also a lot of multidisciplinary artists. Hans-Henrik is an actor, but he is also a singer and musician and has worked in many different fields within the arts.
What changes have you seen over the last few years and what work is still to be done to raise awareness of Greenlandic theatre?
HANS-HENRIK: We have become a National Theatre, which is more open. In the 80’s and 90’s there was a theatre company called Silamiut and it was based on the old stories and myths and having drum- and mask dance in their shows. Every time there had to be something “100% Greenlandic” in it, you could say. Today, it’s more modern and open, and something everyone can relate to. If you, for example, saw a Silamiut production in the 90’s you would think “that’s Greenlandic! And it’s only Greenlandic”. Now, it’s more open and you can do what you want in a sense, and it doesn’t have to be Greenlandic. Of course, it can have something Greenlandic infused into the performances, but it’s not always the case. And we like that.
SUSANNE: We stand on some big shoulders of the pioneers before us. Tuukkaq Teatret was established in Denmark with Greenlandic actors, they went on world tours and were famous. They got recognition and did a huge amount of work. It’s also not like we can afford to tour the world, but at least there is a positive awareness.
What does your organisation do to promote Greenlandic voices and reach new audiences?
SUSANNE: We did a co-production with a Danish theatre - Teater Freeze Productions - where we created a show first in Greenlandic and showed it here, and then we made a Danish version which went on tour in Denmark. It was also performed during CPH Stage Festival with English subtitles. We have also toured in Canada, Germany, Finland and collaborated with The National Theatre of Iceland. People are very open and lovely when we make contact. We’ve also performed at an international theatre festival in Italy [FLIPT - Teatro Potlach], where they responded really well to us and were very open. We have started to collaborate with Odin Teatret in Denmark, and we’re looking to work with them over the next couple of years. They are Denmark’s most internationally focused theatre in my opinion.
HANS-HENRIK: There’s always a lot of people who look forward to the National Theatre tour in Greenland. Then they have something to watch, because there might not be that much happening in their towns or villages - so they are always excited. It’s always a pleasure to tour, because the audiences are so grateful, and they come up to us and say: ‘thank you for coming’. It’s always lovely to get approached like that after a show.
SUSANNE: There’s really a need. It’s very positive. Our shows are always sold out. There’s also the need for it to be in Greenlandic.
Hans-Henrik has become a sort of ambassador for Greenland and its culture - that’s what happens when you have a small population and you’re not that well-known. He’s really taken it upon himself to make a difference and is taking part in studying and developing the Greenlandic language as a part of his job when he works with a script. It’s very thorough and can’t be done half-heartedly. He’s really studied the drum dancing and not just assumed it’s something “he can do”.
How can others learn from your work, both within your country and internationally?
SUSANNE: Theatre has to be experienced live. I know that in times like these, people try to find digital solutions, but it just doesn’t replace live art. It just doesn’t. Live, physical performance creates something unique which will never die. Theatre will always be relevant and contemporary.
I am not sure what others can learn from us. They will have to come and watch us!
What hopes do you have for the future?
BOTH: More money [laughter].
SUSANNE: I can’t help but laugh, because that’s always an Artistic Director’s dream. Imagine how much you could do if only you had… We keep growing in many areas and we’ve got ambitions.
The acting school we have, it’s only a two-year programme. We are working hard to get it approved as an artistic bachelor and get a three-year programme. It’s on its way and it’s something we have been working towards for years.
We are always considering this thing of being relevant and developing and creating new projects, not just for our sake, but also so that we are part of making a difference and pushing some boundaries. But we also worry about cultural heritage and look at what we can do to help secure that on some level. For example, we have published a special edition of Peripeti, which focuses on Greenlandic theatre history. It’s just a small little thing in order to try and start documenting something that currently isn’t accessible, but that people are showing an interest in. We are discussing the possibility of getting it published in English to raise more awareness.
So there’s a lot of things that we want to achieve, but all the time with the audience guiding us.
It’s also an ambition of ours to collaborate more with the other Inuit areas and keep developing our network in that way. The voice from Greenland thereby gets stronger.
Our new In Focus series highlights important voices and movements happening in the Nordic countries from artists and companies creating positive examples for change. We hope this article has inspired you to research their work and look for more diverse stories in theatre. If you have similar work, companies and artists you’d like to share with us, let us know, we’d love to keep learning.
HANS-HENRIK SUERSAQ POULSEN
Hans-Henrik Suersaq Poulsen graduated from The National Acting School of Greenland in 2014. He has performed in a number of shows at the theatre, amongst others Angutivik and latest the family show Ronja piaasup pania.
He has performed in various contexts as a throat singer and has also hosted The Arctic Winter Games' opening- and final shows in Nuuk 2016.
Photo: Gerth Lyberth / The National Theatre of Greenland
Susanne Andreasen is the Artistic Director of The National Theatre of Greenland. With a background in dramaturgy from the University of Aarhus (Denmark) she has been working both on and behind the stage as an actor, dramaturg, director, producer, teacher and drama pedagogue.