In June I was invited to attend industry week at the Magnetic North Festival in Canada. This year the festival was held in Whitehorse, in the Yukon. Every second year it is in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, and every other year it goes to a different Canadian city. Whitehorse, with a population of 25,000, is the smallest city in which it has been presented. The Yukon – inextricably linked with Jack London; White Fang, The Call of the Wild sled-dogs, bears and beavers. Whitehorse is one end of the annual thousand mile sled race between the Yukon and Alaska, a major waypoint in the Alaska Highway that connects mainland USA through Canada. The Yukon, is a place that speaks of fur-trappers, goldmining and paddle steamers. And snow – lots and lots of it. Tens of thousands of caravanning tourists pass through Whitehorse each summer, exploring what is still a frontier of modern existence.
For a town of its size Whitehorse sports a number of theatre companies, a modern theatre centre with a full-size stage, Kwanlin Dun – a centre for First Nations arts and culture and lots of resident artists. Warehouses and sheds were also used as performance spaces for the eleven different companies from around Canada – including four from the Yukon and three from Halifax, an equally isolated state on the other side of the continent – who performed in the program. None of the major companies from Canada’s big cities were represented. Surprising and a little disappointing. It is an event that serves the smaller companies of Canada’s arts sector that left some of the international delegates wanting more.
The stand-out production was Concord Floral, a production from Toronto with a teenage cast which deals with a shameful incident which none of them want to talk about. It reminded me a little of the Adena Jacobs production of The Bacchae, with a cast of teenage girls, which I saw at Melbourne Festival in 2015. In both productions the amateur cast were amazing and produced exceptional performances.
Another interesting performance was local company Ramshackle Theatre’s Theatre in the Bush. It was an intriguing promenade past a series of performance interventions in the boreal forest of spruce and pine outside the city, late at night in the summer’s endless gloaming. Yukon artists had teamed up with artists from other parts of Canada to create this surprising event, which was a little like a theatrical frontier adventure. Part ritual, part arts, part community event.
If the Yukon conjured up Revenant-like images of frontierism they were most realised in a twenty kilometre paddle down the Yukon River arranged by the festival, past beaver lodges, bald-eagle nests and spruce forests cascading down steep river banks to the edge of the swift-flowing river. I had images of Grizzly Bears launching themselves from the bank at the canoes. On another day we walked several kilometres along the steep river banks, equipped with air-horns to warn off bears. I came to believe that bears to Canadians are like snakes to Australians – far scarier to the minds of foreigners than to locals, if the numbers of hiking tracks and the sight of people setting off on day walks is any indication of the real dangers involved.
The sight of beavers foraging along the banks of the Yukon was common enough that, once I had seen a couple, they were no longer remarkable. And the fast-flowing water, snow melt from the white-covered peaks that retreated endlessly into the distance, both deep green and crystal clear at the same time; the spruce trees, the elk burgers and caribou steaks in local restaurants, the sense of living at the edge of climatological comfort, the program of work inspired by isolation and the need to make-do in a small environment, made the festival unique and memorable.