Air India (redacted) addresses 30th anniversary of Air India bombing

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Air India (redacted) is a 90-minute multidisciplinary performance commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Air India 182 bombing, the deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history.

Creating a work of this scale and scope is no easy task. Interdisciplinary approaches to art such as this must reconcile different mediums and combine them together in a way that’s both cohesive and sensitive to the source material. Ambitiously, the creative team brings poetry, music, theatre, opera, and projections together into a performance that tries to capture the “fluidly shifting perspective of [Renée] Saklikar’s poetry, from directly emotional, to formal, to legal nomenclature or forensic reports,” according to the project’s media artist, John Galvin.

Air India 182 was downed by a bomb placed in its cargo hold, breaking apart mid-air and falling into the Atlantic off the South West Coast of County Cork in Ireland. The attack resulted in 329 casualties, 268 of whom were Canadian citizens. The tragedy extended through an investigation and prosecution lasting over 20 years that led to a single conviction. It was followed by a public inquiry that wrapped up in 2010, detailing the “cascading series of errors” by the government, RCMP, and CSIS that allowed the attack to happen.

Saklikar’s collection of poetry Children of Air India: unauthorized exhibits and interjections forms the basis of the project, and the creative team included Saklikar, SFU School of Contemporary Arts Professor Owen Underhill, as well as three Irish artists: Galvin, director Tom Creed, and composer Jürgen Simpson. It was performed by Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble and soprano Zorana Sadiq, countertenor Daniel Cabena, and baritone Alexander Dobson.

Air India (redacted) draws attention to judicial practices, and the contrast between information and lack thereof. This absence is an element that is carried throughout the performance. This silence draws attention to the difficult questions faced in the wake of the tragedy. Simpson described these moments as “filled with incredible meaning, as often the most difficult part to deal with are the names.”

The project is the culmination of eight years of development between Simpson and Underhill, restarted with the release of Saklikar’s Children of Air India in 2013.

Following the structure of Saklikar’s poetry, Air India (redacted) is split into a series of distinct chapters that trace the story of the Air India incident in an abstract, disjointed way. Simpson characterized the performance as alternating from “pointed passages that unfold slowly, to incredible, almost violent passages.” This is very much a journey of discovery, through separate but related moments that have to be pieced together and restructured into a larger narrative.

The stage is commanded by a long table occupied by the singers, who sit, rise, and navigate around the space as they sing Saklikar’s poetry with a sense of operatic scale. Galvin’s projections occupy a vast screen hanging over the stage where abstract imagery, collage, and video footage provide a parallel that reflects on the tone and atmosphere, aiming for an evocative rather than explicit feeling.

Each constituent part of the performance is excellent. The score reflects the poetry, and deftly navigates the narrative arc of each portion, supporting and sometimes anticipating developments elsewhere. Galvin’s projections set a tone for the performers with its use of colour and imagery. The incredible talent of the ensemble and the musicians was readily apparent, and all three singers carried certain chapters on the weight of their voices and their ability to project emotion to further the poetry. This use of opera captured a sense of drama that added to the tragedy.

Unfortunately, the operatic nature of the show occasionally obscured the meaning of the text and prevented some chapters from gaining momentum. Certain ones became clouded when one medium overpowered another. The waiting was worth it, though, for when the many forms were balanced, resulting in moments of extreme poignancy and emotion.

Reflecting on a national tragedy while bridging distinct art forms is a difficult task. Though Air India (redacted) occasionally struggled, it succeeded in Simpson’s goal of making a certain “meditative space to keep the memories and questions of Air India alive.” They set out to do something ambitious and extremely difficult, and though not every moment was a success, they did it in a sensitive and informed way. That’s a large part of what it means to be an artist: to take risks and open up spaces for dialogue and reflection. In a country often at odds with our own histories and tragedies, that is exactly what we need.