Roger Sinha’s new work for six dancers, “Apricot Trees Exist”, which opened at the Agora de la danse, is reflective, but nonetheless removed from the personal. Now more than ever, the Montréal-based choreographer seems concerned with breaking away from the labels that may have described his work in the past.
Sinha’s movement world has been a rich and fascinating place — a mixture of styles, which, he himself says, have not gently fused into each other. As a choreographer Sinha is not operating in a bubble. He draws on a laboratory of life and styles. His growing-up years are a fascinating crossroads, a place of juxtapositions, equally described as lively and threatening. Born in England of Indian and Armenian parents, he is the beneficiary of a real understanding of racism. That knowledge has led him to passionately reclaim his cultural origins and use tradition for a contemporary expression of his reality. His return to roots surfaced in his arguably best-known work, the autobiographical “Burning Skin” (1992), inspired by Hanif Kureishi’s writing about his youth as a Pakistani Brit living in London. That work, where dance interacts with theatre as the choreographer’s text relates to his own experiences, reveals Sinha’s own turbulent past, shadowed by violent racist confrontations.
In a general sense, Sinha’s works are made of elements fitted together with craft and intelligence. With “Apricot Trees Exist”, he creates an ambitious piece that combines and evokes aspects of East and West, and is inspired by a fascinating piece of poetry from one of Denmark’s top writers. Inger Christensen has been called “a down-to-earth visionary”, and in her long-form poem “Alphabet” she discovers the metaphysical within the simple stuff of everyday life.
The title of the literary work refers to Christensen’s “alphabet”, which is based structurally on Fibonacci’s number system — a mathematical sequence in which every number is the sum of the two previous numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc. In the overall framework, each line of the poem is dependent on the one before and after it. Christensen’s carefully chosen words list the stuff of everyday life: “chromium, dioxin and doves&harvest, history, and Halley’s / comet”. As the list builds, and contrasts, threats become more real: nuclear devastation, guns, poison, “half-lives, / famine, and honey”. In “Alphabet”, Christensen creates a framework that unfolds, as one reviewer commented, “like expanding universes, while crystallizing both the beauty and the potential for destruction that permeate our world and our times.”
Repetition is used throughout the poem, and to good effect. In “Apricot Trees Exist”, the constant echoing of words resounds convincingly. Lise Roy’s voice for the French text is perfectly modulated, though Sinha’s own dulcet tones (in English) could be strengthened. The readings and the video projections of the individual words and stanzas are nicely timed. Clearly Sinha, the choreographer, isn’t impatient with the lines, but he does cram a lot in movement-wise, and that just makes the returns diminish. The actual connection with the poem — for instance, is he creating an anatomy of the alphabet? — never becomes clear.
The dancers — Sophie Lavigne, Julie Marcil, Magdalena Nowecka, David Flewelling, Benoît Leduc and George Stamos — enter a white stage, with a white screen upstage, framed by black curtains. Contrary to some expectations, Sinha is not dancing. Dressed in crewneck t-shirts and sleeveless mock-turtlenecks with muted grey loose-fitting trousers, they form duets and trios. With high intensity, they work in quick rotation, interweaving from one pairing to another. We hear the first words of Christensen’s poem, in English (and subsequently in French), “Apricot trees exist”. In the repetition of the verse, we sense the dancers feeling a connection with each other, if not the poetry, flinging their arms wide open, curving their torsos, cocking their necks, bending and circling their partners. Their graceful patterning and carving of the space is underscored by Bertrand Chénier’s spare, moody music, and Philippe Dupeyroux’s subtly changing lighting design.
Sinha’s movement style — muscular, percussive and shape-oriented — provides an important counterpoint to Christensen’s numerical approaches to the descriptive, the analytical and the emotional. In the duets and trios, he works with shared weight, as the dancers shift onto and over each others’ muscular bodies. The women, in particular, seem unable use their weight effectively, as if they are unfamiliar with drape or rebound. Their bodies seem heavy, when they require more spring. Sinha’s interest in martial arts, ballet, and modern dance, continues in this piece, as does the omnipresence of the graceful poses of the South Asian bharatanatyam vocabulary. Sinha primarily focusses on the mudras or hastas (hand gestures), and favors the stamping of the flat foot on the ground (known as tattu) over more intricate foot movements. From what I could see, there are also nods to a number of paadabhedha (leg gestures), including utplavana (leaps) and Bhramari (circling floor patterns). The complexity of the technique is beyond the range of these Western dancers, who valiantly sweep into poses. Although it could be argued that this is precisely the point, i.e., that Sinha is merely accentuating his contemporary movement with this Eastern influence, nonetheless the dancers look as if they could have benefited from an intensive crash course in the form.
There are tides surging through Sinha’s dance vocabulary; but in the context of this piece, the constant element is the poetry. As I see it, the words of the poem take on great significance for the dance. As viewers, we succumb to the cadence, and the words get in our heads. Christensen’s language, vivid and dangerous as it is, is deeply metaphorical and there’s a license to play, not just with the sounds of words, but also with the meanings. It’s a neurological style of sorts — using aspects of language that have a kind of hard wiring, a kind of itch in the brain that needs to be scratched. Critic Erik Skyum-Nielsen has written that the construct of Christensen’s texts “often become systematic in the extreme; the form must itself be able to produce its complex object via thought, the epistemological direction must emerge from the work’s own inner structure. Moreover, by constantly using mathematical and linguistic-formal systems Inger Christensen& liberates the inspiration by confronting it with certain conditions.”
The poetry consolidates a feeling of loss, or simply the sense that we’re living in a precarious time. Sinha, for his part, fills the stage with what ultimately seems like an endless progression of permutations of movement. The choreography is stuffed with ideas, but alongside the sights and sounds of Christensen’s words, it all seems curiously insubstantial.