When it comes to celebrating a twentieth anniversary, what better way to usher in the milestone than a packed house of well-wishers? That was the scene at the Agora de la danse where Sinha Danse’s artistic director and choreographer — British-born, Montréal-based Roger Sinha — was clearly humbled and pleased as punch with the warm embrace. He addressed the assembled crowd proudly and briefly, tracing the trajectory of his work and the support he’s received from various presenters along the way.
Sinha has always come across as a serious artist deeply committed to altering conventional interpretation and representation of cross-cultural dance. When he was starting out as a choreographer there was a sense of struggle in relation to his personal history. He was passionate about embracing his East Indian identity (he is the son of an Indian father and Armenian mother), forging a contemporary Indian vocabulary, and offering not so much a blending of cultures or a bland fusion, but work marked by a recurring discourse with existing form and content and the possibilities of reframing them. Articulated hands, fingers and arms would combine with fuller body movements informed by contemporary western dance vocabularies (he initially studied ballet and Graham-based modern dance) and martial arts.
In his opening chat, Sinha recalled his blistering signature dance-theatre piece, 1992’s “Burning Skin”, inspired by the writings of Hanif Kureishi. He began that piece declaring, “I tried to deny my East Indian self.” Audiences were transfixed by this man confronting race directly, in a piece that considered performance as part of a shifting cultural, aesthetic and social landscape. Performance was an essential, direct language of protest during this early phase of Sinha’s career. Sinha got under people’s skin precisely because he had social issues on his mind (the Kureishi story has a young boy trying to scald his skin white).
There’s no way to prepare a viewer for the mesmerizing opening image in Sinha’s most recent production, “Question de souffle et de vie” (A Matter of Life and Breath). It’s a startling theatrical moment. Imperceptibly at first, an unusually erect body appears from the shadows of the dark stage. Slowly the light reveals a triad of static, standing bodies, each head bound by cellophane, giving off an alien or mummified appearance. Taut, long sheets of the wrap interconnect all three. Muffled, laboured breath — inhalations and exhalations — is heard, and the sounds coupled with the image are haunting. But an uncomfortable question remains: what does the image represent?
I find suffocation imagery disturbing, to say the least, and it’s been recurring throughout the winter season: Mélanie Demers’ dancers are wrapped in asphyxiating plastic in “Junkyard/Paradis”, and more recently, Tomomi Morimoto is engulfed by a malleable plastic ball for way too long in her new work, “Threshold”. The allure of auto-asphyxiation evades me. Perhaps it has something to do with an unconscious desire to experience pain in the ritualized forum of the theatre. Ultimately, in Sinha’s piece, a dancer, free and independent of the bound trio, brushes her hand or arm against the plastic wrap, causing an amplified reverberation. When the binding is lifted, there’s a reveal of the dancers outfitted with “Madonna mics” (attached around the dancers’ heads capturing their breath), as well as white ribbed and fitted cotton muslin tank tops and pants, and a curious-looking armband that seems to trigger sounds.
With his movement, Sinha remains bilingual in approach, incorporating precise classical Indian bharatanatyam movements – based on hasta (hand gestures) and adavu (steps) — while equally exploring western contemporary and more linear classical sequences, often with the dancers performing in unison when they’re in duets or trios. This is the most fascinating aspect of his creation — how the mind and body work at shifting from one dance discipline to the other and then back again. It appears to be more than just an exercise in technique, or a strict adherence to rules. By its very nature, his carefully crafted work creates tensions. While he’s drawing on strengths to create work that blurs cultural difference and stylistic boundaries, I wish I could say that the combination of classical and contemporary Indian dancing with classical and contemporary western modes was seamless and splendid.
In “Question de souffle et de vie”, Sinha’s diverse sextet of dancers – Tom Casey, Tanya Crowder, Ghislaine Doté, Raul Huaman, Élise Legrand and Laurence Ramsay — fare unevenly with the shifts. The fluency and perceptual changes that Sinha requires are hampered by his darting from one idea to the next, one style to the next, one discipline to the next, without satisfying any fully fleshed-out sequence. It leaves the dancers in a precarious place, having to cope with the quick shifts and technological demands to the best of their abilities, but it seems they are being hampered by Sinha’s ambitions. That said, two performers are “voices” to be reckoned with: Casey is both a reassuring presence and a generous performer, who has danced for Sinha for the last fourteen years, and he anchors the work, modulating the short stops of the Indian vocabulary, with outturned feet and vivid, curved finger movements, and making the shifts to ballet attitudes and contemporary sequences watchable. Doté is another magnet, with her strong body rooted in modern techniques of release, traditional African dance and Shaolin kung fu, and she effectively understands and transmits the precision and dexterity demanded by the choreography.
The dance, plus stanzas of poetry Sinha and Legrand penned (unremarkable meditations on breath) and two short films (one incorporating a melting ice sculpture, projected on a large screen at the back of the stage), keep coming at you, and become sensory overload. You just want Sinha to calm things down, or choose a path and stick with it.
In terms of hybridity, composer Bernard Chénier, in collaboration with Michal Seta, creates a wholly successful fusion of traditional and contemporary music styles, incorporating piano and synthesized and electronic sounds. There were times when I wished the score could have been in surround sound as it sometimes seemed to be confined to the stage space, leaving a gap between audience and performer.
Sinha has his own logic of artistic practice, and probing western and eastern forms of representation is central to those concerns. He is not alone in these intercultural reflections and how they affect movement and creative choices. As has been commented upon by others, the classical dances of South Asia have been deconstructed in a current context and are now part of a wider contemporary language.
Personal history and motivations aside, Sinha’s interests in interdisciplinary practice — mediated images and sounds, in particular — have also set him apart, and in recent years he has been increasingly delving into screendance. Perspectives have shifted for Sinha, as have accustomed ways of working, which seems to be leading to a new way to chart his course.