Montreal-based Canadian dancer and choreographer Roger Sinha was recently interviewed by Serai editor Rana Bose. The Sinhadanse company, led by Roger, has secured a leading and prominent place for itself in the Canadian and International dance scene. In its Mission statement on its website www.sinhadanse.com, Sinhadanse asserts the following –
” The work Sinha proposes uses the universality of the
body to explore the tensions created by the collision
of East and West. Beautifully expressive mudras
(hand gestures) and the rhythmically complex
footwork of Indian dance combine with the full
body movements of modern, ballet and the
martial arts. These mixtures of styles have
not gently fused into each other, rather
his personal experiences have led
him to passionately reclaim his
cultural origins and use tradition
for a contemporary expression of
RB: It’s been a while since we communicated. Your artistic growth in Montreal and Canada has been remarkable since I saw Burning Skin and Benches. Congratulations! Your direction and artistic inclinations have a special resonance for Montreal Serai. Especially the way you blend, cross and yet uphold the line in the sand between cultures, politics and probing the “other”. Can you tell us something about your latest work and the angst that drives it?
RS: In 2000 to celebrate the beginning of the new millennium I decided to partner, once again,with Natasha Bakht to create Loha. The goal was to do extensive research in Bharata Natyam and contemporary dance and create a work that would reflect how I want these two very different approaches of dance to be viewed. Out of this creation I designed not only new vocabulary but new musical instrument inspired by the bells that Bharata Natyam dancers normally wear on their ankles. The traditional bells are made from copper. My version was to use the boading balls that come from china and put them round my ankles using black tissue and mesh to hold them together. The look was more interesting to me (shiny silver, and the sound more metallic) perfect for my vision of Bharata Natyam for the new century. In Thok (2002) I went further by putting on arm bells, using larger balls eliminating the tissue and using steel rods to give us more of a metallic look.
In my new work I am determined to go further and incorporate computer technology to these bells and my movements in order to push this centuries old dance form further into the age of technology.
The technology that I will use will be simple though. I want the bells to trigger other sounds coming from a different source, the computer, where a library of different sounds exist created by composer Dini Giancola & max/msp programmer Phili Viel in the form of several tracks that can be played independently and in a wide variety of different combinations based on my movements.
I have often used voice in my work from text to sounds. The sounds that I use are a variation of the konnokols that we hear in Indian dance (takka dhimmi takka takkita). I sing these konnokols in their traditional form as well as improvise with my voice but using the same complex rythmic structure at the konokkols.
For me the most important thing about creating is breaking new ground, presenting something which has never been done before. I did this with Burning Skin particularly when i put on a shirt that was soaking in boiling water. No one had ever done that before. In all my works I am always trying to pull the boiling shirt out of the boiling water, taking that kind of risk.
On the other hand we are not looking for total harmony all the time and what the audience might feel by what they hear. The aspect of being overwhelmed. The piece is about India and anyone who has been there has often had that experience of being overwhelmed by the sights, the smells and above all the sounds of the urban area’s.
Using sensors on the body to stimulate sounds from other sources is not unique or original. But because of the uniqueness of the instruments that I created and the fact that no one that I know of is quite working with blending Indian dance, contemporary dance and technology that way, I would like to I feel that what I am proposing is quite original and innovative.
Bangalore India, the silicon valley of India, will set the stage for the creation of Zeros & Ones (solo) & Thread (duo with natasha bakht) which links India past and present, Roger & Natasha, past and present. The body and technology will be married in the dance with actual wires being the thread that will be connected to microphones & sensors making sound, light and image come together as east and west collide revealing the digital divide between the e-haves and the e-have nots.
RB: Some inevitable questions about your cross cultural make up. Your father is Bengali and your mother is Armenian and you lived in Britain. When I saw Burning Skin, I felt it was a deeply felt composition about colonial elitism, about skin tones and covers and symbols and cliches and how to break through them . What’s Britain done for your anti-racist development?
RS: Britain spawned Hanif Kureishi whose text I used for Burning Skin. From the very start I tried to deny my Indian self. I was ashamed it was a curse and I wanted to be rid of it, I wanted to be just like everyone else.
But that was Hanif talking about England. Myself, I never experienced that much racism in London, in fact in my school there were a lot of immigrants and a lot of people like me. I had a lot of white friends. Of course outside my school yard shops were being burned down, Indian and Pakistanis being beaten up and killed. But you read about that kind of stuff in newspapers and I didn’t read newspapers. I read comic books. I left the UK in 68 and moved to Saskatoon, Saskatechewan. Population 100,000. I was the only kid of color in my class. I was not welcomed with open arms but rather with closed fists usually aimed in my direction. Burning Skin came from Saskatoon, not London.
RB: Here In Quebec, the inevitable question comes up, as to how comfortable you feel about raising questions about cultural distance, acceptance in your pieces? How about the BS that has been going on about “reasonable accommodation”? Does your company discuss your works in the intellectual sense that you conceive them, before they participate?
RS: We do not discuss it before the presentation. After the presentation there are sometimes Q & A’s. The question does not come up. Myself however I do think about it and one of my goals is to get my work out there into the regions of Quebec, Baie Comeau, Le bic etc. Often the perception of South Asians are quite exotic, not the image I want to portray of my father’s country.
Bouchard Taylor. This is how I feel. I was not brought up feeling any sense of pride for who I was or where I came from. This deeply affected me and did not enable me to assume with a sense of pride when I had to physically defend myself against those young attackers when I was 9 years old. I wanted to become like everyone else and denied my rich cultural heritage. HOW hypocritical of these Quebecers who ask new immigrants to deny where they came from. The Quebecers feel a sense of great pride of where they came from and who they are and yet they want people like me to reject who they are and where they came from. Do they want a society of individuals embarrassed about who they are, what kind of society is that? In other words, and I know I am being too harsh on myself and was able, by my art, to overcome these ill feelings, but i don’t exactly want a society of people like myself who were not able to overcome this embarrassment.
RB: I often find people botch up “fusion” when they attempt to meld the “east”and the “west”in whatever artistic format. I have seen Deboo and a few others as well. And you strike a better chord. I find your works very apropos, technically, since you combine a Western presence on stage with a sublime Bharat Natyam beat (when you do) without introducing overpowering Indian music. Sometimes even Sufi strains weep in and it is quite eclectic and yet media-powerful. Do you have musicians compose the theme? How do you work with them? Please lead us thorugh the process?
RS: When I broke through with Loha my last piece I asked Ganesh Anandan, a contemporary musician who is trained in the classical Indian instruments. I asked him to compose the music because we had a similar vision. He calls his music classical fingering on western surfaces. He uses western instruments like the Bohdran drum. But his singing is not only classical using bols but improvisational with all kinds of different eclectic kind of voice work including Tibetan throat singing. What he does is not so different to me since I combine classical Indian and Western contemporary technique.
The process–the usual way is I compose some phrases in the studio. I always work in silence because I do not want any other kind of music to influence the process. In other words if you rehearse or create with one kind of music that you like ( but don’ t necessarily want it in the piece) then the composer arrives with something completely different. It is a little destabilizing. After watching a few times the composer will arrive with something and we see if it works. It has been rare that I would say no that does not work at all. What happens is if it is not 100% right we talk and discuss. Most composers realize that we have to dance on the music, so we have to like it or our dancing will suffer then everyone will suffer.
Rhythmically I wanted something complex with Loha. So I asked Ganesh to compose a rhythmical section incorporating bols. In this case he creates the music and we have to try and match the steps.
Now after several years I am more familiar with Indian rhythms. So I ask a composer (Dino Giancola for Zeros & Ones) to create me a 5-7 section or a 9-5 section. For Thread (Bertrand Chenier) I will not ask him that, because he will not work that way. Bertrand needs to play to create ( he will go to the computer afterwards) but if he is not comfortable with Indian rhythms, he is not comfortable making a bols section.Usually the music and movement is created somewhat at the same time. But generally the movement comes first then the music after.
RB: Your works often combine clashing temperaments, change of pace, feelings, sudden change of mood and humorous turns. What is it in your training and style that introduces these elements ?
RS: It is not really my training but my personal history & personality. I am half South Asian, half Armenian, born in London and raised mostly in English Canada. Artistically I have spent the last 20 years here in Quebec, 18 of them here in Montreal. I have to credit the Montreal creative style of theatre dance and film for my inspiration. Robert Lepage has been one of my greatest inspirations, the early O vertigo company for dance. Most of the good artistic work I have seen here in Montreal has been auto-biographic, that is, I sense at least the personality of the creators behind them as opposed to the style that existed in Toronto where I got my 1st dance education. In TO it was, what was successful outside ie. New York was tried to be emulated. There is little personal, and in my opinion little interesting in that. The thing about Montreal is that they could not care less what the rest of the world is doing, they do their own thing and to hell with what everyone else thinks. There is the drawback to this attitude, ie the nationalistic movement, but then a minority in a majority –usually this creates fodder for great art. I took that same attitude, the Quebec singer song writer Richard Seguin said take what is unique about yourself and exploit it, show it to the world, I am doing that. My work is eclectic because i am eclectic. I also am a minority voice in a majority as well being from a different ethnic background. Further than that being half & half like Hanif Kureishi makes me even more distinct.
RB:I have seen the two minute video on Loha. Absorbing. Tell us about Loha? Steel? Who does the music? What is Loha all about?
RS:My 3 new R’s. Roots R’ my Revolution. That is my new logo, that is the logo for my fundraiser in May. Before Loha at the end of the 90s I was doing works that did not necessarily reflect my cultural background, maybe as Kureishi said ” I wanted to be just like everyone else’.” I think more or less I felt like a fake. I really did not have classical Indian training, yet I was still identified just because I was throwing a few mudras in my work as the choreographer who mixes Indian and contemporary dance, even though in the late 90’s my work was far from the likes of Burning Skin. In 2000 I decided to put my money where my mudras were. To go back to my roots and create a personal revolution for me. I asked Natasha Bakht to form me, teach me in Bharata natyam. But we would do it in a creative process. I found just doing classes were too boring for me. Loha is really about the meeting of bodies and music on the stage. Male and female South Asian bodies. I particularly wanted to go further with that element that was missing for me in Indian dance , the touch. We never see two classical Indian dancers of opposite sex touching in very intimate ways on stage. I like duet work. I like manipulating & lifting dancers male or female (preferably female because they are lighter). I like the closeness. Perhaps that is why i am such a tango fan. I met my girlfriend, the mother of my children in tango which I have been doing for over 10 years now.
I also wanted to use more of the pelvis which is very prevalent in contemporary work but like ballet almost non existent in Indian dance. But as far as Indian dance, I wanted to use what does not exist in contemporary dance, the detail, the rhythm and of course the music, not something created from a computer but live music, the way classical Indian dancers work as well using live music. Ganesh improvises and I also improvise occasionally on stage. I wanted to introduce this aspect of risk and relationship (musician & dancer).
I know LOHA means more iron than steel. I guess I was taking artistic license simply because I liked the sound of L-O-H-A. But why steel. An art form has to be strong but flexible. That is what we were doing in the creation being strong using strong technique from both styles, yet being flexible as well.
With Loha it was a different kind of risk, more subtle and less spectacular. The kind of duet work that I do with Natasha Bakht has also never been seen before. In Bharata Natyam we never see a man and women touch on stage, it is simply never done. Of course what we do is not pure BN, but regardless much of the vocabulary comes from BN and to see two people incorporating that kind of vocabulary with lifts and holds, in sometimes such an intimate way that has never been seen on stage before.
Roots R’ my Revolution
(“My new 3 Rs”R.Sinha)
A unique event in Montréal that puts contemporary Indian dance in the forefront
Support us in our first fundraising event by joining us and inviting your best relations to come for this premiere on May 28th ! The tickets are now on sale (80 $) and will give right to a charity receipt of the same amount.
Reserve your places now by contacting Clara Bonnes : 514-524-7997 email@example.com
Music: Prem United presents Adam Cantor – sitar, Anand Balroop – harmonium, Adam Miller – tabla and Riki Chopra – vocals, Adhika Maharaj – vocals, music produced by – John Wrinch Williams.
Video: Johane Bergeron presents her short documentary Montre-moi ce que tu vois de l’autre que je ne vois pas (Show me what you see of the other that I don’t see).
Dance: Manijeh Ali, Ulka Mohanty, Roger Sinha and Natasha Bakhtincluding excerpts of the last new works of Sinha Danse Zero’s & Ones and Thread.