Roger Sinha, a distinguished alumnus of the School of TDT (1984-86), is a choreographer, dancer, and teacher, and the founder of Sinha Danse, a company based in Montreal which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. That year, Roger won the prestigious Cultural Diversity Prize in Dance presented by the Conseil des arts de Montréal, and he is this year’s Canada Dance Assembly spokesperson for International Dance Day. Read Roger’s International Dance Day message here.
We asked Roger to tell us about his current work:
Like most creators, I have many ideas and want to do many things. With age and maturity and a clearer reflection on past success and failures, I am focusing these days on what comes closest to who I am as an individual and an artist. I create works that relate directly to my relationship to Indian culture, either thematically or technically (using elements of Bharata Natyam). Loha, Thok, Zeros & Ones, and Thread all are successful works that had a vast element relating to Indian dance and culture. Though not exclusively, I often create works that are autobiographical in nature. Burning Skin, the film Haters and Baiters, and more recently Hi5 Lo5 wifi takka takka dhim, share this characteristic. My newest creation called E-Razed, which will be presented in 2019, reflects upon the parallel of my culture being erased and that of the Inuit/autochthone culture also being erased through colonialization.
My work speaks to who I am: a cross between Western and Eastern. I am shaped by all the experiences I have had, including the racism I was subjected to in my youth. This led me first to reject my South Asian background, and then later, when I became an artist and confronted this rejection of identity, to embrace where I came from and who I am. For example, from my Western upbringing I have always found inspiration in classical music. My next major piece reflects this. My vision for Stravinsky’s classic The Rite of Spring is to mix the classical vocabulary of Bharata Natyam with this vibrant complex music. There have been hundreds of versions of contemporary dance with The Rite, but never from a South Asian perspective. I have worked this way before, with the Blue Danube in Burning Skin, and with Rossini in The Barber of Bangalore. The mixing of South Asian and contemporary dance is integral to my work, and I am continually refining it, expanding it, and experimenting even more.
My vision is to present a rich portrayal of dance and the diversity of its practices. I want to provide an alternative view of dance from the perspective of diversity, since dance forms which offer movement vocabularies stemming from different cultures, in my case Indian, are often still marginalized.
Recently a surprise has come into my sphere of artistic practice. MoW! (Montre(olly)wood) is a work that involves non-professionals. It has been quite a success. We presented it last year for Canada Day in the city of Longueuil, and as well in Montreal at Place des Arts, with over 80 participants. We will remount it this year in July with twice as many performers, as part of the 150th anniversary of Canada. It has also been commissioned by the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, so I will travel to Ottawa and remount it in that city, where it will be called Ottaw(olly)wood or for short, OttaWoW!. I had always wanted to do a work combining contemporary and Bollywood with a large number of amateurs. I loved the experience, and it allowed me to develop aspects of myself such as patience, compassion, and compromise. A large group work such as this is about giving the group an experience they will never forget. So it meant leaving my ego at the door, coming in with an attitude of generosity, and giving the performers a great experience. The audience also feels this and enjoys watching non-professionals in their joy of this event.
This direction is gaining popularity in the professional milieu. I am one of the choreographers chosen for Sharing Dance, another flash mob project that is being presented Canada-wide, organized by Canada’s National Ballet School, and part of an enormous 150th anniversary project. So I have two huge flash mob projects at the same time, involving large numbers of non-professionals; this is a very different direction for the company.
We asked Roger about his dance background before he came to the School of TDT:
I began dance late in life like most men, at 23 years of age. I was discouraged about studying something that did not interest me at all (economics at university). I also did not understand much of the subject: surpluses and deficits, deficits and surpluses. I spent three years in academia being completely miserable. Being an “emotional eater”, I put on a lot of weight. (But at least at the end of three years I understood economics: my weight was in surplus and my happiness was in deficit!) So it was time to get back in shape, and I decided to start taking dance classes. I was inspired by the movie All That Jazz about the life of Bob Fosse, so I started with jazz. Then I discovered ballet, and dropped ‘all that jazz’ to do two years of intensive ballet. Then I quit dance. Discouraged to continue in dance at the ballet school I had chosen, I went back to finish off the B.A. degree, intending to pursue another academic direction. But I missed dance. I knew I was good; the ballet teachers told me how impressive my skills were for someone with a late start, but my body did not fit the “ballet look”. I started taking adult evening classes at the School of TDT. I began to like modern, did the audition at the School, and here I am now.
How was your time at the School?
Technique was important for me, coming from a ballet background. It was important to train my body to move beyond the ordinary. The Graham technique gave that to me, and I loved the emotional connection important to Graham. I was invited into the apprenticeship program to study with the company, and I learned TDT company repertory. I got a taste of professional life, and I liked it. I also landed the principal role in the School show, Babar the Little Elephant, which allowed me to work as a professional and tour while in school. In Babar, I learned a lot about stage craft, performing in front of a public. The choreography was not difficult, but I learned to improvise on stage, and got to develop my comedic style.
What was your path when you left the School?
In 1986 Luc Tremblay was asked to join the Quebec company Danse Partout as Artistic Director. I had worked with him while I was a student at the School. I left the School after second year because I wanted to work. Luc brought several students from the School to Quebec with him to join his company.
What was your training in Bharata Natyam?
I have worked with renowned contemporary Indian dancer/choreographer Natasha Bakht who studied and performed for over 20 years under Menaka Thakkar.
For your company, Sinha Danse, how do you choose dancers you’d like to work with?
My work is highly technical. This is because of the rigours of Bharata Natyam. It is rare that the dancers who join my company have this formation, so I train them. But it is clear to see the people in an audition who are ready for this, and those who lack the detail in the gestures, and who are not so rhythmical. Desire and hunger is important. I was hungry and ambitious, and I like to see those qualities in dancers. Improvisation skills and creativity are also important as I create a lot from dancers’ movements. The dancers have to be fast – super-fast – as that is how I work. But ultimately It all comes down to my feeling about the person. It’s difficult to describe – it’s chemistry; do I click with that person?
Any thoughts you might wish to offer to current students?
After graduation, don’t get discouraged. You’ll need to make things happen for yourself and not just look for contracts and do auditions. Come together; make collectives; create on your own; ask other choreographers to create something on you; look for any opportunity to create and perform. Because you spend so many years, in school, working in a context similar to a professional experience, (training, learning and performing choreography) afterwards it’s like the empty nest syndrome: all of a sudden, there’s no daily class, no rehearsals, no performing…. People get discouraged and quit. But look at me: I was told I would never be a dancer. I stuck to it, working evenings in a restaurant, doing auditions, taking class.
It is a difficult profession. Always think of a backup plan, and join the Dancer Transition Resource Centre right away. I am a member of the DTRC, though I don’t intend to quit dance; for me it’s like an insurance policy, just in case.
Don’t expect things to come to you; you have to go for it. I have given several dancers a chance because they came up to me and said “I love your work. I would love to apprentice for you.” Many of them are now dancers for my company.