While we tend to think of poetry and dance as separate art forms, throughout human history the two have been intimately linked. Even in today’s highly specialized world, choreographers occasionally use poetry (and other forms of the written word) as inspiration for movement, or even within a performance as a complement to the dance. Montreal choreographer Roger Sinha, however, intertwines poetry and dance more than usual in “Apricot Trees Exist.” Sinha’s newest piece is based on Inger Christensen’s book-length poem, Alphabet.
Roger Sinha, born in England to Indian and Armenian parents, began his dance studies at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. In 1986, he made his professional debut in Quebec City; he continued his performing career in Montreal, where in 1992 he choreographed his first work, the acclaimed solo Burning Skin. Since then, Sinha has looked back to his Indian roots for choreographic material. Drawing inspiration from classical Indian dance and Asian music, Sinha has become renowned for his East-meets-West contemporary choreography. With his latest work, Sinha decided to challenge himself anew, feeling that he had explored his personal history enough for the time being. “I wanted to get out of myself, my preoccupations,” he says of the autobiographical material that infused his earlier choreography.
Interpreting the formal constraints of Christensen’s poem was Sinha’s first challenge. The Danish poet used the alphabet (as the title implies) and Fibonacci’s number system as a basis for the structure of the poem. Taking up this structure, Sinha substitutes body parts that begin with each letter of the alphabet and puts them in motion for the amount of time it takes to read the corresponding lines of the poem, creating an “anatomy of the alphabet” that moves through time.
To facilitate the Montreal audience’s understanding of the poem, Sinha is using a new French translation in voice-overs and projections on a screen. But he is less concerned about the audience “getting” the poem’s meaning (that’s just icing on the cake) than that they appreciate the movement on stage. Non-dance elements are kept as simple and economical as possible, he says, in order not to detract attention from the choreography.
In the past, Sinha says, “I’ve always avoided anything high-tech; it puts me off. It’s so time- and money-consuming.” And yet, in order to push himself in a new direction and take full advantage of a three-week residency at L’Agora de la Danse, Sinha wanted to use more theatrical bells and whistles in tandem with choreography for “Apricot Trees Exist.” “Even if it doesn’t work out,” he says, at least “I will have tried it.”
A first, too, for him was the high level of involvement of his dancers in the creative process of the work. It was born partly out of necessity—an ankle operation left Sinha temporarily immobile. He appreciatively acknowledges not only the inventiveness of his dancers, but also their ability to work within his guidelines and understand his style. He notes that their efforts “took a lot of pressure off me to always be the centre” of creation.
In another bid to stretch himself as an artist, Sinha decided to eschew the highly rhythmic Asian music he has favoured in previous works and hire Bertrand Chénier, who composes mainly for film, to write the score. Sinha calls Chenier’s score “ambient” (perhaps as a consequence of the composer’s experience in film, the music seems to be more in the background), allowing “other things to come out” of the dance. With a pulse-driven composition, Sinha notes, it is all too easy to “become a slave” to the rhythm.
The same week as the premiere of “Apricot Trees Exist,” Sinha will unveil another new work, a meditation on globalization commissioned by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation for its Public Policy Conference. Regarding both these pieces and his work in general, Sinha says his motive for choreography is not just self-expression. He admits, “There is always that ego-aspect of the artist that wants ‘my stuff’ to be shown.” But, artists, he argues, should also take the public “away from their familiarities,” in ways that “will allow them to grow.” Like Christensen in Alphabet, Sinha hopes to clarify our vision, helping us see the world and its wonders of nature afresh. For him, choreography is “an opportunity you have as an artist, part of our responsibility that we don’t see in commercial art.”