When Roger Sinha immigrated to Saskatoon from London, England at the age of eight, the only dance moves he knew were the ones that got him away from punches. He was ashamed of his Indian heritage, specifically at school, where he was bullied intensively. During his teenage years, he moved to Ottawa and took up karate.
It was only until his early 20s that he realized that all those years fighting against racists, he was unknowingly fighting himself. The self-awareness he experienced as a young adult led him to go from seeing himself as a pugilist skilled in martial arts, to a graceful performing artist. While studying dance at the Toronto Dance Theatre, Sinha was inspired by the elegance of Darshan Bhuller and the writings of Hanif Kureishi. As he explored Bharata Natyam dance, he explored his own identity, deepening his love for both, and forming what he calls his own “personal vocabulary of movement.”
I spoke with Sinha on Zoom video call just after he had finished a choreography class on that same platform. Though COVID lockdowns have put things on hold in terms of live performances and daily rehearsals, Sinha spends his time in his Montreal-based studio performing one-man presentations online to select small audiences. He also performs live on Facebook, where he plays the didgeridoo, djembe, and RAV drums.
“I'm able to dance on the same music that I create by using looping techniques, with video projections on a wall. You have to make it like a performance,” explains Sinha. He calls his online performances, excerpts. "When you create a video of dance, you have to make it like a film. Just showing a stage performance is too one dimensional." His hope is that these excerpts will sell his work to producers who want to present it live on their stage post-COVID. For now, the pressure is off.
"It's relaxing," he says, with a relief that is hard to ignore. "Before COVID, my whole approach to the arts was like it's a race. It's very competitive. When lockdown came, at some point I was able to relax a bit because we're all in the same situation." He tells me that he has also received a grant to study music, which is keeping him busy along with all the mini online performances. If this is relaxing, it is hard to imagine what being a full-time choreographer and dance studio director must be.
Sinha would not be where he is now without the success of his first choreographed piece, Burning Skin (1992). It many ways, that work was the end of an era and the start of a new one for him. As a young adult, he wanted to be a contemporary artist, but the denial of his heritage that he held for most of his childhood would not let him create from his past. Eventually, he came to understand that he was Indian, British, and Canadian, all in one. To live that unison, he had to affirm the part of him that white supremacy wanted to erase. He came to this realization several years before the debut of Burning Skin.
“When you’re an artist, you have to know who you are,” he proclaims.
The exploration of his identity led to a trip to India in 1984. “There’s a part of me that strongly identifies with my Indian culture, and that’s simply because as an artist, you have to know who you are. And that includes the shame.”
In Burning Skin, there is a blend of Eastern and Western dance and music, in a style that was a mix of past and present. The choreography was Sinha expressing his acceptance that his past could not be denied, that his then present was part of that past, and so too was his future. Not only was Burning Skin a success, but it also allowed Sinha to heal and explore.
"You have to have a distance from it. If you’re too close to it, you don’t have perspective. I had a good 25-year distance from the event."
He would continue that exploration in a work titled Loha in 2000, where the focus was on the themes of resistance and malleability. One can resist white supremacy, or resist their non-whiteness, as Sinha did. One can also be malleable for the sake of white comfort or be malleable to their non-whiteness. Even within his heritage, there is always going to be the feeling that being from India is different than being from the Indian diaspora.
"Loha was my second collaboration that I did with Natasha Bakht," he says. He needed to learn more about Indian dance, and she wanted to learn more about contemporary dance. “Natasha taught me about the rhythms of Indian dance. It was through her that I learned about the beauty, precision, elegance, and power of Indian dance. With Loha, Natasha and I wanted to blend the two, and make it a harmonious unison where you don't see the lines between the two styles."
The personal exploration of how his Indian heritage clashed against the influences of the white supremacy of Canadian society is a theme he returned to frequently. In 2010, Haters N’ Baiters: The Culture Collision, he tells his story through rap, a talent he learned by listening to Canadian hip hop artist Buck 65. In 2014, Hi5 Lo5 wifi takka takka dhim, he uses the intolerance and bullying of his youth, but from the perspective of the social media age. When he remade Burning Skin in 2015, he was a seasoned choreographer, building off the maturity he developed in previous works while continuing to focus on the themes of identity and race, because he felt that it was still relevant.
“When I first created Burning Skin, my Indian dance move experience was very limited. I fumbled about doing something that I thought was Indian dance, and it was pretty cliché. Over 15 years, I’ve studied Indian dance quite seriously. I wouldn’t call myself a classical Indian dancer because that’s a whole process that you have to go through to get to that point, but what little I know, I know well,” he explains. “So, the choreographic elements of the 2015 version of Burning Skin are much stronger than they were before.”
Though he does not like repeating works he did before, he felt he had to make an exception for Burning Skin. He wanted to include the state of the world as he saw it in 2015. “I brought back Burning Skin in 2015, because I felt it needed to come back in response to Trumpism, in response to what happened in the mosque (in Quebec City), and in response to a number of things,” he explains. “The cycle has gone back. We’ve always lived in that world, but it has been brought back by these negative forces, so I brought the work back.”
No work showed Sinha’s growth as a person more than Montré(olly)Wood or MoW!, his public dance performances between 2016 and 2018. He went from being ashamed of his Indian heritage as a teen, even going as far as telling kids he was from Armenia, to organizing flash mobs on the streets of Canadian cities.
"The greatest pride that I gained was going to India for the first time in 1984 and learning about my culture, because I go there as a Western guy. It was difficult, because I didn’t feel Indian, I don’t speak Hindi or Punjabi. Beyond that, I left the storytelling alone, and only focused on the Indian body," he explains. "I wanted to talk about the pride of India. In terms of the dance and the physicality, that's what I wanted to explore. MoW! is a celebration of the joy of Indian culture that I wanted to express, by exploring it with non-Indians. I collaborated with Deepali Linblom for the choreography. I wanted to share my culture with other people through the movement and have them learn the movement themselves."
As with everyone else in the performing arts industry in 2020 and now 2021, COVID has brought many changes. Sinha was working on a piece about physical distancing, until Quebec’s second lockdown at the end of 2020 began. “In dance, the distance between the dancers is an important thing you need to work on. I transformed that space into a choreographic language.”
Sinha continues to challenge himself as he continues creating into his fourth decade of performance.