The lights come up on a stage presided over by three planets watching silently from above. Kiya Tabassian, founder of the musical group Constantinople, enters slowly from the left, with his setar (a type of Persian lute), while Roger Sinha, artistic director and choreographer of Sinha Danse, enters from the right. The artists meet at center-stage, like travelers on a pilgrimage, each one embodying his own cross-cultural makeup, each one open to the cultural métissage of the other. Thus begins Sunya, the new collaboration between Sinha Danse and Constantinople playing at the Cinquième Salle at Place des Arts from 17 to 27 April.

Thomas Casey, Ziya Tabassian, Pierre-Yves Martel © Michael Slobodian
Thomas Casey, Ziya Tabassian, Pierre-Yves Martel
© Michael Slobodian

“Sunya” is Sanskrit for zero or nothing, referring to an emptiness out of which enlightenment is possible: this notion of a point of departure, a vacancy from which can emerge the best or the worst, is the theme of the work. Additionally, the themes of exile, migration, cultural intermingling and cross-fertilization, and the telling of the stories that grow from this process, inform both the dance and the music.

The prelude (one of the highlights of this hour-long show) grew out of a solo Sinha improvised in 2011 when he first encountered the music of Constantinople, a Montreal ensemble founded in 1998 that specializes in medieval, Mediterranean and near- and middle-Eastern musical traditions and improvisation. Featuring the Iranian-Québecois Tabassian on setar, as well as his brother Ziya Tabassian on percussion and Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba, Constantinople provide live music that is an essential, integral part of this production.

Sinha’s solo introduces the audience immediately to his unique vocabulary of movements. Deep, strong, martial arts-influenced stances provide the base for a variety of graceful, precise, expressive, often bird-like arm and hand movements undoubtedly derived from Sinha’s knowledge of Bharata Natyam, a dance form from southern India. Born in England to an Armenian mother and an Indian father, now a resident of Quebec, Sinha’s movements reflect and express his unique multi-cultural heritage. Sinha himself does not reappear on stage after the opening solo and part of the next ensemble piece. For the rest of the show I was hoping for his return, so mesmerizing were his movements.

The rest of the performance comprises various combinations of the four other dancers (solo, duo, trio, quartet), always interacting in one way or another with various combinations of the three musicians. Video projections onto the stage and back wall play an important role as well.

Although the musicians are situated at the back corner of the stage, often Kiya Tabassian, or (less frequently) his brother, is moving in and among the dancers, who surround him in various configurations while he plays and sometimes sings. This close interaction often creates the impression that Tabassian is singing the dancers to life, as if he is an ancient storyteller or troubadour whose song is being illustrated in motion by the dancers. Sometimes, however, he seems somewhat out of place among the dancers, who are, after all, dancing, while he simply moves along with them. The interaction worked extremely well in one scene in the first half of the performance, where patterns of light resembling Arabic script were projected onto the stage. The lights were dimmed, and the four dancers were lying on the floor around Tabassian, while the projections started to swirl and gyrate, creating the effect of water. As Tabassian moved slowly in one direction while playing the setar, the dancers rolled and writhed along with him. The net effect was visually stunning, and the idea of migration, of travel, of the stories that speak of difficult voyages, was brought vividly to life.

The projection of images also worked well during one of the solos. While the viola da gambist and the percussionist used novel playing techniques (scraping the bow on the strings, and rubbing a metal percussion instrument to create an eerie, whining effect, for instance), one of the male dancers crawled on the floor on his hands and feet, seemingly trying to escape a projected patch of light that soon became a scantily clad man crawling desperately, and eventually spread over the back wall to become a mass of people waving their arms, seen from an aerial perspective. This was one of the rawest scenes in the production, devoid of the beauty, elegance, and lyricism that characterized the rest of the show.

Both the music and dance of Sunya evoke far-off lands and disparate cultural traditions. The dance is highly stylized yet deeply communicative. I occasionally wished I had a better understanding of the underlying narrative, if there was one; I sometimes questioned the effectiveness of drawing the musicians into the dance; and I would have loved to see more from Sinha himself. But overall this is a unique and highly successful collaboration.

****1