Review by K.C. Novak
In partnership with Diwali Festival, The Cultch’s presentation of Sunya, a hybrid dance/music/visual collaboration between Montréal’s Sinha Danse and music trio Constantinople, shakes free the didactic burden of a “cultural event” and manifests as a fresh exploration of movement, music, and spiritual energy.
Aligning with the spirit of the Diwali Fest, noted by organizers Rohit Chokhani and Vineeta Minhas, to “bring together people of all backgrounds in a celebration of ‘the universal light that exists in everyone,’” Sunya is an accessible “cultural collision” of East and West. The rich traditions of Indian dance and Persian music are playfully put into modern experimentation with a performance that defies time or place.
Sinha Danse founder Roger Sinha’s choreography is an organic and efficient narrator. Once Sinha himself exits the prologue, he leaves the space to his four dancers, returning only for the final scene. The dancers, surprisingly all Caucasian, does bring up the question of what expectations a production that is part of a South Asian cultural arts festival needs to serve? Perhaps an answer is suggested in Sunya’s scene structure: while the dancer’s relationships are left undefined, the impression remains Sinha is the teacher passing on a physical life for his students to explore.
This physical life is earthy and anti-intellectual, a hybrid of Sinha’s Indo-Armenian roots and contemporary dance. The result is a trance-like transmission of the dancer’s energy to the audience; a long meditation on the nature of presence, taking up space, yearning, self-doubt, and freedom.
A deep narrative command of music performed by Constantinople connects the stunning visual life of Sunya to an otherworldly plane. Artistic Director Kiya Tabassian’s soulful voice and graceful setar playing fills the auditorium with a haunting folk resonance. Pierre-Yves Martel and Patrick Graham join on viola da gamba and perscussions respectively, adding to the delicate orchestration, physically weaving itself through the dancer’s choreography. The internationally acclaimed artistry of Constantinople is met with a masterful sound design, which gives the music its proper integrity in The Cultch’s intimate venue, the Historic Theatre.
Accomplished video art by visual designer Jerôme Delapierre brings Sunya into the fourth dimension. A standout visual sequence, which normally would be met by impressed applause, leaves the audience in contemplative silence: a black blanket patterned with white script gives way to waves, the performers moving through its surreal illusion of motion speeding up in the dark and slowing down as if under water. A visual lullaby to the chattering of the mind, it asks the mind to hush, be quiet, and be here now.
The sum total of Sunya is an invitation to leave the pedestrian world for an hour and enter a lush dreamlike space of spiritual energy. My inner monologue, trained to search for a savvy, modern insight to chew on, was silenced by the feeling of being close to this energy; it just felt good to be in the same space as the performance. An impressive piece of theatre which will no doubt inspire Diwali Fest to continue to invite theatrical artistry of Sunya’s caliber into its program for future years.
K.C. Novak is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing and Theatre at UBC.