November 29, 2011
Thoughts on Tushaanal Fires of Dry Grass
What does it mean for women of color to collectively perform their relationship to gold? Ananya Dance Theatre explores this question in their latest dance performance piece, Tushaanal Fires of Dry Grass. In the opening scene of Tushaanal Fires of Dry Grass, dancers engage the glitter of gold. Blanketed by a sheer golden coverlet, a dancer writhes underneath exposing the shimmer and sheen of shiny objects. By beginning their work with the allure of gold, Ananya Dance Theatre exposes what literally lies beneath the mining, production and consumption of gold. Second in a series on the systemic violence that affects women, gold is seen as an alluring resource that belies virulent exploitation. As the dancer writhes underneath the shimmering blanket of gold at the left of the stage, the other dancers perform to the right their conflicted relationship to the shimmering play. The dancers seem enticed and yet controlled in their movements. One is left to wonder what will come next and one has a sense that “all that glitters is not gold.”
With great skill in movement interspersed with spoken word and haunting music of women’s wails, Ananya Dance Theatre exposes how gold affects women. Some of the themes they explore are the lure of gold for power and status embodied in a story they tell about the Empress Dowager Cixi, gold as a source of oppression for women who work in the mines, gold as a lure of survival for sex workers who live around the mines, and gold as a form of control of women in dowry exchanges. What is impressive about Tushannal is not only the range of stories that Ananya Dance Theatre exposes in women’s relationship to gold, but also how these stories are artistically rendered. Starting form the Indian Odissi dance form as inspiration, the dancers combine several other traditions of dance, yoga and martial arts to create a syncretic form that speaks not only contemporaneity in dance but also solidarity in struggles. Unlike modern dance, which speaks of individual self-expression, Ananya Dance Theatre speaks of how women of color bodies inspire relationships based in unity.
I return to the question with which I began. What does it mean for women of color to collectively perform their relationship to gold? Ananya Dance Theatre builds not only an aesthetic vocabulary to express solidarities between women of color but a real dialogue about what brings women together and what separates them. Gold, as a natural resource much sought after, illustrates perfectly the idea that capitalist patriarchies generate competition between women over resources. What then does resistance to capitalist patriarchy mean in relation to gold? Women of color share in histories of colonial exploitation of the western world of non-western labor exploitation. Resistance, in this instance, means different things for different women. Sex workers around the mines have a different relation to the allure of gold then women who suffer from dowry exploitation, and yet if we come to the realization that these women’s stories are linked through the structures of capitalist patriarchy, we realize also that resistance may look different in these circumstances conditioned as they are by class and sexuality. Nevertheless, women in these circumstances may come to see how their resistance is linked rather than prioritizing their differences. This is the message that Ananya Dance Theatre communicates so well with its expressive movements but also how the group comes together to create such a piece of work.
Ananya Dance Theatre creates solidarities across women of color’s struggles by creating a strong woman-centered space. In this day and age where discussions of post-race and post-feminism pervade our culture, the importance of such a space is not to be overlooked. More than a movement vocabulary, Tushaanal creates a vocabulary for collectivities of resistance. Each dancer contributed to the piece through research and dialogue and the strong connections forged through that dialogue are reflected in the beautiful dance movements.
Ananya Chatterjea’s vision to create a woman of color dance group of women from different communities speaks to what is missing from racial and gendered discourses which privilege representation over inter-relationality. By having their voices heard loudly and clearly Ananya Dance Theatre is a space where each women of color performer can express her loving support, conflicted realities, and sympathies for other women. In this way, Ananya Dance Theatre is more than a performance group; it revises what performance and communication mean to people of color communities.
Kulvinder Arora is a cultural critic and Professor who teaches courses on transnational film, feminist theory and gender studies. She is currently working on a book project on positive representations of women of color in feature films that is provisionally tiled Plotting Resistance: Acts of Social Justice in Women of Color Films. In shifting the conversation to positive representations, she asks the question “How does viewing women of color resisting oppression rather than being victims of it alter social stereotypes?” By looking at women of color’s struggles across racial and ethnic communities, she argues that there is something productive in seeing similarities between women of color to build solidarities between them and yet important differences between nationalism, patriarchy and colonialism need to be recognized to see how women resist oppression differently.