Ananya Dance Theatre rehearsal excerpts celebrate democracy, freedom, and the pursuit of excellence. Music score by Spirit McIntyre. Bols and choreography by Ananya Chatterjea. Performed by Kealoha Ferreira, Alexandra Eady, Parisha Rajbhandari, Ananya Chatterjea, Laichee Yang, Lizzette Marie Chapa, Noelle Awadallah, and Alexis Araminta Reneé.
by Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director
On August 15, 2022, India will mark its 75th year as an independent, democratic nation!
I was delighted when the curators of the Indo-American Arts Council, sponsors of an important cultural festival in New York, invited Ananya Dance Theatre to be part of their celebrations marking this important milestone. In reply to the curators’ invitation, I detailed the thematic focus of the work I proposed to perform on August 6. The work takes its point of departure from the 1979 Morichjhnapi massacre of large numbers of Dalit communities in West Bengal, and explores stories of loss and displacement. The piece is a tribute to freedom seekers everywhere, something that seemed in line with a nation celebrating 75 years of freedom from British colonial rule. I shared detailed program notes that were posted to the festival’s website early in July.
In my mind, our dance, though entirely different from other pieces on the program in its explicit political orientation, was offering the best of what I have learned from my Indian, specifically Bengali, upbringing – aesthetic clarity and power, spiritual fervor, an unquenchable thirst for freedom – as embodied in the dancework.
In my artistic life, I have chiseled my dance-making as social justice choreography, nurtured by my growing years in Kolkata, India, and matured through my work with exceptional professionals, primarily Black and brown artists, who comprise the company, Ananya Dance Theatre. My artistic work is not literal story-telling; it is metaphoric contemporary dance. I believe that the curators understood all of this.
A contract was agreed to, flights from Minnesota to New York were booked, and hotel rooms reserved. Intense rehearsals in Saint Paul ensued. This Friday, we would have been en route to New York, celebrating democracy, artistic freedom, and artistic excellence.
Then, a month ago, the IAAC’s board of directors canceled our participation, calling it an “ABSOLUTE NO” for their “birthday party” because it did not fit the mood of the festival. In conversation, I shared that, while the dance was not an overt, “joyous celebration” of the nation as they encouraged, it certainly moved through loss and pain toward a reclamation of freedom.
I invited the directors to watch a rehearsal over Zoom, specifically to witness how my choreography of a resistance movement ends in an energetic circle dance that celebrates liberation everywhere. They demurred, and instead proceeded to censor my work by removing us from their website and erasing my artistic voice from their celebration.
Multivocality and dissent are traditional in a democracy, and the legacy of India, a nation that had once been hailed as the largest democracy in the world is, in fact, protest. However, it is pertinent to note that, in the 2022 ratings on the Human Freedom Index, India has slipped to 119th place. (https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/freedom-index-by-country)
As I look out at the broad field of dance and, in particular, Indian dance, I notice how tropes such as “spiritual,” “sacred,” “mythological,” and “holy,” are being deployed to assimilate “Indian dance” to a particular and narrow notion of Hinduism, which belies the rich syncretism and multiple voices that are inherent in our cultural fabric. Censorship is a stealthy, slippery slope that slides across borders, aggressively snuffing out spaces for dissent globally.
Ananya Dance Theatre and its work that draws from traditional Indian forms of Odissi dance, the martial art Chhau, and Vinyasa Yoga, will not be performing with other artists of the Indian diaspora in New York this weekend.
Instead, I share the accompanying brief excerpts from our rehearsals as my contribution to this celebration of democracy, freedom, and the pursuit of excellence. My choreography chooses to remember and uplift histories we are asked to forget, such that democracy and independence can be protected in years to come.
A celebration of Dancing Transnational Feminisms, hosted by Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s Department of Dance, with keynote addresses provided by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild and Thomas F. DeFrantz, and panel discussion lead by Alessandra Williams, Ananya Chatterjea, and Hui Niu Wilcox.
Published January 2022 by University of Washington Press and drawing from more than 15 years of collaborative dance-making and sustained dialogues based on deep alliances across communities of color, Dancing Transnational Feminismsoffers a multigenre exploration of how dance can be intersectionally reimagined as practice, methodology, and metaphor for feminist solidarity. Blending essays with stories, interviews, and poems, this collection explores timely questions surrounding race and performance, gender and sexuality, art and politics, global and local inequities, and the responsibilities of artists toward their communities.
Keynote Speaker: Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Professor Emerita of dance studies, Temple University
Keynote Speaker: Thomas F. DeFrantz, Research Professor in the Department of African and African American Studies, Duke University
Co-Author: Ananya Chatterjea, Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota, Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theatre
Co-Author: Hui Niu Wilcox, Professor of Sociology, Women’s Studies, and Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity at St. Catherine University
Co-Author: Alessandra Williams, Assistant Professor of Dance, Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts
Ananya Chatterjea is artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre, Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota, and author of her second book, Heat and Alterity in Contemporary Dance.
Hui Niu Wilcox, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology, Women’s Studies, and Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity at St. Catherine University, and was a dance artist with Ananya Dance Theatre from 2004 to 2020. Her research has been focused on sociology of dance especially in connection to immigrant identities, race/ethnicity, multiculturalism, and transnational feminisms.
Alessandra Williams is an assistant professor of dance at Rutgers University-New Brunswick who researches dance, transnational feminism and queer performance, and African American and Asian American culture. Her fellowships include the Inclusive Excellence Fellowship (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater 2018–19), Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellowship (University of California, Los Angeles 2010–14), and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (Macalester College 2005–07). She has performed with the Ananya Dance Theatre company. Her current book project explores queer sexuality, gender, and race through dances and films by David Roussève/REALITY dance company.
Members of Ananya Dance Theatre and two of their artistic collaborators take up a nine-day residency this week at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts. ADT was selected as one of eight artist residencies this winter and spring at the Pillow Lab, a year-round incubator of new work.
Spirit McIntyre | Photo by Isabel Fajardo
The company will use its time in Becket to begin development of Nūn Gherāo, a full-length work of dance theater responding to the 1978-79 massacre of 10,000 refugees from Bangladesh on Marichjhapi Island in West Bengal, India, and adjacent stories of genocide and eco-displaced communities. It will premiere in St. Paul, Minnesota in September.
Two collaborators joining the ADT dancers are composer, vocalist, and cellist Spirit McIntyre and writer and author Mimi Mondal.
McIntyre (they/them), from New Orleans, created the sound score for ADT’s 2021 production “Dastak: I Wish You Me” and is performing the work on the company’s U.S. tours during 2022. They use their voice and cello to blend Blues, Soul, Folk, Classical, Reggae, and Middle Eastern sounds into unique musical landscapes. McIntyre created SpiritWerks, a multi-disciplinary arts practice, and is the Compassionate Community Architect for Trans*Visible, a network that challenges Binarism and Cis-Sexism in social justice movements.
Mimi Mondal | Photo courtesy of Mimi Mondal
Mondal was born in Kolkata, India, and currently lives in New York City. She is the author of “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light,” which was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 2020. She has also co-edited the Locus Award-winning and Hugo Award-nominated nonfiction anthology “Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler,” and written a column titled “Extraordinary Alien” on Hindustan Times. Her shorter stories may be found in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction.
An informal showing of Nūn Gherāo will be live-streamed from the Pillow’s Perles Family Studio, Saturday, March 26, 2pm ET / 1pm CT: https://site-21495820.bcvp0rtal.com/ Password: pillowlab326
Lead support for the Pillow Lab is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Jacob’s Pillow is a National Historic Landmark, recipient of the National Medal of Arts, and home of America’s longest-running international dance festival, currently in the midst of its transition to becoming a year-round center for dance through a five-year strategic plan titled Vision 22. For more information, visit www.jacobspillow.org.
Among other activities during the pandemic, Ananya Dance Theatre and collaborating filmmaker Darren Johnson flexed their distribution muscles with four films and gained awards in the process.
While Ananya Dance Theatre takes The O’Shaughnessy stage on Oct. 30 to perform Dastak: I Wish You Me, its short film, Dastak: Fire will be presented at the Greensboro Dance Film Festival in North Carolina, and Ananya Chatterjea’s solo film the blues of my unravelling are laced with the salt of your memory will have its European premiere at the Florence Dance on Screen Festival in Italy.
This is the second time this fall that multiple festival screenings have coincided on the same date. On Sept. 24, Dastak: Fire was presented at both The London International Screen Dance Festival and the Sans Souci Festival of Dance Cinema in Colorado. The Sans Souci Festival also presented the solo short Listening Tree, featuring Chatterjea.
To date, a version of Dastak has been curated into eight film festivals on three continents. It was awarded Best Social Justice Film at the Silk Road Film Awards Cannes in France, and won three awards at the Tagore International Film Festival in Bolpur, India: Outstanding Achievement in a Short Film, Outstanding Achievement in Direction, and Best Editing.
A film adaptation of Ananya Dance Theatre and Tony the Scribe’s 2017 performance Just Breathe has screened at two festivals, was referenced with a photograph in the leading UK financial magazine The Economist, and will screen at the Soho London Independent Film Festival in November.
Two solo films, Listening Tree and the blues of my unraveling are laced with the salt of your memory, choreographed and performed by Chatterjea, will be screened by five prominent dance film festivals. the blues,featuring incantations by Sharon Bridgforth, score by Renée Copeland, and lighting by Mike Grogan, was commissioned by The National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron.
Here is a list of the screenings and awards:
DASTAK: The Film(complete film)
CHAKSU Dance Film Festival, Delhi, India, May 8, 2021
Northrop Auditorium 2021-22 Dance, Music + Film Series, Minneapolis MN, Oct. 8-15, 2021
Tagore International Film Festival, Bolpur, India, Aug. 27. 2021
• Outstanding Achievement in a Short Film
• Outstanding Achievement in Direction
• Best Editing
DASTAK: Fire (3rd Movement)
In/Motion – Chicago’s International Dance Film Festival, Chicago IL, Jan. 23, 2021
Sans Souci Festival of Dance Cinema, Boulder CO, Sept. 24, 2021
London International Screen Dance Festival, London UK, Sept. 24, 2021
Silk Road Film Awards Cannes, Cannes, France, Aug. 20, 2021
• Best Social Justice Film
Greensboro Dance Film Festival, Greensboro NC, Oct. 30, 2021
the blues of my unraveling are laced with the salt of your memory
National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron, Akron OH, June 19, 2021
Florence Dance on Screen Festival, Firenze, Italy, Oct. 30, 2021
IMMAGI]NA FILM FESTIVAL, Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy, Nov. 19-21, 2021
The Breath Project, Palo Alto CA, Oct. 24, 2020
Harlem International Film Festival, New York NY, May 14, 2021
The Soho London Independent Film Festival, London UK, Nov. 19, 2021
Dance on Camera 48, New York NY, July 18, 2020
kNOwBOX Dance Film Festival, Dallas TX, Aug. 7, 2021
Sans Souci Festival of Dance Cinema, Boulder CO, Sept. 24, 2021
Ananya Dance Theatre’s Shawngram Institute for Performance & Social Justice is a place of just-dancing. It is a women of color-centered space of embodied practice where dancing engages us in healing. We regularly offer classes and workshops in the aesthetic and working methodology of our company, and share our belief in choreography as a mode of shining light on seldom-seen stories through various activities. “Shawngram” means resistance in Bangla. For us, Shawngram is a philosophy that allows us to stick to the ground even as we resist injustices and aspire toward community, healing, and beauty through art-making.
Mailing Address: P. O. Box 2427, Minneapolis, MN 55402-0427
Street Address: 1197 University Avenue West, Saint Paul, MN 55104
Carlton Turner is all about creating narratives: true narratives that challenge lazy assumptions about the world and what art and artists are—narratives that confront false limitations on what art can say and how it can change the world. Since 2001, Turner has worked with Alternate ROOTS, a regional arts membership organization based in Atlanta; he is now its executive director. He brings to the job a combination of skills: fundraising, arts administration, experience as a touring artist, community activism, and fostering artists and culture-makers. He keeps an eye on history and society in order to catalyze conversations and progressive ideas. The goal: to create a new narrative about culture. Arleta Little, arts program officer for the McKnight Foundation, says: “For me, Carlton demonstrates the capacity of culture to craft character and to create community.”
Carlton, Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre in the Twin Cities, has said that in addition to being deeply supportive of artists, you are “more than an artist, [you are] a platform builder.” Do you think that description fits?
When she says platform, it fits—in terms of creating platforms for changing age-old conversations. We are talking about shifting policy, equity in the arts; about understanding colonialism and looking at long-term racial disparities and how those things have an impact on arts ecosystems.
Are you a working artist now?
Part of my current role is as a touring and a working artist. Part of my work is to maintain my identity as an artist. It helps me to maintain integrity—what the work is about. The further I get away from that, the more I drift away from being an advocate for artists. That’s why I continue to engage my skills as an artist and pursue the development of things that speak to my soul.
If platform fits, what are some of those platforms? How do they fit in today’s landscape of arts and society?
In the world of yesterday, we were working from a singular narrative, and arts have been, to this point, advanced on that singular narrative. All voices were not honored with the same equity and on the same platform.
Today, the conversations have to be a little more based in analysis—analysis of how capitalism works, how patriarchy works, how government works, and how movements work. What we are dealing with today is based on a continuum of issues and challenges that have never been reconciled. That is evidenced by what happened at Standing Rock, for example—invaded and burned to the ground and people arrested.
You mention Standing Rock and talk a lot about intersectionality. Where do you see the intersections today? Where is the best leverage for change?
Intersectionality is the place where we find strength, find the challenges and interconnectedness. It is where I find that my own challenges [as a person of color] are connected to age, LGBT, gender, and other issues.
Hopefully, intersectionality helps us put an end to the competitive “oppression Olympics.” We are working to associate, understand, and connect the oppression I experience with other peoples’ oppression. This is contrary to the way that capitalism deals with communities and society and helps us realize what democracy means.
We also have to look at the role of philanthropy. Working intersectionally is difficult when the philanthropic sector has siloed issues. Often, they see their work as [finding] solutions to individual issues, working in individual communities, without solving the underlying issues. Doing this is a false promise.
Today, philanthropy is cut off from activist roots. Our work continues to be intersectional and to be a recasting of the narrative of the United States into one that is about imperialism and the occupation of indigenous land. Our work is interconnected in an ecosystem of change in which we are seeing communities that struggle as extensions of ourselves rather than “other.” This is the front line of cultural transformation.
What are you working on today to address this?
What I am most excited about is working with the Intercultural Leadership Institute, in which Alternate ROOTS has joined with the First Peoples Fund, the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, and the PA’I Foundation. It’s a collection of 30 Fellows from around the country, peer experts who are building an intercultural experience that allows us to move into spaces with a more pluralistic understanding of our existence. In our work, we realize that our identity is not complete without the others around us.
The Institute brings together arts leaders from different communities to look at and honor leadership development in ways that are not framed by the dominant culture. We travel to different locations around the country to gain community wisdom that can uplift. We pay a lot of attention to the ways in which a lot of different leadership cultures think of the land, for example.
This is a significant shift in how we see our relationship to our surroundings. If you are building policies around the land, what you get is very different from a policy that values profit over people. Now is the first time communities of color and indigenous peoples are defining leadership on their own terms. This operates from a very different premise: our cultural practices that don’t always get to lead the way.
In the context of this developing and emerging intersectional movement, what purpose do art and culture serve?
Art and culture are informing, framing, and delivering ideas. Art and culture have a transformative ability to change ideas. It is a response to a “white-washed” America that’s produced overkill, in Baltimore, Charleston, Ferguson, and Standing Rock. We have found ourselves backed into a corner like a cornered black panther—out on a limb or out of our minds.
It is about connecting historically relevant events to what is happening today. Acknowledging that history is to confront the fact that, in order for there to be an America, there had to be a resource, slave labor, to secure an economic future. Acknowledging that many of us were slaves until 1865 and didn’t get to vote until 100 years later—and that all of this was backed up with a fictitious narrative of normalcy.
We are responding to the premise of the historical “three-fifths citizenship” allowed to African Americans, [which has been] cemented in our psyche; this concept of a second-class citizenry. Our work is actively demanding that we be seen and heard; it’s saying we are human. It’s about performing in the streets as well as changing the public perception of who gets to perform on stage.
We are challenging the notion of who the arts are for. When I was asked to respond to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts at NEA in 2009, what I laid out was how the survey was flawed. It looked at opera, symphony, and dance, and how people are consuming art in those venues. In reality, it’s difficult to find a community that does not have artistic practice embedded in its culture. These practices in these broad communities are involved in how we make meaning out of this journey we are on as human beings. But the arts infrastructure only holds up a few selected works or practices as being valid, worthy of the museum show or the big concert hall.
Much of the [philanthropic and arts administration world] has promoted change, but most of it was superficial. It was never intended to change the structure. [It’s like when, in] Mississippi, we were integrating children into a school system that was still run by the white supremacist structure; it didn’t put a dent in segregation, and it affirmed the power structure.
Today’s challenge is that we don’t have enough discourse with each other to come to a collective assessment of how these systems impact our lives. It’s difficult to have conversations with our white neighbors, because they are the recipients of the faulty information created by politics as a form of theater: faux journalism that fixates the public on fear and safety. It’s performance propaganda.
How do we bring about radical change to the systems so as to create ones that are not just a reflection of the times in which they were built? We keep asking ourselves, what is the role of arts? And as Martin Luther King Jr. might ask, what are we risking?
Clarence Whiteis a writer who is also an editor, publicist, and contributor to the Saint Paul Almanac. His publications include “Smart Enough for Ford,” in the anthology Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
This article was written for and posted by Arts in a Changing America, a five-year initiative that seeks to explore and understand the dramatic demographic transformation of the United States and its profound impact on arts and culture, led by Roberta Uno and based out of the California Institute of the Arts.
This is a shout out to artists of color committed to working in a progressive paradigm, through a non-mainstream aesthetic: Thank you for doing the work you do, despite the lack of resources, the crushing responses from grants, and for keeping on going, somehow, when it seems you will never see light of day, for making something emerge from nothing.
Let this be a platform for gathering many, many stories, where we can see each other. Let us create an avalanche that gathers tremendous energy and ultimately moves us towards collective visibility.
“When a purportedly objective and neutral process or system constantly produces racial inequities, then that process is neither objective nor neutral. It is simply that the biases built into that process or system are not recognized or have not been unmasked.”
-David Mura, writer & arts activist
As a choreographer working deliberately to bring stories, experiences of girls and women from global communities of color, into performance, I recognize this struggle and its crushing effect on our bodies and minds and our ability to continue. I am tired of the systemic refusal to understand nuance and difference within our work and the use of “representation” of an anointed few as a replacement for real conversations about equity.
I am not talking simply about the denial of grants from behind an opaque wall of “criteria” variously constructed—which a broad base of artists can identify with. Nor am I talking about the difference between how the system of arts funding regards smaller community-based arts organizations and large mainstream white-identified institutions. And, I understand that different consequences and ratings along the “popularity index” will result when artists choose either (a) to craft artistic processes that might not be validated by huge audiences or media attention, but are asking urgent, transformative questions, or (b) to produce art experiences that draw in lots of audiences and attention, often representing diverse aesthetics, but focused on entertainment.
Rather, I am talking about the ways in which artists from different communities of color become racialized and positioned in different ways and how we constantly get knocked down when we refuse to play along. We see it in the ways that little concrete feedback is offered for failed grants, in that trailing off of the voice, “when it comes to the work samples, unfortunately…”; we see it in the sideways look of curators and decision-makers who say “yes, yes, it’s just that we’re not looking for your kind of work…”; we see it in the avoidance of conversations about the art itself, the dismissive or non-responses that re-emphasize power positions.
I know how hard it is not to internalize the sinking feeling of “not quite good enough” despite all the other affirmations that you have earned in your journey thus far. It is almost impossible to gather up the pieces of your emotional wreckage, put a hint of steel in your voice, and ask how a certain “kind” of work that is admittedly prioritized came to be determined as the gold standard.
I also mean to refocus the lens of my argument here on the marginalization of progressive Asian American art-making under the enduring legacy of tired visions of multiculturalism. AAPI [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] artists are most often commandeered to speak in the voice of “tradition,” and thus mark and re-remark our own consumable difference in contemporary art. Or we are applauded for our ability to participate in mainstream aesthetics—repeat classical canons in our languages so to speak—and thus reaffirm the power of Euro-American categories to contain many different kinds of bodies. Generally, the price of such inclusion is the obligatory performance of gratitude, and its cost is the demonstrated “failure” of any charge of racism.
I have said this in so many ways: Othello through the lens of Kathakali, for instance, is great, but I just don’t want to do it. I want to create my own stories in my own terms and choreograph them in my own movement aesthetic. I don’t want to create in translation.
“It’s not about knocking on closed doors. It’s about building our own house and having our own door.”
-Ava Duvernay, filmmaker, 2012
I say this in a context where different racializations of artists of color, all struggling for visibility, has meant occasional opportunities for representation, often hand-outs from neo-liberal policies of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” masquerading as benevolence. Often individuals in AAPI and all poc communities are called into the halls of privilege for their “extraordinary” work. While it is imperative to celebrate the talent and hard work of individuals, let us refuse the ways in which institutional “exceptionalism” is deployed only to divide and belittle. It is a powerful amnesiac, making us forgetful of the communities that have stood by us and made our work possible.
Yet I know that many artists who refuse binarized categories that leave no room for progressive art-making practices. These artists, to whom this post is dedicated, are on the ground, creating alternative paradigms that offer nuanced space for difference, for understanding how the intersecting axes of race-, gender-, sex-, class-, nationality-based hierarchies land on our skin. They do so with little resources because systems of arts funding and presenting are skewed and they cannot fulfill the entertainment/tradition/multiculturalism checkboxes. They do so despite struggling to find “belonging” in communities whose support might mean the difference between sustainability and impossible survival.
“The calls I am getting are from educators, not from curators.”
–Wing Young Huie, prize-winning visual artist, who works with photography to document untold stories of marginalized communities. Huie was responding to a question, after an inspiring presentation of his work, about how he manages his projects.
AAPI artists are often expected to work with “community,” which many of us are committed to doing because we value our location inside these contexts, but we differ on what “community” means. The systems in which we function expect us to understand “community” in narrow, fossilized, ways that directly align us only with the people of our racial and cultural heritage. Yet, we have always known that communities, and people within them, are complex, and we often find affinities across the borders imposed on us, with folks from other communities of color, or from other parts of the world, for instance. These synergies, where we have to understand difference, power, collaboration, in our own terms, grow us as artists and move us forward in our artistry. Yet, these relationships seem to have little of the power that is afforded to more resourced collaborations between white/mainstream artists and “others,” and to relationships that are brokered by decision-makers.
I have tired of saying it repeatedly: South Asia is not the space-holder for fantasies about ritual and tradition (where all performance must be “classical” and “divine”), or desire for entertainment (the ubiquitous presence of Bollywood). Our feet have grown weary in protests outside big organizations, refusing the scripting of Asian Americans through the racist tropes of Ms. Saigon and South Pacific—apparently the only ways in which AAPI artists can participate in these highly-resourced productions. It is time to focus on rejuvenation as we claim the razor-edge of revolutionary art-making.
I began this post to clearly lay out the systemic ways in which our self-confidence, our valuation of our work, are diminished, and to encourage us to find other ways, albeit with little or no resources attached to them, to see each other in the work we do. If the institutions that make decisions do not see the kinds of work we are doing to transform the communities and spaces in which we are located, it is on them.
I salute all of you for your relentless keeping on, artistically speaking. I implore all of us to remember the wounds we have all had imprinted on our bodies, and refuse the isolation that would keep us disempowered. I commit to seeing my comrades in this long drawn-out journey that is our lifework and invite us all to do the same. Let us see each other’s work as much as we can. Let us know more about each other’s work so we can advocate for each other when we have an opportunity. Let us think through each other’s work with care and offer meaningful critique that can help us all grow. #wallofresistance #turningoureyes #seeingeachother
I want to urge us to talk about the aesthetics of our work, our notions of beauty, our embodiments of line. Let us talk about how we structure meaning in metaphoric forms, and also how certain kinds of abstraction seem easier for mainstream absorption than others. Let us talk about ways to counter the seemingly benign racism of multicultural inclusion, where representation often comes at the cost of certain kinds of erasures and translations. I mean no criticism of AAPI and other poc artists who want to take on and excel in choreographic structures and movements forms that originated in white mainstream culture. I simply am asking for space for irreducible difference, marked in bodies and themes, and in aesthetic frames and structures of meaning-making. I urge us to remember that beauty can be recalcitrant, can allow us access in certain kinds of pleasure and joy, the syntax of differently knowing the world and artistic world-making. Let us talk together about our complicated navigations through cultural practices marked as “Tradition” and innovative creative methodologies, mostly unmarked but always signifying white, Euro-American legacies.
I had once planned a coming together of artists of color where we would see each other’s work and develop a language for talking about each other’s work. The idea was to use the powerful tool of social media to infuse knowledge about each other’s work into the mainstream. I didn’t succeed in getting resources to make these meetings happen, so I faltered on the project. But it is time to plan the first version of this: the AAPI artist summit for advocacy, where I want to invite progressive AAPI artists to speak about each other’s work powerfully. The web is a powerful space to meet in lieu of physical meetings. I will call out to artists whose work I know or want to get to know better to build the base for this forum.
Ananya Chatterjea is an art-maker, artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre: People Powered Dances of Transformation™, and Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota.
Stretching the practice of rasa (emotional expression) from Indian classical dance theater, Ananya Dance Theatre artists invoke the aesthetic of the Dakini in performance. Tantric Hinduism imagines the Dakini as a wrathful female spirit, dancing with frenzy and ferocity. While the Dakini traditionally embodies destruction, chaos, and transformation, her force ultimately captures the union of emptiness and wisdom. This duality is seen in our generation of Aanch (heat) when fast and furious dancing echoes histories of devastation and depletion, followed by images of rebirth, sustained breath, and fluid movements.
Dakini is infused inside of our work and emerges from juxtaposing stories of different women’s individual and collective struggles against tremendous injustices. Charged with laying bare the experiences of such pain and trauma, ADT performers imbue our technique, Yorchha, with overwhelming dramatic effect, breaking classical equanimity and the expected neatness of presentational conventions. Harnessing emotional and performative excess, the Dakini energy is expelled from the performers through large gestures, big spinal movements, tremors and shaking torsos, references to oozing bodily fluids, wide open mouths, tangled hair, and deconstructed costumes.
The qualities of the Dakini contrasts with the spirit of the gentle warrior, marked by precise footwork, specific alignment, and yogic extensions that are part of our signature style. Both aesthetics are core to ADT’s philosophy and complement one another, maximizing the complex expressivity to articulate the range of experiences of women of color, layered with struggle, pain, courage, joy, exhaustion, love, and exhilaration.
The Dakini and gentle warrior aesthetics in our work offer unique pathways into the poetry and power of dance. Dakini allows us to reimagine beauty as the strong center, the core energetic lock inside of our bodies, supporting the performance of chaos expressed through vigorous and provocative movements. The gentle warrior recognizes beauty in classically inspired shapes and harmonious rhythms.
Dakini lives in the possibilities of audiences’ and performers’ discomfort and insists that the role of women’s rage and their spiritual ecstasy be seen in the arc towards equity. This tumult resolves through our choreography of connection and reminds us that the artful pursuit of justice is often uncomfortable and difficult, promising a greater sense of community when working together.
– Ananya Chatterjea with Michele Steinwald, Gary Peterson, Gina Kundan
Elena Catalano is an odissi practitioner and a social anthropologist who teaches dance at Kingston University. She has been searching for a theoretical framework in which to anchor her practice and came across a model she wanted to explore, proposed by Ananya Chatterjea.
Ananya Chatterjea (at right), Kingston upon Thames. Photo by Simon Richardson
– By Elena Catalano
I met Ananya Chatterjea for the first time in 2009 while searching for bibliographic resources on Indian classical dance. She was there on the pages of her book speaking of choreographies of resistance, weaving a feminist reading of Chandralekha’s work. At that time my personal journey with odissi had just begun. I had learned a few basic moves, but I was unfamiliar with Indian classical dance at large, and even less with the politics that had created and sustained its aesthetics. Yet, the complexity of the style and the challenges it posed fascinated and motivated me to deepen my understanding of the form.
It was in this attempt to know more about odissi and to confront my new-born passion with a dance style apparently so alien to my cultural background that I entered into a conversation, albeit for long more imaginary than real, with Ananya Chatterjea. I started to talk to her through her writings and discuss with her through the clips of her choreographic works. More recently, I introduced and discussed her work with my dance students at Kingston University. Ananya’s voice and bodiliness have long haunted my relationship with odissi in a consistent, although indirect and sometimes even troubled way.
Ananya, who is now Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota and Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theatre, is not only one of the very few academics to have extensively trained in odissi; she is also an active practitioner and a rigorous intellectual who carefully appraises the pernicious effects of established narratives and everyday vocabulary. In her numerous writings, she confronts the patriarchal underpinnings of traditional aesthetics. In her choreographic practice, she endorses the voices and experiences of women of colour.
Ananya Chatterjea, Kingston upon Thames. Photo by Simon Richardson
Ananya contests several aspects of the traditional aesthetics, yet she is committed to developing a contemporary language that refuses the cultural imperialism of Western contemporary dance. Ananya is an activist and a feminist who uses her artistic practice as a tool for provoking social awareness and change. She has developed a very personal movement vocabulary, Yorchha, which, while rooted in the classical form of odissi, chhau and yoga, is compelling, fearless and unique in its results. Her choreographic work sits now at the margin of both the classical and the contemporary dance scenes, although quite resistant to fitting easily into any of these categories.
When I met Ananya for the first time through the pages of her writings and the clips of her choreographies, I felt at the same time deeply fascinated and somehow unsettled by her bold and brave statements. As a Western woman, trained as an adult in India, I did not feel particularly inclined to political and even less to feminist arguments. However, Ananya’s articles were explicitly confronting me, posing difficult questions, provoking further uneasiness in my already uneasy embodiment of the form. Her voice was haunting the relationship with my guru, the embodiment of the vocabulary, the learning of the classical repertoire, my daily practice. Perhaps Ananya was questioning the innocence of my passion for odissi. She was forcing me to wonder about the dynamics of power I was involved in, and even generating, as a white Western woman training in India.
Then, this year I had the opportunity to organise an Odissi Summer School at Kingston University. The school included traditional repertoire workshops led by Monica Singh. However I felt it was crucial that Ananya was somehow part of it. Despite being ground-breaking, Ananya’s choreographic work was surprisingly unknown to most idissi dance practitioners I had met. I wanted participants to be shaken and inspired by a woman who fearlessly pushed the boundaries of the dance form from within, through a physical and intellectual engagement with its aesthetics, holding a serious, sustained and politically-aware standpoint.
Ananya Chatterjea (at right), Kingston upon Thames. Photo by Simon Richardson
Ananya was invited to give a lecture and a master-class as part of the Odissi Summer School. She talked about her journey within the dance form, growing up in the busy streets of Kolkata, under the traditional guru-shishya system. She then explained how the contrast between the glossing aesthetics of the dance and the harsh reality of Indian urban life made her feel uneasy with the traditional form and training system. She talked about how she became sensitive to the experience of women in Indian patriarchal society, and how after moving to the USA, she began to research the dance form and develop her own technique and choreographic language, inspired by street theatres and other Indian bodily vocabularies. Then, in the master-class, Ananya taught some of the basic principles of Yorchha, and a challenging excerpt from her own repertoire. It was with this dance material that we really had a first-hand understanding of the distinctive way she uses the body and energy in movement and her pedagogical approach to training. While physically and emotionally challenging, Ananya’s work provoked in all of us a new ay of understanding our relationship with the dance form and with our own practice.
Ananya’s contribution to the odissi world is greater than most are ready to understand and recognise. Her choreographic work should be showcased in the UK, and odissi dancers who are willing to explore the creative potential of this dance form should have the opportunity to work with Ananya. There is little doubt that her work will inspire many who want to fly outside the little cosy but somehow narrow cage the odissi community has created for itself.
The Ethiopian Theater Professionals Association, organizers of the festival, created a video documentary of the four days of activity, September 24-27. Other organizers included the Addis Ababa University College of Performing & Visual Arts, Ethiopian National Theatre, Sundance Institute East African Theater Program Ethiopian Alumni, and Performance Studies International.
Artists from 11 countries attended Crossing Boundaries: Tanzania, South Sudan, Egypt, Rwanda, United States, Burundi, Ethiopia, Israel, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan.
In fall 2015, the Humanities Institute at Scripps College, Claremont, California, sought to address and confront some of the devastating effects of intersecting forms of violence committed against people of marginalized identities in contemporary United States.
In spring 2016, the Institute welcomed scholars and artists who use their skills, intellects, and talents to further discussions of systemic and overt oppressive violence, to further the work of dismantling systems of inequality and social injustice, and to provide pathways to how activism and social justice can better shape our world.
Ananya Dance Theatre was invited to participate in performance and residency activities, Feb. 5-8, 2016.
February 6 Garrison Theater, Scripps College Performing Arts Center
Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine
Garrison Theater, Scripps College
In a performance that celebrates the intersection of classical Indian and folk dance traditions, street theater, and social justice, and that places women artists of color at the center, Ananya Dance Theatre presented Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine at the Garrison Theater.
February 7 Richardson Dance Studio
Community Dialogue: Ananya Chatterjea
Contemporary Artistic/Cultural Production in an Era of Police States, Race Violence, and Corporate Globalization
Ananya Chatterjea, ADT’s artistic director, and the artists in the company identify as cultural activists who create “people powered dances of transformation™.” Ryan Hagan, writing for the San Bernardino Sun, related the discussion of 34 dancers with Chatterjea and her company about the role of dance, social justice, and activism.
Richardson Dance Studio
Choreographing Identity: Dancing Our Stories
In this workshop, co-sponsored by the Office of Dean of Students, participants worked through games and embodied exercises to create a sense of community and connection, and with improvised movement and text to create choreographies that shared the participants’ stories. This particular exploration was based on the theme of healing at a time of violence.
The program of ADT activities was presented in partnership with the Alexa Fullerton Hampton ’42 Endowed Speaker Fund, Scripps College Humanities Institute, the Office of the President and Board of Trustees at Scripps College, Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment, President’s Advisory Committee of Diversity and Inclusion, Scripps College Anthropology Department, Scripps College Hispanic Studies Department, Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities,s Asian American Student Union, Pacific Basin Institute (Pomona College), Asian Studies Program (Pomona College), Office of International Initiatives (Pomona College), and the 7 College Asian American Advisory Board.
“My works … are infused with a spirit of resilience where dancers fail, suffer losses, fall to the ground again and again, are repeatedly reborn, and re-commit to life-forces, building energy and rumblings of change.”
– By Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director
The dynamic intersections of auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, and overflowing public buses on Kolkata streets/ high-energy drumming during the festival of goddess Durga/ long lines of political processions obstructing traffic for hours/ the fragrance of jasmine flowers tangled in hair after rehearsal/ heated political arguments inside coffeeshops, shape my work, bringing tension and angularity to my practice of flow.
“Kshoy! / Decay!” 2010
Like those streets, where a multinational bank stands beside a small, broken-down shrine and women’s groups perform street theater at the bus stop outside my guru’s classical dance studio, my urban aesthetic is imbued with spiritual possibilities, and my work is in dialogue with the secular and the political. My commitment to choreographing women’s stories and themes of social justice took form as I walked the protest-rich streets of Kolkata, hearing, in memory, my mother’s songs about the dreams she longed to have fulfilled.
This dense landscape, whose rhythms and quick turns of events contest each other, where one’s journeys are filled with sweat, resignation, and grit, is my experience of urbanity. This way of knowing the world, typical of the postcolonial global south, is embedded in my consciousness, and fractures the classical rhythms and idealized harmony in which I was trained. And so, in some ways, my current work is very different from my beginnings as a classical dancer, an exponent of Odissi. From a different perspective, my work today is integrally connected to the core philosophy of those traditional practices.
“Ashesh Barsha: Unending Monsoon” 2009
Caught between the beauty of the classical dance and the urgency of street theater of which I was part, I left my path as Odissi dancer in search of dance that could speak to my realities. But my experiences had crafted my consciousness in important ways: I became an unwavering teller of women’s stories. One day, in rehearsal for a classical piece about the divine lovers, Radha and Krishna, we were waiting for one of the lead dancers. When she finally stumbled into rehearsal, she was black and blue, assaulted by a husband jealous of the publicity she was receiving. Stunned, I asked Guruji how she could dance about romantic love when she had just experienced its failure. Guruji’s response was non-committal: In the classical world, we dance the ideal. Since then, and through time, my commitment has been to telling the stories of everyday women in their daily lives, stories of struggle, resilience, and courage.
Yet, as I crafted Yorchha™, my new language of contemporary Indian dance, I realized that while I wanted to move away from a classical worldview, static notions of tradition, and depictions of women as goddesses, mothers, or lovers, my classical training offered a powerful beginning for creating a contemporary dance vocabulary that located the movement aesthetic in my specific cultural context. Yorchha™ is marked by an interweaving of the upper body spirals and curvilinear balances of the Odissi, the breath flow and spinal extensions of vinyasa yoga, and the hip shifts and pelvic floor extensions of Chhau. The remix and dialogue of these movement principles creates a contemporary dance language rooted in indigenous concepts of the body, feminist and feminine at the same time.
Training in Indian dance generally does not include overt instruction in choreography; thus, I spent many years identifying the principles that had been used to create traditional repertoire. Researching the way my guru’s guru created and taught new pieces as part of the 1960’s revival of Odissi, I realized that a core principle is the invocation of a layered emotional landscape. My work reimagines and extends the choreographic methodology of such expressive abhinaya pieces, juxtaposing multiple metaphoric non-linear narratives to suggest the complexity of human experience.
Marked by emotional landscapes unfolding through rhythmic structures, my choreography riffs off of classical time cycles to hit jagged beats and unevenly juxtaposed time signatures. The interrupted phrasings that organize my choreography, through footwork, breath, and internal vibration, articulate an urban contemporary landscape and the philosophy of Shawngram™, struggle and resistance as an active daily force, at the core of my work.
In the dances I make, Shawngram™ articulates confrontation, devastation, and trauma in stories about the fight for justice. It leads me to search for moments of ensemble work, women dancing together, emanating power through their footwork. Shawngram™ infuses my work with a spirit of determination, where women from global communities of color battle barriers in their lives with courage. Yorchha™ embodies this aspiration and struggle, refusing idealized beauty, refracting traditional vocabularies, and intersecting their movement principles in unusual ways to create complex expressive possibilities.
The intersection of the technique of Yorchha™ with the philosophy of Shawngram™ creates dancing that is infused with desire for beauty and justice. This I describe as Aanch, heat. Heat flows in the directed energy of dancing to audiences, calling them into the work. This call to action, Daak, is always part of my choreography, where audiences are invited to move with the dancers in structured participatory experiences. Such moments, where different bodies with different histories share dancing and negotiate their paths amid strangers, affirm my belief in dance’s power to move hearts and build community.
“Neel: Blutopias of Radical Dreaming” 2014
Leading audiences into making movement meaningful and connected to their lives is my practice of #occupydance. In concert experiences, I invite audiences to join the performers at specific moments, with simple gestural language, in the hope that it remains within the muscle memory of audiences, sparking questions later on. Differently, my “performance installations” are built on the premise of audience interaction. The space is choreographed very particularly, audiences are given clear directions, which they might interpret in different ways, and my dancers must improvise within the movement aesthetic and intention, while responding to audiences. This work has been more difficult to document because of media permissions and the interruptions that happen when cameras enter the thick of people dancing.
“Mohona: Estuaries of Desire” 2013
My evening-length works are built through the exploration of a social justice theme. The creative process is initiated by research and conversations with leaders from global women of color communities, which creates space for sharing stories and movement. These #Spinespin conversations spark the choreographic process and build alliances with the broader community of women who I invite into my work.
My work often juxtaposes contesting narratives to unravel themes. These stories are partly remembered, partly researched, and mostly imagined. I define my dancers as cultural activists and encourage them to develop ownership of the stories, perform them with power, and see themselves as crucial agents of research and community engagement. The creative process includes dialogues, workshops and rigorous rehearsal, quickening the relationships among dancers. Dancing together while celebrating our differences is vital and nuanced labor and reminds us of our shared beliefs and the real possibility of transformation.
“Aahvaan: Invoking the Cities” 2015 • Some members of cast & production team preparing a commissioned work for The Ordway Center • Photo by Alice Gebura
Because my dances tell stories of an ensemble of women who come from “everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” and are as much about individual as community experiences, ensemble work embedded with individual voices is vital in my choreography. Dancing together and performing unison choreography are important values in the work, as are respect for different approaches to the material, different body types, and different backgrounds of the dancers. This difference-in-togetherness principle also supports the multiple narratives that often run parallel, merge, or comment upon each other in the choreography.
My works seldom reside in a settled sense of happiness or beauty. Rather, their structures are infused with a spirit of resilience where dancers fail, suffer losses, fall to the ground again and again, are repeatedly reborn, and re-commit to life-forces, building energy and rumblings of change. This spirit leads me to multi-year works, where I invest in understanding the multiple aspects of an issue over time. This sustained, embodied investigation is my way of celebrating and archiving little known histories of women of color.
“Ananya Dance Theatre traveled thousands of miles to Addis Ababa to celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations between the US and Ethiopia. I can’t imagine a more fitting representative of my district than ADT, and I’m so proud that their hard work has given them the opportunity to share their craft with people all over the world.” –Keith Ellison, Member of Congress, MN-5, September 28, 2015
Ananya Dance Theatre at U.S. Embassy Reception, Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa. Sept. 24, 2015. Photo by U.S. Embassy
Ananya Dance Theatre performed at a reception for alumni of educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Ethiopia, at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa, Thursday, September 24, 2015.
The reception was hosted by the U.S. Embassy as part of a month-long series of activities celebrating 75 years of U.S.–Ethiopia educational and cultural exchanges.
David Kennedy, the embassy’s Public Affairs Officer, introduced Ambassador Patricia Haslach, who delivered welcoming remarks.
ADT at Crossing Boundaries Festival opening ceremony, Sept. 24, 2015. Photo by Crossing Boundaries Ethiopia
Burnsville, Minnesota, native Learned Dees, the embassy’s Cultural Affairs Officer, introduced Ananya Dance Theatre and its 15-minute performance.
The performance included a sung poem linking the Mississippi and Nile rivers, and dancers circulating throughout the ballroom inviting attendees to “Dance with us!” Many, including Ambassador Haslach, did so.
Reception attendees included Mulatu Astatke, the “godfather of Ethiopian jazz.”
ADT members with Mulatu Astatke, “godfather of Ethiopian jazz.” Sept. 24, 2015. Photo by James Davies
Following the reception, Artistic Director Ananya Chatterjea and the company appeared at the opening ceremonies of the Crossing Boundaries Festival & Conference, held at the Ethiopian National Theatre.
Ananya Dance Theatre presented the festival’s keynote performance, “Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine,” at National Theatre, Friday, September 25. “Roktim” received its world premiere just a week earlier at The O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul, September 19.
Amin Abdulkadir, Ethiopia’s Minister of Culture & Tourism, attended ADT’s performance and hosted all festival performers afterward at a dinner at Totot Traditional Restaurant.
Learned Dees, Burnsville, MN, native and Cultural Affairs Director, U.S. Embassy Ethiopia, and Ananya Chatterjea. Sept. 24, 2015. Photo by James Davies
The ADT company arrived in Addis Ababa, Monday, September 21, and conducted a variety of workshops throughout the week. The visit was sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
ADT workshop with Destino Dance Company, Sept. 22, 2015. Photo by Gary Peterson
Tuesday, at the U.S. Embassy, dancers engaged in hours-long conversation and movement dialogue with 14 women, all law students from Addis Ababa University and members of the Yellow Movement, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of, and to change attitudes and behaviors that result in violence against women.
ADT workshop with faculty and students at Addis Ababa University graduate theater program. Sept. 23, 2015. Photo by Gary Peterson
The company also conducted a joint workshop at the Addis Ababa Theater and Culture Hall with members of the Destino Dance Company, an Ethiopian ensemble established to help underprivileged young people develop their potential through dance.
On Wednesday, dancers conducted a workshop with faculty and students from the graduate theater program at the Cultural Arts Center of Addis Ababa University.
Members of ADT and the Yellow Movement with staff of ASWAD, a shelter for women and children. Sept. 28, 2015. Photo by Blen Sahilu
On Saturday, September 26, the company attended conference plenary sessions at the Goethe Institute of Addis Ababa University. Chatterjea participated in a roundtable discussion, “Movement, Ideas and Bodies,” with Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, Ph.D., Director of AAU’s Gebre Kristos Desta Center, and Mshaï Mwangola, Ph.D., Research and Communications Officer, The African Peacebuilding Network Hub (APN-Hub).
Saturday evening activities included a Food Art Performance by Konjit Siyoum at the Asni Gallery.
Dancing at ASWAD, a shelter for women and children. Sept. 28, 2015. Photo by Blen Sahilu
On Monday, September 28, members of the Yellow Movement took the company to visit the women and girls of ASWAD, a shelter for women and child survivors of gender based violence.
The company returned to the U.S. on September 29.
The Crossing Boundaries Festival & Conference was organized by the Ethiopian Theatre Professionals Association, Addis Ababa University College of Performing & Visual Arts, and Sundance Institute East Africa Theater Program Alumni.
To occupy dance is to fill dance with the materiality of unlikely bodies.
It is to remember that dance is a legacy of the commons, shared by us all, and entrance to dance and the joys and transformations the practice offers is not dependent on passports and visas.
To occupy dance is to fill it in unusual ways so it cannot be hijacked for a narrow understanding that is predicated upon exclusions.
To occupy dance is to fill (a) professional dance with bodies of color who embody an alternative dance practice and non-normative ideas of beauty and line, and who often find themselves on the outside, looking in; and (b) a general practice of dance with the unlikely bodies of audiences, witnesses, passers-by who are invited to let the dance touch their bodies.
#OccupyDance is based on the yogic idea of the sacredness of the body and the weight of every thing: anything that goes in the body impacts it in some way.
If a movement is embodied by audiences, in community with performers, we believe that it stays in their muscle memories, in their kinesthetic frames, returning later to provoke questions, and ripple through their consciousness, inflecting their daily life practices.
If we have danced together, shared movement, space, and rhythm; if we have woven our bodies around and through each other without treading on each other’s toes, or bumping into each other; if we have linked arms and danced together even for a moment, how can we not care about each other?
In this way, #occupydance is at the root of our social justice practice.
Chatterjea’s work interweaves the biographies and histories of women of color, the environment and performance in various global contexts, and physicalizes politics, choreographing identities and relationships in multiple arenas. She also questions and challenges tradition, artistic beliefs and practices, gender politics, and how we discuss and perceive modernity.
Residency activities included three talks, “Contestations in the History of Odissi,” “Thoughts on Contemporary Dance,” and “Socially Engaged Dance & Performance: Aligning Dance and Social Justice.” Chatterjea also presented a live performance at the Marriott Center for Dance and taught two master classes.
The residency was organized by Visiting Assistant Professor A’Keitha Carey, whose own doctoral research explores dance as an agent for societal change. She became interested in Chatterjea’s work while an undergraduate student.
“As a student, I read her work and become even more familiar with her in my doctoral program,” Carey said. “She is truly a wonderful model, illustrating how theory and practice coalesce producing educational, transformative, and transgressive works that express her theme of a call to action. We are both interested in this idea of dialogue and how these conversations do in fact provide opportunities for people to ‘stand together in difference.’”
Carey reflected about the residency in an open letter to Chatterjea:
The “shared heat” and “shared humanity” that was imparted upon the university is something that I can only equate to the phenomenal teachings of Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldùa. Anzaldùa introduced the term nepantla which is “a Nahuatl word meaning ‘in-between space’” (Keating 2006). This liminal space is a place where one is able to disidentify from the mythology of white supremacy, allowing oneself to see oneself not as inferior but as an equal, a whole being. This theory allows for transcendence and a subversive consciousness that fractures and ruptures identity politics that often subscribe to the belief system that increasingly fictionalizes the superiority of the white race, subjugating people of color (Keating 2006).
Those of us who mediate and facilitate this process are called nepantleras. Nepantleras are “the supreme border crossers. They act as intermediaries between cultures and their various versions of reality . . . They serve as agents of awakening, inspire and challenge others to deeper awareness, greater concocimiento, serve as reminders of each other’s search for wholeness of being” (“Speaking Across the Divide” 20).
Ananya, you are a Nepantlera! Your entrance in this space was exactly what was needed – not a week before – or a moment after – right now – at this time. Lives have been touched, some women have found their voice, and you provided a snap shot into MY reality of what this journey can and should be as a nepantlera. Your power and presence are sublime, evoking a sense of desire that includes social change, clarity in one’s ideas and philosophies about life, purpose, and practice and specifically how one can be a change maker simply by listening and retelling the stories that we hear.
I want to offer words of encouragement to you and the warrior women known as Ananya Dance Theatre. The journey that you are on is one that will disrupt the cultural and social norms, one that is “painful [during] dimensions of this world-traveling [and border crossing]” (Keating 9). Your defiance of the expectations placed upon you, the themes that are discussed in your work, and the POWER that you present and evoke are threatening to the insecure and weak (in mind and spirit) resulting in “rejection, ostracism, and other forms of isolation” (Keating 9) but I am writing to applaud, restore, and embolden you for your work, passion, and the voice that you provide for many.
You stated “there is a way of knowing that comes from knowing your body.” The freedom from “knowing my body” allows me to communicate with a clarity that includes embracing my gifts, loving my body, and accepting and exploring the sensual imparted by the divine. Because of this “knowing” I can share my “bodily truths,” encouraging other women to share their stories. This sentiment was reified during your visit. You also mentioned “some stories need to be told over and over again.” You and your company provide the foremost example of how to occupy space, thoughts, and personhood so that these stories can be projected for what they are, “beauty and truth.”
In closing … you mentioned that a part of your purpose is to “remind young women of their power.” I felt this reclamation of my own power (through your presence) which I have purposely been (re)negotiating out of fear of the aftermath. But I am “ready to do the work.” Your presence here at the University of Utah will long be remembered. You have left your DNA in the building, in the soil, and the souls of many. Because of you, I walk bolder into the fire, I can fight another day because of what you have deposited into my spirit.
I/we find my/our voice through the roar of the Lioness… shine on and shout with the power and pleasure of knowing that across the nation, we hear you, we see you, and we stand in love, light, and in support of the freedom, transformation, and strength that Ananya Dance Theatre provides for many…
Links Hall, a Chicago-based partner of the National Performance Network (NPN), presented Ananya Dance Theatre’s production of “Neel: Blutopias of Radical Dreaming” for three performances, April 17-19, 2015. Artistic Director Ananya Chatterjea and company dancers also presented master classes and workshops for members of Chicago’s dance community during a week-long residency.
“Ananya Chatterjea and Chitra Vairavan and everyone in ‘Neel: Blutopias of Radical Dreaming’ is truly doing otherworldly work.” –Ladan Osman, Somali Poet, Facebook, 4/18/15 • Photo by Ladan Osman
Soyini Madison, Professor, Performance Studies, Anthropology, African Studies, Northwestern University, April 30, 2015:
“I loved this work for many reasons: the precision of its artistry and technique; the boldness of its politics and truth telling; the brilliance of its multiple layered dance forms and temporalities; the speechless beauty of its staging and theatricality – colors in motion, how the choreography of faces, hands, and feet combined to make the body transcendent – dreams of impeccable horror and radical redemption. …
“I was shaken after the performance. It is true that I might not have known – in exact or specific terms – every symbolic gesture or every moment in ‘Neel’s’ overarching historical/contemporary time and context, but the work of brilliant art does not require or expect that I know it all – only sophomoric, didactic, inexperienced and bad performance does this. Your work does not insult the audience, your work does not insult the craft of dance (or your own intelligence and that of your dancers) by telling us how and what to think. Instead you OPEN the gates of brutal truths – you unleash them from their hiding places – you translate hard truths (unspeakable truths), you give them story and form and motion for us to feel, know, believe – be disturbed and moved by what we must know and will not forget after we leave your company’s performance.
“Those gun shots crossed epics – I hear them in the West Bank, in Afghanistan, in West Africa, in Columbia, in Ferguson, Missouri, in the every where places where life is destroyed at the hands of the spiritless. The tragedy of life lost, hope forgotten, memories unnamed, and the unrelenting desire for belonging is the script of the world and you danced it into our consciousness. The fact that we ARE our dreams and that a woman’s imagination is the life-blood of her soul is a birthing of new paths and futures that only comes out of the wombs of women. This is an existential fact that Ananya Dancers not only showed us, but also reminded us through dream story and through a performance of imaginings enshrined in radical love – love that surpasses time and space to make us strong beyond our means – beyond our own individual history, even our own singular body – the strength of the multitudes that foment revolution. …
“I wept at the end of your show because it ‘revolutionized me’ again. It reminded me of who I am, and what I am here to do, because I forget sometimes. ‘Neel’ reminded me of the power of art to change minds and feelings, to build community, to love, to believe in the possibilities of our dreams and that our strength of belonging is beyond measure. The Revolutionaries throughout history that I have read all seem to have one saying in common: revolutions begin with thoughts and feelings. ‘Neel’ made us think and feel abundantly, intelligently, and beautifully. Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.”
Ananya Dance Theatre dancers and master class participants at Links Hall. “My body feels stirred alive with heat & stomping passions. Thank you.” –@anjalchande, Twitter, 4/15/15
Laura Molzahn, chicagotribune.com, April 19, 2015:
“Freely interpreting her trademark blend of Odissi dance, yoga and an Indian martial art through the lens of contemporary choreography, Chatterjea is often ingenious. She shapes Indian dance’s acute angles — sharply articulated knees, wrists, elbows, spines — into intricately entwined puzzles in slow-moving, face-to-face duets. And though the traditional meanings of mudras (hand positions) are generally unknown in the U.S., harshly splayed fingers fanning across a face or flicked fists still convey emotion.
“Also stirring is the pounding of nearly two dozen feet in unison. In contrast to Indian dancers’ usual steely control, these performers can be wild and athletic in the nritta (pure dance) sections, yelling and abandoned.
“Chatterjea herself is a riveting performer, with the kind of authority only years of practice can give. Her abhinaya, or expressive movement of the face, is masterly. She exhibits both steely control and the ability to effect subtle, flickering shifts in emotion. Her solo, mourning paradise lost, is the most affecting moment of ‘Neel.’ … [A]ll the performers do a remarkable job in this challenging choreography.”
“A nonverbal spiritual awakening.” –Audience member, @LinksHall, Twitter, 4/19/15 Photo by Jennifer Grob
Lauren Warnecke, artintercepts.org, April 22, 2015:
“This was the stuff of nightmares. And, at times, it was really difficult to watch. …
“[T]he piece exemplified a balance of passion and pain, further reinforced by a large, diverse cast of women and hints of folklore from a potpourri of cultures. And yet, the dance was choreographed through a rather specific lens of contemporary Indian dance. Ananya’s namesake, Artistic Director Dr. Ananya Chatterjea, created intriguing movement that somehow remains true to her roots in classical Indian dance, and her solo performance mid-way through the first hour was a force to be reckoned with.”
“Infinitely jaw dropping and fascinating.” –@LinksHall, Twitter, 4/19/15 Photo by Jennifer Grob
Matt De La Pena, seechicagodance.com, April 21, 2015:
“The final product is probing, if not alternately moody in its tone.”
“I knew in the first 5 minutes that it would be a performance that would stay with me for a very long time.” –@LinksHall, Twitter, 4/19/15 Photo by Jennifer Grob
“Well, that was different,” I overheard one of the audience members say after yesterday’s performance by Ananya Dance Theatre. I smiled to myself. What she was really saying in Minnesotan speak was, “I’m not entirely sure what to think of this nontraditional thing I just witnessed–and I don’t want to offend anyone–so I’m going to make as neutral an assessment as possible.”
Yes, last night’s performance was “different.” It wasn’t the opera; it wasn’t the symphony. Yes, it was challenging (some of the dancing was evocative of death and dying; some evoked sex). Yes, it brought up issues we don’t necessarily like to think about (i.e. the hardships and tragedies of modern, urban life). But it was important. And beautiful. And I applaud the Ordway for commissioning such a provocative, meaningful performance.
So, what made some people squirm last night? What challenged our pleasant, theatre-going selves?
It started with a map.
When my guest, Cindy, and I walked into the theatre, a friendly usher handed us a map, examined our tickets, and told us we would be starting on the third floor at the “Wishing Well.” The Wishing Well was one of five different interactive sets spread across the Ordway. The idea was to merge audience and performers, spectators and dancers. Each set had a unique theme and a distinct message revolving around social justice, human rights, and the meaning of humanity. There was The Empress of Whimsy and Fortunes, Life Force, Wishing Well, Longest Day’s Journey, and Veins. My favorite set was Wishing Well, in which we were each invited to jot down a wish on a piece of rice paper, hand the paper to a young girl seated in front of a basin of water, and watch as she swirled the wish into the water and it disintegrated into muddy flecks. The effect was fantastic. The image of a bowl full of wishes, swirling and melding together, is pure magic.
After Part One, we all filed into the new concert hall (with members of Ananya Dance Theatre bending and twisting around us) and found our seats. Then, Part Two began.
Although Part Two took place on stage, I wouldn’t call it traditional. The members of Ananya (all dressed in vivid colors) explored what the human body can do with elaborate twists, foot stomps, yoga-like poses, and both subtle and grandiose movements. As I watched, I could feel a narrative unfold. I could see birth, death, agony, chaos, sex, community. It was incredibly expressive and, at times, hard to watch.
The dance entitled Our Bodies Hold Struggle was particularly challenging. Amid minor-key music and wailing that made me think of demons, the dancers spasmed on the stage or flopped like dying fish. I could feel the misery and despair. I wanted it to stop. And then I realized…
That’s the point.
Life is not always neat and comfortable. Sometimes it’s painful and tragic. Sometimes it’s hard to watch. But it’s important that we do watch; it’s important that we recognize the illness in the world and attempt to cure it.
That said, the entire performance was not so serious. Some dances celebrated life, community, togetherness. Some mimicked water (the lifeblood of our cities). The bright colors and gorgeous movements left a kind of lingering hope.
As I exited the theatre, I couldn’t help feeling that I had just witnessed something important. And I wanted others to witness it too. My sincere hope is that Ananya Dance Theatre gets the recognition it deserves for the role it plays in our community. It brings color, vibrancy, and consciousness to the Twin Cities.
Aahvaan is conceived and created by choreographer Ananya Chatterjea with collaborating director, behavioral and social practice artist Marcus Young, and the dancers of the company. Recorded scores are composed and arranged by Greg Schutte in collaboration with Mankwe Ndosi, Laurie Carlos, Pooja Goswami Pavan, Dorene Waubanewquay Day, and Michelle Kinney. Click for tickets.
Scenography: Anne Henly with Annie Katsura Rollins; Lela Pierce
Costume Design: Annie Katsura Rollins with Annie Cady
Production Management: Josina Manu Maltzman; assistance: Emma Marlar
Commissioned for the grand opening of the Ordway Concert Hall, Aahvaan: Invoking the Cities is structured uniquely in two major acts. Supported by layers of recorded and live music, this epic, full-length dance theater piece weaves together images inspired by the rich history of indigenous communities on this land, the diversity of communities who now call the Twin Cities home, our rich legacy of water, the vicissitudes of urban life, and artistic innovation.
Act 1 begins when audience members walk into the Ordway and are invited to participate in five simultaneous performance installations inspired by histories, stories, and energies of communities in the Twin Cities and Minnesota.
EMPRESS OF WHIMSY AND FORTUNES
Hui Niu Wilcox
SCORE: Greg Schutte
Camille Horstmann, Lydia Jones, Nakita Kirchner, Suzette Gilreath, Aemoni Dancy, Fiona Steen, Totianna Howard (young dancers from Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists) with Brittany Radke
In the week leading to the performance, Artistic Director Ananya Chatterjea and the dancers introduced contemporary Indian dance and the interpretation of abstract, metaphoric dance to students and adults at 11 class, workshop, and presentational settings organized by staff of the Historic Holmes Theatre.
Detroit Lakes Middle School, Detroit Lakes MN
Classes and workshops took place in several of the Detroit Lakes public schools for 4th, 5th, 6th, middle, and high school grade levels; at two community dance studios; at a senior citizen residence; at a water aerobics class at the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center; and at the White Earth Nation.
Artistic Director Ananya Chatterjea spoke about dance and social justice to a luncheon meeting of the Detroit Lakes Rotarians. She and Brittany Radke, a company dancer and native of Detroit Lakes, participated in radio interviews on two stations.
Through the good offices of Amy Stearns, executive director of the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center and Historic Holmes Theatre, and her staff, members of Ananya Dance Theatre connected in person with a significant segment, 11%, of the area’s year-round population of 8,500 people. The Rotary Club luncheon provided for an intimate and personal conversation with members of the community.
This was Ananya Dance Theatre’s first performance and extended series of residency activities in a smaller community anywhere, and in the state of Minnesota outside of the Twin Cities.
5th Grade Dance Class Workshop – Lake Park Audobon Elementary School – 60 attendees
Circle of Life Academy, White Earth Nation
6th Grade Dance Class Workshop – Detroit Lakes Public Schools – 55 attendees
Dance Movement Workshop – Summit Dance Studio – 15 attendees
Rotary Club Luncheon – Presentation – 75 attendees
Dance Movement Workshop – Circle of Life Academy, White Earth Nation – 50 attendees
5th Grade Dance Class Workshop – Detroit Lakes Middle School – 125 attendees
Dance Movement Workshop – Northern Lights Dance Studio – 75 attendees
Radio Interviews – KDLM AM & Wave 104 FM – 1,000 (?) listeners
Water Aerobics Dance Movement Class – Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center – 55 attendees
Movement Class – Oak Crossings Senior Community – 75 attendees
4th Grade Dance Class Workshop – Roosevelt Elementary School – 125 attendees
Ananya Dance Theatre’s performance and residency activities were made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Lakes Region Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director, Ananya Dance Theatre, delivered a talk, April 27, 2014, at a TEDx event at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, produced independently of the TED Conferences:
What is the potential of dance to demonstrate social injustice? To unleash latent energy? In this talk, combined with powerful live and video performances by Ananya Dance Theatre, Chatterjea shows us how dance can provoke hope and help us surpass our own potential.
About TEDx: x = an independently organized event In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations.)