Dancing for justice: A profile of Ananya Chatterjea

Ananya Dance Theatre’s performances are about more than entertainment. Their purpose is to make you think. To make you think about how oil companies are destroying the environment. To make you think about how environmental destruction hurts women around the world.

Ananya Chatterjea, a 48-year-old native of Kolkata, India, moved to Minnesota in 1998 and founded Ananya Dance Theatre in 2004 to bring women of color together in a safe place and explore social justice through dance. Chatterjea believes her mission is to transport her dancers, and the audience, to uncomfortable places and force them to confront issues that society too often ignores, such as environmental destruction and systemic violence against women.

“Dance for social justice entails that you constantly investigate your own process — that you figure out where you’re creating access, for whom, and why,” says Chatterjea, who serves as the company’s artistic director and choreographer. She’s also a professor in the Department of Theater Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota, has received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and has been honored by the Black Indian Hispanic Asian Women in Action, the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus and Women’s E-News, as well as received the Josie Johnson Social Justice and Human Rights Award.

“Arts reveal something that is at the depth of the human experience, and about the relationship with nature that is perhaps not about logistics,” Chatterjea says. “It’s a spiritual, emotional experience. That’s why the arts are the best way to reveal that.”

The company holds performances in independent theaters around the Twin Cities, and measures its impact not only at the box office but in the ideas and emotions it plants, like seeds, within communities.

“Ananya and her dancers embody the struggles and the injustice that are at the root of the story she tells through movements,” says Vickie Benson of the McKnight Foundation, which supports Chatterjea’s work.

Cindy Gehrig at the Jerome Foundation (which has in the past supported the dance company) says Chatterjea leaves an indelible mark on the community level. “Ananya’s practice is so much about community engagement,” says Gehrig, who never misses a performance. “She brings in a wide range of diverse dancers and she commits to training and developing them for years to come. Her commitment to people who dance with her has had reverberations throughout the community.”

Ananya Dance Theatre performances resonate deeply with audiences, and cause change within them. While watching the 2012 performance of “Moreechika: Season of Mirage,” which confronts society’s dependence on oil, one audience member told Chatterjea that she realized in the middle of the production, “I have to go home and throw out everything that contains petroleum jelly.”

Nothing, no amount of lectures or data that she had encountered, had given her that urge. But watching a dance that conveyed oil’s impact on humanity had that impact.

“We’re artists. So we are not responsible for legislative shifts,” says Chatterjea. “That’s not what we do. Our work is in opening the ground, creating a space for questions, for provoking discussion, and for offering images that then resonate in people’s minds. So the way in which we understand our impact is when audiences come back year after year to see the work. When audiences come for a community conversation.”

The company uses allegory and movement on stage to show how the struggle for natural resources around the world leads to violence and environmental destruction, particularly against women.

“To investigate how women in global communities of color experience and resist systemic violence, we started to look at four things: land, gold, oil and water,” says Chatterjea. “The way in which these natural elements have been marked as commodities has caused tremendous systemic violence across the world. Putting those stories out there is part of shifting the cultural landscape.”

But art, not polemics, ultimately gives dance its power to move audiences.

“The power of dance is that it tells stories that are not realistically told,” says Chatterjea. “It’s not a linear story like ‘Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill’. It’s metaphoric, so it’s revealed through images that have many interpretations. But it could be many peoples’ stories. It suddenly clears a space where many peoples’ minds can meet, and some deep aspects of humanity are suddenly revealed to you. To me that’s the power of dance. It’s metaphor; it’s physical immediacy.”

Dancer Chitra Vairavan recalls being inspired by an Indian allegory of a little bird that flew over a forest fire to a lake to get droplets of water to feed its doomed babies waiting in a tree. The fire laughed at the bird and promised to burn the tree down, but the bird answered: “It doesn’t matter; I just want to do the right thing and go down on the right side of history.”

Many dances are developed by members of the company and are inspired by scenes they’ve witnessed in their lives. For example, Vairavan performed a solo dance in “Moreechika: Season of Mirage,” that was prompted by an image she saw of a bird caught in oil.

“I was very inspired by the hopeless image of a bird that was contorted and frozen in an otherworldly way,” she says.

Gina Kundan, the Dance Theatre’s board chair, says that, as performances draw near, issues in the national news often dovetail with the messages the company tries to convey. The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, coincided with Ananya’s preparation for “Moreechika: Season of Mirage”.

Water, and the sanctity and health of rivers around the world are frequent topics of the dances. Ananya Dance Theatre joined the River Walkers late this winter as a show of artistic solidarity as they walked from the headwaters of the Mississippi along the river as it flows through Minneapolis.

“What is it about the Mississippi,” asks Chatterjea. “We look at the Mississippi for so long. This water flows through our city. It gives us life; it gives us electricity. It gives us so much, and how can we care for it? So our dance becomes an offering.”

For the dancers in the company, perhaps Chatterjea’s greatest impact has been to create a safe space for women of color.

“Women of color, in particular, and women in global communities respond not just to physical violence against themselves but violence of environment,” says Kundan. “Their bodies respond to environmental injustices and also social injustices.”

“Women of color have something to say to each other,” says Chatterjea. “We have a movement to build together. Communities of color are often put at loggerheads with each other. How do we build a different history, a history of alliance, a history of cooperation, a history of listening to each other? When you’re in the middle of a network of people, knowing you have support behind you, it strengthens you.”

Yet the company faces a constant struggle not to be viewed as mere entertainment, and not to be confused with “Bollywood’s” popular Indian dance. To emphasize that point, Chatterjea makes sure her students and dancers don’t think they’re in a Bollywood class.

“Audiences sometimes struggle with Indian contemporary dance because Indian dance has becomes so fixed in people’s minds either as classical dance or as Bollywood,” says Chatterjea, referring to the Mumbai-based Hindi language film industry that highlights pop culture and sex appeal. “Of course we are built on classical dance, but we are deconstructing that completely. Like Bollywood, we are interested in a contemporary expressivity. But we’re not interested in objectifying women.”

Pretty dancing, says board chair Kundan, is not the dance theatre’s objective.

“Most people have an expectation of dance as entertainment, and as an escape from reality,” says Kundan. “It’s not entertainment, it’s not pretty dances that we make, but it’s a visceral response to the issues that are happening in our environments. We’ve had to create our own language to help people understand how you can both be artistically excellent and be social justice advocates and supporters — while not lobbying at the Capitol or marching on Washington.”

Ananya Dance Theatre’s goal is not to entertain or make audiences smile, but to plant seeds of social change within them.

“The work is painful and exhausting, but it gives back to you,” says Vairavan. “Change and activism in the arts is valuable. It’s also these moments that you can’t recreate.”

In June, Ananya Dance Theatre will perform “Dance of a Thousand Water Dreams” as part of Saint Paul’s Northern Spark Festival. Chatterjea hopes to merge the Native American tradition of honoring water with the Indian tradition of placing a wish in a candle and floating it down a river. In this case, of course, the river will not be the Ganges. It will be the Mississippi.

This is the fourth in an UpTake series of profiles on men and women whose names may not be widely familiar but whose leadership makes our neighborhoods, our cities and our state better places. — Nick Coleman, Executive Editor (nick.coleman@theuptake.org)

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