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Anaya Dance Theater: Spreading a Politic of Defiant Hope

Ellen Chenoweth
Date Published: 

Ananya dance theatre is a dance company composed of women of color, with a mission to create art “inspired by the lives and work of women all around the world.” They weave together diverse influences, ranging from the classical Odissi dance form to women’s street theatre groups in India. The company is currently producing the second piece of a trilogy based on environmental justice issues. Entitled Daak: A Call to Action, the work premiered in June in Minneapolis, the company’s home base, before continuing on to New York. One of the hallmarks of the company is extensive dialogue around the work that is created, in the form of post-performance discussions, study guides for the issues being raised, and program notes explaining the impetus for the work.

At the helm of Ananya Dance Theatre is Dr. Ananya Chatterjea, a professor of dance at the University of Minnesota and fierce dancer, choreographer, writer, teacher, and activist. Among her published works is the highly recommended Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies through the works of Chandralekha and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. In it, she examines the work of Chandralekha, an East Indian choreographer based in Madras, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the artistic director of the Brooklyn-based dance company Urban Bush Women. While she’s at it, she levels a powerful critique against the automatic coupling of whiteness and postmodernism in dance, and highlights the exclusions, both subtle and overt, in the contemporary dance world.

Chatterjea positions the body as a space for embodied resistance and subversion. In Butting Out, Chatterjea asserts that both Zollar and Chandralekha are creating a “politics of defiant hope.” Ananya Dance Theatre is doing the same while pursuing both artistic excellence and community-building social justice. Chatterjea made time to talk to Left Turn in the midst of a busy summer teaching and touring schedule.

Instead of having a traditional audition process to become a part of the company, Chatterjea includes discussions about political goals and ideas as well as looking at the person’s dancing. Chatterjea relates, “one of the things we say is, ‘if you’re not a good dancer yet, but you’re committed to the training, you’ll make it in this company.’ But if you don’t have good politics, you’ll not make it because that’s something that everyone is working together on pretty intensely. If you are not interested in creating a radical space, it gets really impossible.”

The year-long training process is intense, including physical training in yoga, martial arts, and Odissi, while simultaneously participating in workshops in community building, anti-violence, and anti-racism. As you might guess, this focus on both the physical and the mental/spiritual is unusual for a dance company. As a result, one of the challenges the company deals with is confronting the compartmentalization that says that art can’t be overtly political, or that activist work must take a certain form. Chatterjea explains how the company can sometimes get caught up in a binary, “we get sort of a bad rap from both groups; artistic organizations don’t really care about social justice and social justice organizations don’t understand the value of empowerment work. They want policy work, and as artists that’s not what we do, or can do really.”

One of the main goals of the company is building relationships among women of color, and creating a space for transformative dialogue. Chatterjea calls for a radical solidarity among artists of color, while being mindful of and sensitive to differences, and without passing through a white mediator. She calls the problem “passing through whiteness.” “Our relationships got fractured through colonialism, whites were brokering relationships. We were pushed into situations of limited resources which drove us against each other. And then on top of that when you’re in diaspora, like [in the United States], you’re supposed to be against each other. I see this all the time that women have no sense of each other’s histories. People have no idea that India has one of the largest women’s movements in the world. We need to move on and say can we build on these fractures? How are you able to now negotiate the relationship and know each other’s histories, and know each other’s policies, and know each other’s cultures?” Ananya Dance Theatre serves as a living laboratory for healing those relationships.

Chatterjea frequently gets asked why the company is made up only of women of color. “One of the things I try to say is it’s not about exclusion—the focus is on trying to create relationships that don’t exist. There’s no space outside where you can actually come together to sort out some of the issues, to have conversations that otherwise don’t happen. It seems the structure for communication has to be brokered through whiteness, and I try to point that out.” She has learned through the process that “you can’t try to be everything to everyone. It’s not a skin-color-based understanding of togetherness either, it’s a radical space. It’s a certain kind of politics we are trying to build.”

The focus on environmental justice came in part from Chatterjea’s travels, especially in Asia. “I would talk to people and I would say, ‘isn’t it monsoon now?’ and they would respond, ‘yes, it is monsoon but we don’t know what to do because the monsoon patterns have changed, we have no idea how to do this.’ A lot of issues converge, and you have this issue of land rights violation. I was living in Minnesota and I saw the struggle of the native communities. I feel like at home and far away, you see the same thing over and over again, you see the relationship between local and diaspora communities.” These conversations helped spur the creation of Daak, which links environmental injustices in places such as Tijuana and West Bengal with land rights violations in Minnesota.

Chatterjea finds that there is a common misperception that communities of color are not interested or involved in environmental justice. Articulating this concern on the heels of observations from her travels, she counters, “That is what is the absolute untruth! Some of the most sustainable solutions are emerging from local women of color communities, really women who have nothing, and they’re coming up with the more just solutions. So we are fighting against the myth and pointing out where the resistance comes from, and being inspired by the solutions being proposed by these women.”

Along with her own accumulated experience, the company’s choreography is the result of strong collaboration among all members—from performance content to workshops and ideology. While this model of collective direction is far from the norm in leader-named dance companies, and not always the easiest to implement, it is a natural fit with the radical vision and ideals of the organization. Much of the dance movement comes from the political workshops and trainings. “All of the dancers participate and we respond to the issues with questions, with movement, with discussion. A lot of the movement material comes from conversations we might have and these are spread out throughout the process of creating a new work.”

One of the company’s basic goals is “to project dance as a powerful way to articulate and share ideas, thoughts, and histories, and mobilize social change.” When asked about current inspirations, Chatterjea responded sincerely and simply: “dance. I just love dance.” With its commitment to social justice and healing, Ananya Dance Theatre reminds us of how dance can be a powerful tool of resistance.

All quotes taken from the website for Ananya Dance Theatre or from an interview conducted with Chatterjea on July 28, 2008.

Ellen Chenoweth is a graduate student in Dance and Women’s Studies at Texas Woman’s University.