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Dancing and Dreaming of Justice

November 21, 2014

Editor's note: The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation recently announced its 180 Fellowships recipients for 2011. Among them was Ananya Chatterjea. She will be using the fellowship to launch a quartet of evening-length dance pieces exploring how women in global communities of color experience and resist violence.

Ananya Chatterjea
The body doesn't lie.
Photo by Darin Back
Like her CLA colleagues, Ananya Chatterjea is on a quest for knowledge. What separates her from others is where she finds it. "Whatever it is I know," says Chatterjea, "I know most certainly in my body."

It may seem a curious declaration from a scholar. Many academicians regard knowledge as something discovered "out there"—beyond the bounds of the self. Yet for Chatterjea, associate professor in the University's Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, the territory "out there" is populated not by bits of disembodied knowledge, but by millions of embodied lives being lived.

For her, distilling the human meaning from the raw material of those lives—transforming stark fact into the deeply known—is something only the crucible of the body can do.

"It is hard work," Chatterjea says. "But what the body deeply knows, it can reveal to others. This, really, is the essence of dance."

This is the idea that energizes Chatterjea's work. Raised in Kolkata, she grew up studying the performance of Odissi, India's most ancient dance form. The style is associated with the Tantric tradition of goddess-worship and invokes the intensity of female sensuality as an emblem of the spiritual passion for God.

This dissonance between the ideal and the real—found in every culture—led Chatterjea to reject conceptions of dance as a superficial mode of entertainment. Over time, her feminist and egalitarian instincts and her conviction that dance could become an instrument for social justice merged into an unshakable passion. After finishing two degrees in literature in Kolkata, Chatterjea moved to New York's Columbia University to earn a master's degree in dance and then pursued her doctorate at Temple University in Philadelphia.Yet even as Chatterjea perfected the Odissi form as a girl, she noticed contradictions of its artistic content in her surroundings: "I was raised in a culture divided by class and gender," she recalls, "one in which violence against women was an everyday reality."

This unique artistry quickly found a place in the University's dance program, which Chatterjea directs, and became the "dance language" of Ananya Dance Theatre, the company of women of color she founded upon her arrival.By the time she arrived in Minnesota in 1998, Chatterjea had found a medium for her message. Years of experimentation led her to develop a distinctive choreography that merged deconstructions of classical Odissi style with the liveliness of Indian street theater and the rituals of yoga and Indian martial arts.

Surely anyone who sees Chatterjea's company onstage will appreciate how dance can open minds to new ideas.

In 12 years of performance in the Twin Cities and beyond, the company has conjured bodily declarations of joy and lament, of struggle and beauty. It has danced the stories of religious fundamentalism and domestic violence, environmental degradation and the oppression of women, the stealing of land and the brutality of war. Often the company provides study guides to accompany its offerings and conducts post-performance discussions about the issues it explores.

Chatterjea and her fellow dancers often perform for packed houses, and she's heartened by the audience response. "A dance performance is a moment of live connection among human beings. It's an especially powerful moment in a world overwhelmed by 'virtual' connection, by technology. And in the end, all that remains of a dance performance is that flash of light, that experience of connection with the audience."

This is what Chatterjea cares about most: coaxing her audiences to recognize the world's great wrongs—the first step, she knows, toward eventually setting things right. Her latest project is a four-performance examination of the suffering women endure as the world's powerful plunder the Earth for natural lucre—represented by mud, gold, oil, and water—and of their resistance to these "violences."

The first installment, Kshoy!/Decay, was performed at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis last September. Invoking the metaphor of mud—land that holds fast to the body—the choreography conveyed the dispossession of women forced from their homes by the corporate clamor for land.This is Chatterjea's answer to injustice: to dance the truth of oppression into the minds and hearts of her audiences—and in the end, perhaps, to dance oppression itself into the dust. She has put her faith in the wisdom of the body, in its remarkable power to express "the truth we know yet cannot speak."

"I know that dance has the power to open minds and to change them," Chatterjea says. She knows it because she has danced it and witnessed it. So long as her body knows a truth that needs telling, she'll likely carry on.

Kate Stanley, B.A.'80, is a Minneapolis journalist. She was editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Daily from 1979 to 1980.