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Dancing Toward Justice

An Interview with Ananya Chatterjea
February 13, 2020

"Justice is a huge concept, but there are ways to bend every little action toward it. I locate my dancing in the midst of everyday life because my dancing is inspired by lived experiences. And I believe dancing can be a force for realizing justice and liberation. My choreographies realize communities around these ideas and recognition of our shared humanness. I hope to capture imaginations, provoke questions, and inspire change."

Professor of dance and founder of Ananya Dance Theatre, Ananya Chatterjea explores the intersections of social justice, coexistence, and dance. She is committed to the education of her students and herself and dedicates her work to liberation and justice. She details how all these pieces intersect in her research, teaching, and performance and discusses what we can learn from these processes and from each other.

Could you talk about your research and creative work? What ideas do you keep coming back to?

Throughout my career, I've engaged with a hybrid research agenda, where I am working with ideas of justice, both through my dancing body and choreography with dancers and through scholarly research. So in my writing, I'm also thinking about how dance actually sits in a larger frame of culture-making and how that impacts and is impacted by what's going on in people's lives right now.

In dance, I take the same ideas and see how to find realizations—images—that will inspire us to think, ask more questions, and be moved toward a different way of working. So for students to know they have the power as dancers and dance-makers to shift ways of thinking, that's one thing. And then there's audiences—working with audiences and collaborating with artists and dancers. In my creative research, [I look at] the same thing: how to move people to shift toward a more just life.

What does social justice choreography mean to you? How is it different from creating politically-themed art?

So social justice choreography to me is different from making dances with a political theme. Social justice means that I have to think through every part of my process—in making and realizing. 

I can make dance in a political theme in a closed-off dance studio with myself, not really considering as much how I will get it out there. [Not considering] who am I involving in the process of creating? How will I create access? How will all the processes around that production also reflect a commitment to equity?

Social justice means I am thinking from the beginning: how is the piece being imagined? Who am I in conversation with? Who will be impacted by it? How will I get them into the theater? Are these people who regularly come to the theater? How will I make space for people who have issues of access? How will the dance be recognizing of different bodies, different relations of power, that we hold among us in society? So in a way, it's a large undertaking. It's a whole process-based approach.

How does your research connect to your teaching?

What I am most proud of in my academic life is how my research actually flows into my teaching, and how my teaching influences the ideas that I work through in my research. I am committed to educating folks who come through the door. I'm interested in how we can liberate our imaginations. So we can imagine what life would be if we didn't have the hierarchies that put us on one level or another.

Now, you know, dance is a highly ableist practice. Very often, we are pushing forward able-bodied articulations. How can different bodies find their way in there? I'm always thinking of the notion of hierarchy. And if all our students thought about it, dance as a practice would be different. And in western dance [and] stage practice, we see this notion of men lifting and moving around women. What if that wasn't a thing? What if that wasn't at all part of our practice? Can students imagine dancing beyond that? Can students imagine a way in which a dance, in which touch, is always respectful and thought through and consensual? So choreography was always thoughtful and mindful of each other's bodies and dignities and boundaries that we want respected? These are ideas that are both part of my teaching and part of my research. They are part of everything.

So the question is how we can decolonize dancing as a practice—that is at the core of my work. I teach courses such as Theorizing Dancing Bodies, where we can look at the ideas that have been articulated. How do they filter through our bodies? How do they filter through notions of beauty? Because beauty is something where dance gets stuck at a lot of times—something was beautiful. And we forget about: "But was it just? Was it equitable? Was it ‘liberatory’?" How do we answer those questions through a critical framework? 

Can you talk about your dance company, Ananya Dance Theatre? You describe it as being situated in the middle of life.

Ananya Dance Theater is the dance company that I founded in 2004. It started with a call to women of color in the community, and it has grown to be a professional company of women and femmes from indigenous, black, and of-color communities. We take on the mantle of cultural activism. This means we do social justice choreography. It also means that we understand dance as a range of practices. 

One is the staged, dramatic performances that we perform and tour with. And there are also what I call choreographies in the midst of life, where we will perform, for instance, at a street corner in a parking lot, perhaps over an extended period of time, engaging with audiences and invoking them to join us in articulating or advocating for something.

We also have just inaugurated a space. It's a refurbished used car sales place. So it's literally got these huge windows on University Avenue where cars pass by, buses, and the light rail passes right in front of it. So people can see dancing, and as they are going from their bus stop to their house, or one place to another, and they're always seeing this dancing. 

And some people dance along while they go; the children from the daycare center next door always stand up by the windows and make some hand gestures at us, which is beautiful, right? They're growing up with the sense that dance is not something “museumized,” something pushed away, but something that they can use to articulate their emotions, their stories in everyday life. 

This notion that dance is something that can be part of our lives as an articulative, expressive medium, from grade school all the way through—that's something that's very important to me.

Can you tell me more about the theatre’s current production—the one you filmed?

Sutrajal, we just premiered. Sutrajal means network of connections, and I see it as happening in an imaginary place. I call it the Glo-FFUC, the Global Feminist Funk Underground Club. So this is an imaginary club, that's under the ground, and I imagine feminists from all over the world coming to it through tunnels and really dancing off all of their frustrations from everyday struggles. And in that collective moment of dancing together, they are rejuvenated and they return to their struggles the next morning. This piece is haunted by people, women, and femmes who have gone before us and whose struggles toward equity may not have been recorded in history.

We also look forward to a future because you know, we are asking the question, "What happened that this completely disappeared? You know, this club is gone? How did that happen?" 

We were creating it at the time of the fires in the Amazon. And it was very clear to me that sometimes communities disappear not because of some natural disaster that just happened, but because humanity—we, through our actions—pushed our ecosystem too far, and the casualties were people who are unable to have the resources to save themselves from that.

And then there were all these reports about how long humanity has. Well, how do we dance at a time like this? How do we still commit to justice? How do we still recognize our shared humanity? Sutrajal was part of all of that.

What are your upcoming projects?

I have several upcoming projects. [The first] I imagined many years ago. It's called Agun, meaning fire, and it investigates homes, belonging, and the difference between borders and boundaries. So here we are in a state. The Dakota name is Mnisota Makoce. And I'm very, very conscious that Dakota and Anishinaabe and other native communities want us not to always take on this notion of, "This land is our land." We are an occupied territory. So I recognize and respect the borders of indigenous communities. 

At the same time, I see what is happening at our southern border and at the border of India, where I'm from—you know, the kind of violences that are happening at national borders. So I want to investigate that kind of tension and really find our home and our belonging with each other in the midst of that. 

I'm also working on investigating how dance can be a healing practice. I'm interested in the EMDR, the eye movement rehabilitation therapies that are used to work people through traumatic situations. I'm, of course, not a doctor and not medically trained at all. But I am trained in using hand gestures, eye movements, and storytelling. I wonder if there can be a regenerative practice for all of us because we all have wounds from everyday life. 

This interview is part of a series that highlights faculty research at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities College of Liberal Arts. See other videos in this series.