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Ideas in motion
WordsAndPictures: Ananya Dance Theatre expores the exploitation of natural elements
Ananya Chatterjea in "Tushaanal: Fires of Dry Grass." Photography by Y. Paul Virtucio.

by Anne Hamre

Activist and anarchist Emma Goldman famously said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." Perhaps for some, it goes both ways: If we can't have a revolution-or at least get people to start thinking differently about issues like capitalism, sexism and violence-why dance?

There are many reasons to dance, of course-among them, the sheer joy of it. To Dr. Ananya Chatterjea-founder and artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT), as well as choreographer and dancer-that joy is entwined with a deeper meaning, power and purpose.

"My work is with women who are empowered," she said. "They are not dancing to someone else's concept of beauty-they dance because they have something to say."

She began dancing at age 5 for a simple reason: her mother wanted her to. Chatterjea's mother had hoped, but was unable, to become a dancer herself-due partly to her family's limited finances, as well as the turbulence of India in the 1930s and 1940s.

Chatterjea soon fell in love with dance, and later discovered that it could partner with social justice, another passion instilled in her early on. She was born into a young Republic, less than two decades old.

"I grew up in a context where we talked about class struggle a lot," she said, recalling the anti-colonialist sentiment in which she was steeped. Chatterjea was also inspired by the multi-faceted women's movement in India. Women "were part of the anti-colonial struggle, then led the anti-price-rise agitation, the movements for literacy, for social reform," she noted.

In her mid-20s, with a scholarship to New York's Columbia University, Chatterjea came to the United States to study dance. She's been a Minnesotan since 1998.


Call to action
Chatterjea describes her art as a call to action in the face of the "rampant misuse of power that our world is laboring under." She doesn't see-or care to see-herself as a "powerful" person.

"I do see myself as an empowered person, clear about my ability to survive, search for beauty, and yearn for alternative visions," she said. "Power seems to me to suggest some kinds of encrustations, and I am interested in how we mobilize ideas, make them flow if you will. That's what dance does.

"There is so, so, so much power in dance, in rhythm, and it takes that power and shares it, communicates a message."

To be communicated fully, some messages require several installments. ADT has undertaken a four-year series exploring how women in global communities of color experience can resist violence, using as metaphors four naturally occurring but often cruelly exploited elements: land (the first show, in 2010); gold (2011); oil (2012); and water (2013).

The second piece premieres Sept. 8 in Minneapolis. "Tushaanal: Fires of Dry Grass" touches on gold and its link to apartheid in South Africa, the murder of Latin American anti-mining activists, poisoning from mercury (which is used in mining gold), and more.

Chatterjea's focus now is shifting to capitalism, and its links to violence against women.

Under the capitalist mindset, she said, "the earth becomes expendable; women, people of color, working class people, people from the global south, queer folks, become 'things' of less value-and therefore can be forgotten or used."

Chatterjea is quick to point out that as cultural activists, it is not her company's role to advance legislation. Rather, their work creates what she calls a "ripple effect": Audience members share their thoughts about performances with friends and families, and slowly a broader community starts to ask questions.

"This is the beginning of change," Chatterjea said. "The biggest work of artists-which is really our power if you will-is to open up the imagination, suggest connections, offer a vision of something different ... because without that shift in imagination no change is possible."

What: "Tushaanal: Fires of Dry Grass"
Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave S., Minneapolis
When: World premiere Sept. 8-11, 2011
Tickets: $22 (students, $16)
FFI: 612-340-0155, www.brownpapertickets.com/event/184270

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