Creating community through dance, Ananya Chatterjea’s Bandh brought together women of color to talk about race, gender and social issues. Photo by Paul Virtuccio.
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By Joanna Imm
When Ananya Chatterjea read Arundhati Roy's book The Algebra of Infinite Justice, a passionate and poetic collection of political essays written after 9/11, she found herself contemplating a recurring question: how can women of color communicate honestly about race, gender, politics and their dreams? It wasn't until last year that Chatterjea found an answer: she would bring women together with dance.
In May 2004, Chatterjea, an activist, dancer and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, auditioned two dozen women of color, ages 9 to 64, most of whom had never danced professionally. Over 14 months, the women trained rigorously in yoga and the Odissi style of classical Indian dance while also working at communicating honestly about race, gender and social justice. Different people of color, said Chatterjea, aren't encouraged to communicate with each other. But of her dancers she said, "This is a group of women who want to talk and make art and share space."
The result of their work was Bandh: A Meditation on Dream, inspired by Roy's essays, Indian women's social justice movements, political theater and an Indian grassroots women's organization. The company, named Ananya Dance Theatre, performed Bandh to full houses for four nights this June. The company described Bandh as "a meditation on a dream, a journey into a style of being where we are able to focus on the desires, hopes and aspirations that sustain life-forces."
Training novice dancers of varying skills was a challenge, said Chatterjea, but the rewards were just as great. What her dancers had in common was their fierce commitment to creating community. "What I found is that everyone is an activist and what they bring with them is a map of life," she said.
The training consisted not simply of dance, but also nonviolence workshops, community-building exercises and story-gathering workshops.
Chatterjea's dancers confirm her success in creating a community for women of color where, as she said, "through their art they can create social change." Gina Lynn-Kaur Kundan, a 34-year-old mother of two who works as a cultural center advisor at the University of Minnesota, said, "Not only has Ananya provided the women in her projects with world-class instruction-for free-she has also helped us find our strength, our voices and our confidence."
Much of Chatterjea's success can be attributed to her constant demand for excellence. "I'm very unambiguous about how much I will ask of them," she said. "I tell them they will work hard."
Although many of her dancers had full-time jobs and families, they often trained for four hours a day. Chatterjea demands this commitment because another barrier she'd like to break down is the perceived one between high art and community art.
The company's next work explores the meaning of femininity through the imagery of water. "That's what femininity is," said Chatterjea, "force and flow."
Performances are scheduled for September 2006 at the Southern Theater. Chatterjea received an overwhelming response from interested women of color after Bandh, but she had little space to recruit new women because much of her original company has stayed on.
Some of the dancers have taken on greater responsibility in the organization. "I'm no longer in charge," said Chatterjea. "It's really democratic now."
She says allowing the evolution of leadership is critical in making change. "This is why women succeed," she said.
All around the world, women are fighting for social justice, and Chatterjea suggests that their successes have one thing in common: "If you want something to succeed, you have to give up power and share it."