For Ananya Chatterjea, dance is a means to fuse art with social justice. For the past twelve years, this groundbreaking choreographer, dancer, professor, and mother has been steadily building a movement. Her vision: to bring together a diverse ensemble of women-of-color artists and create original works inspired by women’s issues around the globe. Out of this came Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT), a revolutionary model of community-based, socially engaged work, which is currently developing the final piece of its trilogy on environmental justice, Ashesh Barsha, Unending Monsoon.
Chatterjea founded ADT, originally called Women in Motion, in New York in 1996 and relocated to Minneapolis two years later. The company’s aesthetic can be described as a contemporary movement hybrid, blending diverse traditional forms with modern sensibilities. Grounded in classical Odissi dance and informed by the politicized street theatre traditions of Bengal, ADT also takes cues from women’s movements, which Chatterjea remembers as a vibrant part of Indian society.
“There was always something happening,” she says. “You’d go to the bus stop, and someone’s doing a play on dowry. The women’s movement was very strong in India, but in all the history I’ve studied, that’s always left out.”
In ADT Chatterjea has created a space for both artistic creation and community dialogue. Her dancers are of different ages, shapes, abilities, and backgrounds. A piece may take a year to develop, involving input from company members as well as invested community members.
“Women have always learned to make alternative spaces,” Chatterjea says, “such as the kitchen as a space of discourse. [ADT] can never reach any decision in less than an hour (laughs). Because we collaborate with a lot of people, and different artists bring in their own agendas, we become essentially a queer space. The intimacies we work through are queer intimacies. We recognize that difference is different than diversity.”
Yet, this intensely negotiated process of art-making is always grounded in highly refined form and technique, realized through rigorous training and rehearsal.
“Because we are creating marginalized work, artistic excellence is an absolute. You simply have to get there to be taken seriously.”
For Chatterjea dance is a form of resistance, an ephemeral act of creation that defies boundaries.
“There is that moment of live, charged encounter,” she explains. “That moment can be transformative. That moment will never come back again. It harbors so much possibility. To do this work, you have to be an existentialist. You have to be a philosopher. At the end of the day, you have nothing but a broken body.”
Image from Ashesh Barsha, courtesy of Ananya Chatterjea