Asian Music and Dance

In Conversation – Ananya Chatterjea

Dancer, scholar and social activist Dr Ananya Chatterjea is celebrating the tenth anniversary of her company Ananya Dance Theatre. Based at the University of Minnesota, ADT creates original works that address women’s issues in the wider social and political context.

Seeking alliances with women of colour in the United States, Ananya Chatterjea gives a new slant and purpose to the classical and folk-based movement arts of India. She tells Sanjeevini Dutta of her journey thus far.

How long have you been teaching at the University of Minnesota and what led you to the US?

I’ve been teaching at the U of M since 1999. I had trained from when I was young in odissi and other Indian movement forms but as I grew up, I was feeling torn between the world of classical studio and that of street theatre, where feminists and workers’ unions were creating powerful theatre. I came to the US in search of a contemporary idiom. I wanted space to think about my training from a contemporary, feminist perspective but felt that within my established identity as a ‘classical dancer, shishya of the great Guru Sanjukta Panigrahi’ (practising in Kolkata), there wasn’t so much space.

How does an academic continue to practice dance?

I find the schism between theory and practice in dance untenable for me personally. I have always presented myself as a ‘hybrid’ researcher. I love thinking about dance critically and also finding the applications of discursive dimensions in the crafting of a movement vocabulary and choreography, staging of ideas, production values. This, however, is a tough challenge. Practice is not to be taken lightly and as we grow older, the preparation of the body while maintaining the agility of the mind requires a ton of work. I work really hard to keep my double agenda alive, as a result of which I never end up folding my laundry! 

I understand that you trained in odissi. The form lacks hard edges. How do you use the form to tell uncomfortable stories?

Odissi allows me the possibility of precision with feminine curvilinearity. The rounded lines of odissi become a way for me to overlay one difficult story with another and find resonances between stories … However, what I work with is not classical odissi. I have created a form that I call Yorchha, which brings together principles from odissi and yoga primarily, and some chhau. The breath and extensions and line of yoga intersect with the rhythmic possibilities, torso and hip juxtapositions of odissi and pelvic floor openness of chhau, giving me a fabulous range in my vocabulary. I have also created a very specific pedagogy to train my dancers, so it’s very systematic.

How did you find common cause with women from such divergent backgrounds (Hispanics, black Americans) who are part of your Company?

Through study of history and analysing my own experiences, and really studying how systemic forces of racism, sexism and homophobia intersect in our daily lives and in larger organisational structures. Really, my life’s work has been about building alliances among communities of colour.

Do you think dance can ever be an agent for social change?

I absolutely believe this. My work is about intersecting dance and social justice. However, though dance does not work to create legislative changes, it can change minds, provoke questions and move people to think about something. I also have a theory of energy which I call Aanch, ‘heat/desire’, which is at the root of changes and, like energy, cannot be seen or touched but moves through the world to shift things.

What would you count as your greatest success?

This one I don’t know. Perhaps the fact that this year the Company is celebrating its tenth anniversary as my daughter goes to college suggests that I have managed to build a platform… that I have managed to establish a training that is solid and created dancers who take pride in their identity as ‘cultural activists’, despite all odds – and there has been plenty of opposition!

What would you still like to achieve?

Primarily to create a solid base for my Company so that the next generation – my dancers who will take on this charge after I retire – do not have to reinvent the wheel but can take the work forward.



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