Art as Knowing


University of Minnesota
West Bank Arts Quarter
Regis Center for Art
Barbara Barker Center
for Dance

Free and open to the public


Schedule (PDF)

Ananya Chatterjea

Alan ReadLocation: In Flux Space, E110 Regis Center for Art, 405 21st Avenue South, Minneapolis

Title: “Dancing Acts of Community”

Artist Statement : As a contemporary choreographer working in the field of Indian dance, I am constantly seeking to enhance my understanding of my dance heritage, layering the traditional with the contemporary, the sacred with the secular, the past with the present. I began my career as an exponent of the Odissi dance form, having trained with my guru Sanjukta Panigrahi for over 20 years. A classical dance form from East India, Odissi remains the source of my creative work.

Odissi celebrates sensuality and beauty, particularly of female bodies, and it celebrates the divine lovers, Krishna and Radha. Early on, I was mesmerized by the beauty of this form characterized by bhangis (sculptures), complex rhythmic structures, and subtle torso movement (bakhyachalana). But through time I found myself somewhat distanced from the ideas in which this dance was embedded.

As a young dancer, I also participated in street theater in Kolkata, where we critiqued, through performance, forms of violence against women. In this context, that concept of divine love seemed far from reality. It also seemed difficult to access the sensuality in a context where industrialization was turning women’s bodies into commodities. I was also disturbed by the “market” mentality that increasingly came to dominate the ways in which classical dance was being learned and performed on the concert stage. Through these questions, I arrived at the beginning of my journey as choreographer. I decided to work through and extend the aesthetic of Odissi to find within it the vocabulary and structure to dance about female subjectivities and contemporary women’s experiences.

Through these reflections, I also learned that my inspiration lay, not in dancing about divinities, or mythological characters, but about everyday people and their daily struggles. My current artistic work has two important and equally important goals: community-building and artistic excellence. I work primarily with a company of 25 women of color, Ananya Dance Theatre, some of who are trained dancers, while others are less trained, but believe strongly in the idea of pushing for social change through art. Through an intensive program lasting well over a year, these women work together, training with me both in Odissi and in movement forms such as yoga and a martial art form from Orissa, Chhau.

They also participate in several workshops on anti-violence work, in anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic work, conducted by leaders in this field, and in health and nutrition for women. The idea is to build a community of women who want to work together to make art about their dreams, hopes, and desires, despite their differences in race, nationality, age, sexual orientation, and class. Moreover, my inspiration is in bringing together a group of women who identify as artists and simultaneously as responsible and responsive citizens: the art-making is a response to lived realities.

The identity of the company as a group of women of color, diverse in race, age, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, but uniformly committed to artistic excellence and social justice, is vital to me and to the success of my choreographic work. Dancing together, creating art together, makes spaces for interactions among women who might not otherwise meet and decide to collectively shape a vision of the future together. It is also important to celebrate the diversity of women’s bodies, and to shift the choreography to adjust to the realities of women’s bodies, such as pregnancies.

Over the last few years my choreographic trajectory has shifted its course. Earlier, I had focused much of my work to creating dances of protest and resistance. I now seek to connect that struggle to a search for beauty, understood as a powerful philosophical force that can generate well-being and healing in the universe. This has taken me back deep into my own cultural context to understand the ideas surrounding beauty. I have come to realize that in Indian, and particularly Bengali cultural practice, which constitutes my roots, beauty is functional even as it is ritualized, manifested in the structure of the water pots and the vessels that are used everyday, in the designs village women draw every morning on the walls of their mud huts, for instance.

This journey also has shifted my aesthetic frame considerably and the mood in my current works is much more contemplative and inner-focused than before. My current choreographic process is also deeply influenced by my search into the roots of Odissi, a project on which I have worked for over a decade now. Through that journey I realized the strong feminine force that is embodied in Odissi through the primacy of the female form: the plethora of sculptures of women dancers on all temple walls; the strong tradition of shakti or goddess worship; the emphasis on particular “feminine” lines of the body, with the displaced hip and the torso movement.

Re-immersing myself into Odissi has also allowed me to arrive at an understanding of choreography that is based on indigenous ideas of structure. This is a compositional model based upon the abhinaya pieces in the Odissi repertoire, where the unfolding of an emotional landscape through danced metaphors shapes the structure of a piece. Often misunderstood to be linear “story-telling,” the abhinaya structure, particularly in Odissi, in fact allows for the communication of many nuances in any given situation as the dance delineates the layers of emotion by responding to it from different perspectives. This compositional principle also allows me to integrate the improvisational base of abhinaya, with its emphasis on sanket and ishara, ie, suggestion and metaphor.

My process has involved first reconstructing Odissi to fill in the gaps left by the colonial experience and then deconstructing to tell the stories of a diasporic and diverse group of women. It has also involved searching deep into the roots of non-classical cultural practices of Bengal in order to reach an understanding of an alternative aesthetic that foregrounds an exploration of femininity. It is my hope that journeying through the passion, flow, and rhythms of feminine subjectivities, I am continuously able to articulate a powerful feminist dance.

Biography: Ananya Chatterjea is Associate Professor in the Dept. of Theater Arts and Dance and Director of Graduate Studies in the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She is also the Artistic Director of her company, Ananya Dance Theatre, a dance company of women artists of color who believe in dancing to energize a future that is full of hope. Ananya believes in the integral interconnectedness of her creative and scholarly research and in the identity of her art and activism. Her book, Butting out! Reading cultural politics in the work of Chandralekha and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2004. Ananya has recently performed in Osaka (Dance Box Festival), Jakarta (Indonesian Dance Festival), Kuala Lampur (Sutra Dance Theater), and Minneapolis (Southern Theater).