Spotlight on Ananya Dance Theatre

By Samra Khawaja
Group of female dancers posed on stage.
Ananya Dance Theatre archives. Courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre. Photo credit: Paul Virtucio.

“The arts inject stories and stories bring humanity.” - Ananya Chatterjea

Ananya Dance Theatre (ATD), an NEA grantee located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has been a performing arts center for women of color for over a decade now. Ananya, which means “like whom there is no other,” serves as an ensemble space where performers bring dance and activism together. Using the power of contemporary Indian dance, ATD invites women of color from around the globe to share the stage. According to founder, artistic director, and choreographer Ananya Chatterjea, the company’s focus is exploring issues that are part of women’s daily lives by using their personal stories. Through these stories, ATD hopes to inspire their community toward equity and justice. This September, the theater will host a program called Horidraa: Golden Healing, which will spotlight the journey of healing for women who have not only endured physical and/or mental pain themselves, but are also bringing healing to community members. Horidraa, a Bengali term for golden yellow turmeric, is a vivid memory of Chatterjea’s childhood as she recalls it being used regularly as an antiseptic by her mother. As turmeric serves to heal from the inside, Chatterjea says, this is the reason why the program was also given this metaphorical title. Chatterjea joined us in a telephone interview to share with us about this upcoming program, how the community and dancers are participating in each other’s healing, and what she hopes the future for women artists looks like. NEA: Tell us about the upcoming program Horidraa: Golden Healing, and how is it unique from all the other performances the theatre has put on. ANANYA CHATTERJEA: One of the things I've noticed is the ways in which women work in huge ways to sustain their communities, but it's never acknowledged as work. It sort of becomes like, “Oh, yeah, she did that because that's what women do.” This is very true in global communities of color and it does change the way we come to know the world.  This program looks at the ways in which women are working toward healing at a time of trauma. There are constantly ways in which women are working to heal the community, but they never get the recognition of that work. I feel like it's a project that looks both at women's trauma and looks at the ways in which women seek to heal individually and collectively.  NEA: The artists at Ananya are described as “cultural activists.” Could you define this and explain what role dance plays in this activism?  CHATTERJEA: Part of this work is to remember and to acknowledge. We believe dance actually functions in really important ways. Dance is not an aesthetic in which there is no politics. It is actually doing solid work of holding memories in our bodies--memories we may not remember, ancestral memories, or cultural memories that may not be accessible verbally, but somewhere in our bodies we know it. The cultural activism then becomes about looking at dance, at this really potent form of connecting through imagination, through remembering, through dreaming, through moving energies. NEA: How do you translate emotions in dance?  CHATTERJEA: That's why I love dance. Powerful, potent, imagery is in my hands and I can create that. I create imagery. I try to feed a kaleidoscope of different images juxtaposed against each other which respond to each other to create this sort of energy to convey the idea I'm trying to say. 
Female dancer, on stage, balancing her body on her hands with a angry face.
Ananya Dance Theatre archives. Courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre. Photo credit: Paul Virtucio.
NEA: Can you describe the range of dancers participating and how this diversity fulfills the program’s intentions?  CHATTERJEA: My specific intention is to connect the history of people of color, particularly women of color, and feel how they connect with each other. The language we use is contemporary Indian dance. It's a very specific language that I've created based on intersecting the principles of three dance forms I've learned: Odissi (classic dance form), Chhau (a martial arts form), and Yoga.  The women come from all parts of the world. No one comes with training in this form. People begin as apprentices in training with me, then we evolve the language on the bodies of my dancers of the last decade. Our bodies are different, but we all have a shared base. When they become professionals, they join the company. They become part of a community in which they are learning not just movement, but stories and story sharing.
Tdwo female dancers posing together; one standing in front of the other, both in dark attire and on a dark stage setting.
Ananya Dance Theatre archives. Courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre. Photo credit: Paul Virtucio.
NEA: Dance isn’t the only element being created for this specific performance. There’s also an original score created for the work. How are all these diverse collaborations working together? CHATTERJEA: We bring together women that come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. What I’m so proud of is that the score is truly global in that way, like the bodies of the women. All of our languages come into this. There are many different languages that get spoken in the score as well as sung and different kinds of sounds. We're trying to take the resonance of the stories together and bring it to the stage. NEA: What do you hope comes out of this performance? CHATTERJEA: I hope we can talk about the multiple levels of pain and trauma for women of color in this community. At the same time, we need to remember women are not victims, they are absolutely powerful women who are actively healing. You need to acknowledge both the tragedy of what happened and at the end, be so amazed at people's abilities to actively reach toward their healing. 
A group of female dancers on stage pounding the stage as water falls on them.
Ananya Dance Theatre archives. Courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre. Photo credit: Paul Virtucio.
NEA: How do you think the arts are empowering women today? CHATTERJEA: There are ways in which more and more women are creating art. At the same time as there are more and more women represented, there are also modes that are constantly [telling] women that they are only valid when they are beautiful, young, sexy, and doing dances of seduction. So it worries me. That's not where our power lies, necessarily. Women can do what they want as long as they know what they're doing and have access to understanding their power. NEA: Complete this thought. The arts matter because… CHATTERJEA: Arts inject our daily life struggles and our stories of our joys as well as our courage as well as our fear and pain into the mainstream consciousness. Those stories are what, in fact, create moments and actually bring humanity. Otherwise, we would never understand each other. The arts inject stories and stories bring humanity.