Contemporary Indian dance company Ananya Dance Theatre has a new home where they’re making pieces that are as political and community-engaged as they are entertaining.
In recent months, the group has created works in response to local police shootings and danced during an immigration protest; this fall will mark the culmination of their five-piece series on women and the work they do around the world.
Their new space, the Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice, is just off Lexington Parkway in the East Midway neighborhood of St. Paul. The windows look out onto a bustling University Avenue.
“When we are dancing [in this new space], there are people who just go by here and they dance around on the spot when they see us or when they hear the music,” says artistic director Ananya Chatterjea.
The facility is also across the street from Gordon Parks High School and the High School for Recording Arts, a fact that is not lost on Chatterjea. “That, to me, is the biggest thing… [for students] to just know that dance is possible in their lives,” she says. “That children on their way back home from school would be like, ‘Oh, maybe this is something I can do.’”
Opening a center that combines dance, activism, and community has been a dream of Chatterjea’s for quite some time. The dream became reality at the end of May during a week where scholars, artists, activists, and healers from all over the world were in town for a summit that Chatterjea had organized at the University of Minnesota, where she’s a professor. Participants convened at Shawngram for a blessing ceremony to inaugurate the space.
“We began with blessings from Dakota and Anishinaabe activists,” she says, adding that spiritual leaders from other communities also gave blessings of peace and love. These offerings still sit on an altar in the building; there are shells and a lei from Hawaii, an elephant from a Hmong spiritual leader, and a poem by artist Marcus Young.
Programming began promptly after. This summer, ADT offered an intensive course in which dancers, scholars, and folks from the community investigated the intersections of dance and social justice. The three-week program took place for three hours a day, five days a week; participants took dance technique classes and learned pieces from ADT’s repertoire. Teaching artists not only taught movement but shared the company’s process of integrating social justice goals with dance.
The program was open to all, regardless of skill level or experience. Crystal Brown signed up shortly after her mother’s death. Her background is in social work, and she had never taken a dance class before. However, she didn’t find the experience to be overwhelming—she found it to be cathartic. “I know that dance helps you get trauma out of your body,” she says. “It’s not just important, it’s needed. It is something that should be in every school.”
It’s never just about dance for artistic associate Kealoha Ferreira, who taught classes at the summer intensive. “It’s as much about the dance as it is about developing community,” Ferreira says. When news broke during a class session that Minneapolis police had fatally shot Thurman Blevins, it fueled conversation. The dancers created a piece in response, which they performed at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Center right before a protest march for reuniting families at the border.
For now, the institute is the home base for ADT as they prepare for their fall concert at the O’Shaughnessy, which will be followed by an international tour that includes visits to Bethlehem, Delhi, and cities around the U.S. They will also host a national conference, along with Arts in a Changing America and Pangea World Theater, highlighting national and local artists of color doing social justice-based work.
Chatterjea hopes that the institute can be a resource not only for ADT but for other groups that are committed to social justice. She also plans to host an event featuring some of the dance artists who have worked with ADT and are now finding their way as independent artists.
As a choreographer, mentor, and educator, Chatterjea has nurtured a number of emerging and established dance artists in town.
“I love being able to be part of a bigger movement,” says Chatterjea. “I didn’t want to be a solo artist, because that’s boring to me. I love being amidst people, amidst a movement.”
Former ADT member Chitra Vairavan has recently been making waves as a dance maker in her own right. She won a SAGE Award in 2015, was a McKnight Fellow in 2016, and is currently a Naked Stages Fellow. She believes her less-than-traditional explorations into choreography and performance were critical to her professional development.
“My introduction to the contemporary dance world was not through any dance program or institutional training,” says Vairavan. Rather, she found her voice as an artist through ADT’s collective of intergenerational female artists of color. “It’s the space that empowered me,” she says.
With Yorchha, ADT’s unique approach to dance, Chatterjea has essentially created a new movement vocabulary. Yorchha blends the classical Indian dance form Odissi with yoga and the martial art form Chhau.
It all came about when she was training as a dancer in India, learning Odissi in her guru’s space. At the bus stop where she’d wait to go home, she would often see things like demonstrations, women’s groups organizing, and street theater. “How do I bring these things together?” she thought.
When Chatterjea moved to the United States, she set out to create a contemporary form that came from her South Asian roots. Chhau’s strength and broad torso movements extend the Odissi form, which gives the latter a sense of empowerment.
However, it took some time to expand movement into the political activism realm.
“Social justice-based choreography is something I literally had to teach myself,” Chatterjea says. “I learned about staging, I learned about lighting, I learned about which stories to juxtapose and how to create a transition from one story to another. I came to those choreographic tools because of my commitment to social justice.”
This fall at the O’Shaughnessy, ADT will present Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds, the final piece in a quintet focused on the work women do around the world. The series came out of the company’s research into how women resist violence and seek justice, often working in ways that aren’t seen or acknowledged.
In Shaatranga, Chatterjea questions how women around the world can show up for each other. The performance includes shipwrecks, golden deer, blue jeans, and pre-colonial trade routes, using metaphors and history to investigate the root of capitalism, and how over centuries it has become a drug that both entices and destroys.
Chatterjea says this fall’s show will be the last time she presents anything from the series. She plans on shifting to single works in the future, as she wants to be able to be in the moment, responding to current events.
“What I really need as an artist is to be present in my daily life,” Chatterjea says. “To respond, to offer a different vision, to offer a different take. These are the documents of our time, this is how dance is part of history, because it makes its own statement.”