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Ananya Chatterjea: ‘What a beautiful view it is to imagine a just world’

The 2021 A.P. Anderson Award honoree is dancer and choreographer Ananya Chatterjea, the founder of Ananya Dance Theatre.

"Shaatranga," (2018)
"Shaatranga," (2018)
Photo by Randy Karels

The A.P. Anderson Award, presented each year since 1999 by the Anderson Center in Red Wing, doesn’t come with a big purse or a golden statuette. Given in recognition of outstanding contributions to literature and the arts in Minnesota, it comes with 20 years of good company. Past recipients include Siah Armajani, Patricia Hampl, Philip Brunelle, Warren MacKenzie, Louise Erdrich and Lou Bellamy.

The award is named for Dr. Alexander P. Anderson, inventor of puffed rice and puffed wheat, who was also an educator, botanist, writer and naturalist.

The 2021 honoree, who will be celebrated in an online ceremony later today (Friday, March 26), is Ananya Chatterjea. A dancer, choreographer, scholar and educator, she feels seen by the award.

“The Anderson is an interdisciplinary award,” she said by phone earlier this week. “Dancing, making dances and being a scholar of dance studies are all important to me. I refuse the binary where dancers can be entertainers or they can be thinkers. My thinking is powered by my dancing, and my dancing is powered by my critical analysis. I have aligned my balance with justice.”

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Born in Kolkata (Calcutta), Chatterjea moved to the United States in the 1990s to study at Columbia and Temple universities. In 1998, she joined the dance faculty at the University of Minnesota, and in 2004 she founded Ananya Dance Theatre to bring women of color together in a safe place and explore social justice through dance. Ananya has grown into a Twin Cities-based professional dance company of BIPOC women, womxn and femme artists who believe in the power of dance to shift mainstream culture.

Ananya Dance has premiered an original evening-length dance work, with commissioned score, every year since 2005. Chatterjea’s dances – she choreographs every one – are not about dying swans, sleeping beauties or nutcrackers. They are choreographic responses to global and local issues: marginalization, racism, climate justice, land rights violations, dislocation, mining, oil, access to water. She calls them “people powered dances of transformation.” When her dance for 2020, “Dastak,” could not be performed for live audiences, it became a series of four films, “Earth,” “Water,” “Fire” and “Air.”

In 2018, Ananya Dance opened its Shawngram (Bangla for “resistance”) Institute for Performance and Social Justice in St. Paul. The big windows face University Avenue’s light rail, car and foot traffic. In non-pandemic times, passersby can stop and watch dancers rehearsing.

Chatterjea’s previous awards include Guggenheim, McKnight, Urban Bush Women and Dance USA fellowships, a Joyce Foundation Award and the Sage Outstanding Dance Educator Award. Earlier this month, she was named the McMurrin Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Utah. Her second book, “Heat and Alterity in Contemporary Dance: South-South Choreographies,” was published in October.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Looking back to when the pandemic began, what were you doing in March 2020?

Ananya Chatterjea: We had just finished a choreographic residency in February at the Maggie Allesee choreographic center [at Florida State University]. One of our collaborators, Spirit McIntyre, who is located in New Orleans, was here with us. We were creating a piece [“Dastak”] to premiere in September, and we started to hear these things about COVID. [McIntyre] left on Sunday and we shut everything down. It was an intensely creative period, and it just got cut.

Ananya Chatterjea
Photo by Nora Chian
Ananya Chatterjea: "We can’t go back to normal, because normal wasn’t working for many people. We have had the opportunity to really think about what it means to commit to justice. What else can I do? What can be done better? Different?"
MP: And from there?

AC: The journey that happened after was very unexpected, with deep learning. I learned to teach from home on video. The [killing] of George Floyd happened, and we participated in those protests. Our institute on University Avenue [Shawngram] was damaged and boarded up for several months.

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We rehearsed in the parks, specifically Brackett Park, which is close to my home. And we encountered the third pandemic, the crisis of affordable housing. We were making a piece about borders and home, loss and belonging, and here we were, next to people who were unsheltered. We had to really think about what that meant.

[NOTE: For several months starting in June 2020, the Minneapolis Park Board allowed people experiencing homelessness to live in parks temporarily.]

Working in the park was useful, because we learned all kinds of things. We have these syllabic accompaniments we say as a way to keep together during dance, and we learned to say them over our masks. We learned to dance in the sun. That is something you have to build capacity to do, dancing in the sun for a couple of hours. And we shared the field with a lot of people playing sports who were not used to sharing the field.

We ended up making four dance films with our collaborator Darren Johnson. It’s crucial for us to have a record of our work during this time. [Musician and composer] Dameun Strange came out to the park and played with us. So much of the creative process for the films happened from that.

We were supposed to premiere “Dastak” in September, and then we were set to go on tour. I was so excited because I had the best collaborators: Sharon Bridgforth from California, Spirit McIntyre from New Orleans, Dameun Strange and Marcus Young, my local collaborators for a long time. And then everything stopped.

Ananya Dance in "Fire" from "Dastak" (2020)
Photo by Darren Johnson
Ananya Dance in "Fire" from "Dastak" (2020)
Tours are very special to performing artists. Opportunities to tour are rare. When you tour a piece, you really learn about the piece, you go deep into the work and you get to share your work widely. It was sad that was taken away from us, but here we are, hoping that in the future we can regain that opportunity.

MP: We’re seeing a lot of dance films during COVID. Will you continue to use film in your work?

AC: We have always used film as a graphic element. Film as part of our scenography will remain. But I really love live engagement, and I’m not about to give that up. The biggest thing about dance is its energetic exchange. That’s not something that happens in dance films.

MP: Your process is very collaborative. How did the pandemic change the way you create work?

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AC: It was difficult. A lot of conversation happens with the dance artists. This is something we couldn’t do too much, because if you’re outside and wearing masks, how much can you scream? We struggled because of that.

I work in a way where people are constantly weaving in and out of the choreography. There are some sections where the choreography is the same for everyone and you’re trying to build energy with what I call uniform ensemble dancing. And there are sections where it’s non-uniform ensemble dancing and the choreography is different for each person. A phrase begins differently for each person. Different bodies do different things, and it comes together in the end. That is impossible for me to accomplish at this point, because it’s complex patterning and I can’t see everyone at the same time. Some are on Zoom and some are in person.

MP: How did the killing of George Floyd affect your work?

AC: Many of us were at the first protest. We continued to be involved in everything that happened. I live on Lake Street some blocks down from the Third Precinct, very close to everything that was happening.

Right now, I’m remaking the part of “Dastak” called “Air.” What is the value of breath at this time? I experience breath as one of our most precious and contested resources. What catches your breath? I want to start thinking about that.

MP: Has the past year had a silver lining?

AC: Definitely. We can’t go back to normal, because normal wasn’t working for many people. We have had the opportunity to really think about what it means to commit to justice. What else can I do? What can be done better? Different? I’ve had space and time to consider those questions. The commitment to social justice is not a one-time deal. It’s something you have to keep considering. Injustice is so deeply embedded in our systems.

MP: What are some things you’re thinking about doing or changing?

AC: I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship of dance to direct action. Someone invited me to dance at a rally on Lake Street for women at the border who were being forcibly sterilized, and I did. Recently, we were up in Palisade, Minnesota, dancing to protest the Line 3 pipeline. Once I said these things to the world, the world was like “You need to now do this work,” and more opportunities started to show up.

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MP: What do you hope the future looks like for your dance company?

AC: I want it to be a sustainable future, where we’re able to sustain our artistic practice with integrity. I do metaphoric work, but it definitely is not pretty dance. The work is not just going to entertain you. It’s going to ask you to think about something and participate in something, and people don’t always want to do that.

The demand for entertainment is much, much bigger. And we have to keep pushing back, because that’s not what we do. It’s not what I think artists should have to do. Artists are in charge of vision-building, of expanding our imagination. That’s different work. I hope that people begin to realize the power of our visions to shift social formations.

Some people have walked out [of our performances]. There have been a couple of times when someone said, “I don’t understand dance, and I’m not into this justice thing at all. I’m here because my daughter forced me to come.”

When someone says something like that, you have a knee-jerk reaction. I try not to go there. I give myself to that moment and say to myself, “This is an opportunity. I’m going to try my hardest to invite you over to this side and show you what a beautiful view it is to imagine a just world.”

"Sutrajaal," 2019
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio
"Sutrajaal," 2019
MP: Are you encouraged or discouraged by the events of the past year?

AC: Encouraged by some things, deeply heartbroken about others. I see the injustice going on in India, the country of my birth. I see what is going on in Myanmar. There’s so much that is difficult in the world. The challenge of this moment is how to keep energizing the things that are going well, even as we push back against things that are not going well, and how to be caring with each other.

MP: What gives you hope personally?

AC: What gives me hope is young people organizing in an intersectional way. After the Atlanta murders, I saw young Black organizers hold space and offer support. They went out of their way to say, “We got it, we got you, we’re holding you, we know what this is like, we’ve been through this.” That was really beautiful.

And amazing leaders who push back and do what is inconvenient in order to stand up for justice. Like Stacey Abrams. She’s not pushing for her own political advantage. She’s doing the work. She’s not doing things for power, she’s working on principle. That’s inspiring.

MP: What is the first thing you’ll do when we’re no longer in a pandemic?

AC: Oh! Hug my people I love, first of all. Dance together. Breathe together. One of the strong things in my choreography is this notion of femme intimacy. To really entangle my limbs with other artists in choreography. I want to go back to that. I’ve missed that.

Right now, my students are dancing in little squares. They’re breathing through masks. I want to encourage them to dance with power, to fill spaces with their energy.

When this is over, all of that.

***

The A.P. Anderson Award Ceremony with Ananya Chatterjea will stream tonight (Friday, March 26) at 7 p.m. on Anderson Center’s YouTube channel. It will include a live Q&A.

View all four “Dastak” films here.