Since April, Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT) has held a series of “michhil” — the Bengali word for processions — around the Twin Cities, themed around different social justice movements. It began with a procession held on Ambedkar Jayanti (otherwise known as Equality Day, named after Indian reformer B.R. Ambedkar), where the dance company marched for liberation for Dalit people and anti-caste consciousness. Other processions took place over the course of the spring and summer, including one centered around George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, one led by Ojibwe activist Sharon Day, and one at Frogtown Farm honoring the interconnection between people and land.
This weekend, ADT brings its last procession into the theater when it presents “Michhil Amra | We Are The Procession,” at The O’Shaughnessy. The work harnesses the energy of a protest with high production values made by a team of artists, musicians, designers and dancers. Here’s an interview with choreographer and ADT artistic director Ananya Chatterjea about the project. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
Sheila Regan: How did you come up with the idea of doing this series of processionals?
Ananya Chatterjea: I did one of these processionals activating the social justice corridor along University Avenue a couple of years ago, with Frogtown Farm, Ua Si Creative, and Penumbra. And I’ve done water walks with Sharon Day. Processionals are an essential part of South Asian, but also Bengali, specifically, culture. An enduring memory of my childhood is being stuck on the bus getting home because people were protesting. And while it was a nuisance for a lot of reasons, I was always struck by — Wow, this many people spilling out onto the public street — there’s no way you can not pay attention.
Processions are part of South Asian culture, generally — for weddings and religious ceremonies and all that. But these were political processions. And this was important to me as someone who’s interested in the relationship between public art and stage performance. I have a problem with the notion that something that is “high art” belongs to a special stage, whereas the other belongs on the street — I am always interested in finding the relationship between them. As performers we can navigate that. How can we invite the energy of the street into the work? And how can we bring the nuanced stagecraft to play out in public art performances?
This is the most hyperlocal work I’ve done in a way, because it is directly inspired by the uprising, the creation of the George Floyd Memorial and the garden, and the way in which it is held with love and care.
SR: What challenges or surprises have you encountered organizing these outdoor processions?
AC: There’s always this thing of asking for permission. I neither had the resources to spend hours and hours asking for permission to do a procession, and I wanted to say it’s not about official sanction. It’s about coming onto the streets, occupying the streets of these Twin Cities where we live and work, even if the powers that be don’t care for us.
SR: And so how is Michhil Amra, coming to The O’Shaughnessy, informed by the Michhil series you’ve conducted around the Twin Cities?
AC: Every time we were there in the garden at George Floyd Square, watching the way in which it is cared for, inspired the third section of the piece. The way in which Sharon Day works with the water, that is part of the care also of the third section.
Some of the songs that Pooja [Goswami Pavan] has sung for the second section, are directly from some of the processions that have been part of the response to the current government in India. Holding the devastation that we experienced in the George Floyd March — that’s in the show. What is the ritualistic aspect of holding grief? That’s part of sections one and two.
SR: How would you say this show that’s coming to The O’Shaughnessy is different from other stage performances you’ve done?
AC: It’s unique in the level of local collaborators that I’ve invited. There’s three live music artists and one spoken word artist. There’s a lot of visual arts and scenic design that my team has created, directly inspired by what we’ve seen and experienced.
I’ve had interactions in pieces before, but the extent of which the audience is involved in audience participation is definitely different. There is a procession that happens from the audience to the stage — we’ve been working on the logistics of that forever.
SR: What is something you want audiences to know about this work?
AC: I feel like we don’t know how to talk about energy, but I feel that we must. I’m hoping people who experience the work will enjoy what it means to give their energy to the cause of justice. I’m very clear about this justice-oriented piece of it. I think a lot about Jan. 6, 2021, because that, too, was a procession of people who decided that they didn’t have justice in their hands. So what does it mean to do it differently? What does it mean to remember? What does it mean for us to come together?
SR: There’s been a lot of hand-wringing that audiences still haven’t come back. In this third year of the pandemic, theaters are still struggling, venues are still struggling. How are you hoping to engage and bring audiences in?
AC: I understand why people are hesitant. We are still dancing in masks, and it’s damn hard. But what inspired this piece was, if you remember, right after the murder of George Floyd, we were all in lockdown. And then Nekima Levy Armstrong sent out a call on Facebook saying, “Oh, my God, what did I just see? Come to this place.” And people just poured out. I feel like that wider call touches on the question of what performance serves at this time and place. How does dance and performance circulate in this world to bring us some kind of hope, to bring us some kind of a heart salve? Brings a little bit of comfort to our aching hearts.
It’s been the work of a lifetime. It’s the most hyperlocal of my works, because it has so much connection to the Twin Cities history. There’s a lot of dimensions, and I’m trying to draw these threads from the world with us here in the Twin Cities. Hopefully that comes across, and people feel seen in the warmth of that connectivity.