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Dancing for Justice ... An UpTake Leadership Profile: Ananya Chatterjea

Dancing for Justice ? An UpTake Leadership Profile: Ananya Chatterjea from The UpTake. Like this? Watch the latest episode of The UpTake on Blip! http://blip.tv/the-uptake/watch

Ananya Dance Theatre?s performances are about more than entertainment. Their purpose is to make you think. To make you think about how oil companies are destroying the environment. To make you think about how environmental destruction hurts women around the world. And while using dance might not result in bills or ballots, it can achieve social change in different ways. Ananya Chatterjea, a 48-year-old native of Calcutta, India, moved to Minnesota in 1998 and founded Ananya Dance Theatre in 2004 to bring women of color together in a safe place and explore social justice through dance. Chatterjea believes her mission is to transport both her dancers, and the audience, to uncomfortable places and force them to confront issues that society too often ignores, such as environmental destruction and systemic violence against women. ?Dance for social justice entails that you constantly investigate your own process. That you figure out where you?re creating access, for whom, and why,? said Chatterjea, the company?s artistic director and choreographer. She?s also a professor in the Department of Theater Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota, has received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and won awards from Black Indian Hispanic Asian Women in Action, MN Women?s Political Caucus, Women?s E-News and the Josie Johnson Social Justice and Human Rights Award. ?Arts reveal something that is at the depth of the human experience, and about the relationship with nature that is perhaps not about logistics. It?s a spiritual, emotional experience. That?s why the arts are the best way to reveal that.? The company?s impact is measured in ideas, emotions and planting seeds within communities. ?Ananya and her dancers embody the struggles and the injustice that are at the root of the story she tells through movements,? said Vickie Benson at the McKnight Foundation, which supports Ananya?s work. Cindy Gehrig at the Jerome Foundation (which has in the past supported the company) added that Ananya leaves an indelible mark on the community level. ?Ananya?s practice is so much about community engagement,? said Gehrig, who claims she never misses a performance. ?She brings in a wide range of diverse dancers and she commits to training and developing them for years to come. Her commitment to people who dance with her has had reverberations throughout the community.? Ananya Dance Theatre often resonates deeply with its audience, and causes change within them. While watching the 2012 performance of ?Moreechika: Season of Mirage?, which confronts our society?s dependence on oil, one audience member told Chatterjea that she realized in the middle of the production, ?I have to go home and throw out everything that contains petroleum jelly.? Nothing, no amount of lectures or data that she had encountered, had given her that urge. But watching oil?s impact on humanity through dance had that impact. ?We?re artists. So we are not responsible for legislative shifts,? said Chatterjea. ?That?s not what we do. Our work is in opening the ground, creating a space for questions, for provoking discussion, and for offering images that then resonate in people?s minds. So the way in which we understand our impact is when audiences come back year after year to see the work. When audiences come for a community conversation.? The company uses allegory and movement on stage to show how the struggle for natural resources around the world leads to violence and environmental destruction, particularly against women. ?To investigate how women in global communities of color experience and resist systemic violence, we started to look at four things: land, gold, oil and water,? said Chatterjea. ?The way in which these natural elements have been marked as commodities has caused tremendous systemic violence across the world. Putting those stories out there is part of shifting the cultural landscape.? Dancer Chitra Vairavan recalls being inspired by an Indian allegory of a little bird that flew over a forest fire to a lake to get droplets of water to feed its doomed babies waiting in a tree. The fire laughed at the bird and promised to burn the tree down, but the bird answered, ?it doesn?t matter; I just want to do the right thing and go down on the right side of history.? Many dances are developed by members of the company and are inspired by scenes they?ve witnessed in their lives. For example, Vairavan performed a solo dance in ?Moreechika: Season of Mirage? that was prompted by an image she saw of a bird caught in oil. ?I was very inspired by the hopeless image of a bird that was contorted and frozen in an otherworldly way,? she said. Gina Kundan, Ananya Dance Theatre?s Board Chair added that, as performances draw near, issues in the national news often dovetail with the messa

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