A New Invitation to Dance

Photo Credit Beverlie Lord/Satsun Photography

Photo Credit Beverlie Lord/Satsun Photography

Alice Sheppard is a dancer, choreographer, speaker and member of the National Advisory Board for Urban Bush Women. Her pioneering practice exists at the intersections of race, gender and disability.

“The intersections of these three form a crucible of interpretative potential. I look into the art and aesthetics that shape our understandings of human difference and make work that I hope will be part of a new, more nuanced conversation.”

Read more about her work in “A New Invitation to Dance” published in the New York Times.

Disability is more than the deficit of diagnosis. It is an aesthetic, a series of intersecting cultures, and a creative force.

Complex-Standing-There: অনন্যা চট্টোপাধ্যায় Ananya Chatterjea’s Transnational Dance

UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate অনন্যা চট্টোপাধ্যায় Ananya Chatterjea (MN) is Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theatre and makes “People Powered Dances of Transformation” intersecting women artists of color and social justice choreography. Ananya is Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota and is currently writing her second book (Palgrave McMillan), exploring the politics of “contemporary dance” from the perspective of artists from global communities of color.

In this post, the second in a five-part series of articles offering insight into the UBW 2018-2019 co-hort of choreographers redefining the world of dance today; Chatterjea talks with E. Gaynell Sherrod about her origins as choreographer and organizer and her desire to be authentically seen.

Introduction by E. Gaynell Sherrod

In late 2018, following Ananya Dance Theatre’s performances of Shaatranga at Virginia Commonwealth University, I had the pleasure of having a series of discussions with Ananya Chatterjea, ranging from an informal Sista-friend “what’s going on in your life” talk to a collegial discussion and formal interview. The following are excerpts from those discussions. It is a no-holds-barred portrayal of Chatterjea – a transnational feminist, choreographer, performing artist and scholar with exceptional acumen for creating transformational dance-theatre that challenges systemic injustice.

Towards the conclusion of our conversations, Ananya begins to describe her current work in progress shares reflections and questions about this new endeavor.

E. Gaynell Sherrod is a Katherine Dunham scholar steeped in African-American and African Diasporan dance forms. Dr. Sherrod is also a leading consultant on dance pedagogy for grades K-12 and in higher education.  She is an associate professor of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.

Photo courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre, photo credit: Paul Virtuccio

Photo courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre, photo credit: Paul Virtuccio

Embracing Multiplicity

Ananya Chatterjea (AC)
For sure, I’m not in this career for money, and one of the things I care deeply about is how we see each other
: the way in which we travel through life and this profession, either we’re not seen at all, invisibilized, or we’re hyper-visible. In my experience working from traditional form but in a complex contemporary, transnational and social justice context, either I’m perceived as speaking up too much or it is expected that I should only do ‘traditional’ work. This pull can make me so angry. Visibility; [real] visibility, that ‘complex-standing-there’— is what I want so much.

The ‘complex-standing-there’. Because, in fact, we are standing in multiple places at the same time. I want to be seen as drawing my aesthetic lineage to my long-term collaborator Laurie Carlos, and at the same time to my guru, Sanjukta Panigrahi, to June Jordan, my friend and collaborator Janice BadMoccasin, and to many cultural workers and organizers. Part of this complex lineage is interweaving the legacy of beautiful dance that I studied with lived histories of struggle for justice. People who have gone through a civil rights movement understand my work much better – they resonate more readily with the ideas conveyed in my work.  

This idea of complex-standingness, of embracing multiplicity while being clearly situated: I want to be clear that I am Bengali. I’m brown. I can’t pretend to be anything [else]. I know first-hand the grittiness of struggle that is part of everyday life based on my experiences, and this helps me understand Felicia’s story and Hui’s story [Ananya Dance Theatre company members].  

If anything, dance has given me that ability to understand
shared resistance and find resonance with others’ struggles

Dr. Ananya Chatterjea is a woman of many accolades, including award winning choreographer and performer, a 2011 John Simon Guggenheim recipient, an acclaimed author and scholar, a tenured Professor, and a transnational feminist and champion of women’s right. Just as significant, Ananya is a mother, having raised her daughter while building a grass-roots community of dance activists and organizers and founding a contemporary dance company in the middle of the US, thousands of miles from her home of Kolkata, India. 

Chatterjea’s artistic journey in the United States (US) began three decades ago when she applied to Columbia University in New York City to escape: “I didn’t want to dance the pretty classical forms and there was little space [in Kolkata] to do the kind of experimentation I aspired towards--bringing together the street theater that women’s groups and ensemble theater groups were creating, with the formal clarity of classical dance. That is, there was nothing in place to cultivate an ongoing contemporary creative practice in the way I wanted – so I applied to Teachers’ College, Columbia University [New York, New York] and I was accepted.”

Choreographic Origins

I was studying [dance] and I was trying to make space for a contemporary form. And, (a) I didn’t have the money, you know, my family was not rich, so I couldn’t really get anywhere within dance in the way I wanted to. And (b) I really didn’t want to dance about the goddesses or divine lovers who populated the world of classical dance. At the same time, within my environment, there was not the kind of investigation of contemporary dance that I was looking for. I wanted to travel and see what existed. I came to New York with the hope that I would meet these artists from all over the world.

Up to that point, Chatterjea admits that she had no specific training in how to create a dance, but soon realized that the Eurocentric western format she was learning at Columbia was not suitable for her artistic vision. She wanted, no, needed, to be able to transform seminal stories of everyday women into dance. 

This idea of how to ‘make dances’…it was new to me. I wanted to do this whole dismantling thing and when I was at Columbia, I was sent to take classes at Barnard with Janet [Soares], who was one of Louis Horst’s students. But, my god, did we have some trouble. She finally said to me one day, “I guess you’re just not what I want to see.” And my colleagues would routinely say, “Ananya, your face just says too much.” Now, facial expressions are crucial to me as part of holistic bodily engagement, so I just didn’t know why to them it was too dramatic. Whatever it was, I knew that I had not really learned to choreograph, and I knew that, whatever it was that made a Western form of a well-made dance, I didn’t want to do that.

So where do I go to make my culturally located, contemporary dances? For months, I really just studied videotapes of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, my guru’s guru, composing repertoire for my guru. And, I realized that this idea of taking a few lines of poetry and interpreting them over and over and over again in different ways and exploring, “Oh, what might happen if?” is itself a structural device. It’s not the telling of a linear story, but the invocation of an emotional landscape, where many different states of being are juxtaposed against each other. I also explored the tool of using rhythm, which, for me, articulated emotional energy… I started deconstructing rhythmic arrangements, moving away from the harmonious cycles that characterized the classical dance, and embracing jagged time signatures, dhe dhe dhe dhe dhe, fouuuur, something like that. For me, this conjured emotion like that. And, my commitment to social justice really, really taught me to choreograph. I began to think about that creative commitment to story first of all, but then I asked myself: What stories do I want to juxtapose? How do I want to weave it together? So basically, choreography is, for me, a self-taught process … and I will thank my teachers for pushing me to know what I did not want to do..

In 1992, Chatterjea entered the doctoral program in Dance Education at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here, she was under the astute guidance of many distinguished dance educators, particularly Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild who has become a life-long mentor. It was during these years that Chatterjea would begin to find a distinctive artistic voice and hone her take-no-prisoners scholarship that supports the dimensionality of her work. From the start, Ananya made her presence known at Temple and elsewhere. Many were curious about the petite Bengali woman, who was steeped in Indian classical and folk dance forms. It soon became obvious that here was an artist who was a force to reckon with. She had already began breaking the mode of her classical training by deconstructing familiar tropes of “Indian dance” to inform her rebellious impulse and create dances with authentic verve. And, she courageously embodied a revolutionary spirit of resistance and liberation in challenging the obvious bias entrenched in the academic curriculum being taught at that time.  

Although small in stature, when Ananya spoke, her ideas, inquiry and critical analysis were immense. Soon, she had large numbers of the doctoral cohort in her workshops dancing outside of a 4/4 time signature – leaning into a music scale of 7 notes accentuated with 13, 15 or 20 count phrasing. In her classes, dancers were allowed to use embellished facial gestures, an articulated neck and swivel of the head, an off-set hip, and the modular use of their fingers. In Chatterjea’s workshops, movements that were generally relegated as unsuitable in the western canon of modern dance were valued and had meaning. In her scholarship, activism in building community, and creative embodied practice – one rhythmical nritya of the feet at a time – she made a definitive impression. 

Ananya came to the US carrying ancient Indian dance traditions in her body and consciousness. Her dance path was charted by courageous women who pioneered their destinies in spite of many challenges, who made “a way out of no way,” who dared to speak out, be bold, and to lay a foundation for others to follow.  

Violence, Memory and Recovery

I’m Bengali, which means I’m from the eastern side of India, a country that has some open wounds from the long anti-colonial fight, because that state, Bengal, and the state to the north-western part, Punjab, were the two provinces that were cut in two by the British during Partition in order to separate the Hindus and the Muslims. And people from either side crossed over, with children in their laps, walking the long, long miles, people left with just the shirts on their backs, and people died, children died; people left thinking they would come back, never to return.  

The kind of mess that was created by these masses of people moving across these imagined borders in search of “home” still resonates through the culture. Women paid the price of that kind of war because inevitably they were captured and assaulted, and once they were raped by enemy soldiers, they had nowhere to go. So, there were these huge refugee camps of just women who had been sexually assaulted and accepted by no one except each other. We have never finished amending that. So much patriarchal violence... 

Pivotal to Chatterjea’s work is the idea of recovery from embodied memory, the physical price that women pay in multiple ways through trauma as the body keeps score. In Women Weaving Worlds (2018), Chatterjea lays bare a danced-journey across the Indian Ocean, connecting Asia, Africa and South America through the production and trade of indigo, and colonial violence that led to the disastrous Indigo Revolt of 1859. In this work, Chatterjea’s story-telling is directed through bodies remembering and disremembering, struggling to disentangle from indigo blue cloths of bondage – an agonizing process of trying to erase memories and experiences that are too painful to think about.

We Bengalis are a mixed people. My father was an ebony hue, my mother was like me, or a little lighter than me. We just know that we are Bengali. We are valley people, we eat rice, we eat green chilies, we eat fish, and we love our poetry. This is what I know.

How important is that distinction in regard to your artistic voice and creative work?

Very. I’ll tell you why – because in post-colonial India we start to distinguish forms designated as classical from those marked as folk dance forms, an incorrect English translation of the margi (organized in a clear repertoire pathway) and desi (local, more loosely put together). The first form to gain prominence in post-colonial India was Bharatanatyam, and it began to attract much of the national resources. Odissi had to fight to get its share of national attention. Now, Bengal does not have its own classical dance form, but we had some of the great poets, like Rabindranath Tagore, who created a space for dance dramas and creative dance. Tagore was instrumental in opening the door for women to enter dance, a field that gained much disrepute in the colonial era. Then we had Uday Shankar, who is often known as the Father of Modern Dance in India, very much exoticized in the West. His experiments, sometimes combining film and dance, opened more doors. What emerged in Bengal was a creative way of weaving together elements from many dance forms.  

Also, of particular importance to me is the aesthetic of the hand-loom cotton sari and flowers in our hair. I’m not romanticizing it, I’m drawing attention to the simplicity of the aesthetic as opposed to the silk and jewels that have become part of what people think of as Indian Dance. And, for me, I tried to bring that in to my work, not the realness of the sari or the flowers in the hair, but the idea of simplicity and poetic narrative.

Although, her work is grounded in traditional and classical Indian dance and yoga forms, still, Chatterjea is a definitive contemporary dancer, choreographer and performance artist.

Contemporary Dance 

What do you mean by contemporary in the context of dance?  

I think contemporary dance for Asia and Africa (I can’t speak for Latin America) becomes a way to push back both against Tradition
and against European modern dance – most of the time. It is a very important genre for people in global communities of color. It does seem to gather an inevitable association with avant-garde, hence it’s a highly contested category. Generally, when people say contemporary dance, what they mean is white contemporary dance. My new book interrogates this assumption.* What we have to remember is that contemporary dance parcels out broad universal signifiers … as a means to really establish a particular white supremacy aesthetic.

I’m claiming the label of contemporary choreographer
– only, I do contemporary Indian dance.

That is why it is important that I didn’t follow the western model of making dances. I had left India because I was interested in talking about contemporaneity – not the stories of gods and goddesses, not the stories of divine lovers or love-lorn heroines, but the stories of our daily-ness as women.

I reject the western model of conceptual non-dance. I follow my mode of contemporariness in structuring a mosaic of non-linear stories. And, I created my own technique, Yorchha™, in order to be able to articulate my culturally specific contemporariness.** 

A few years after coming to Temple University, Chatterjea met Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and the Urban Bush Women, Inc. (UBW) dance company. Here was a dance theatre determined by women, and about women dancing in community with ideas of resistance and liberation at the core. Chatterjea quickly realized that the work of UBW resonated with her artistic vision, and Zollar became one of the primary subjects of her dissertation research. This collaboration would ultimately result in the publication of Dr. Ananya Chatterjea’s seminal work Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies Through Works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha (2004). Similar to Zollar’s process, concepts of resistance, liberation and community building are at the core of Chatterjea’s choreographic process.

When I came to Minnesota [after graduation] I sent out a call to women of color, and I think about 45 people showed up. Fifteen years ago, there was really nothing around in terms of specific companies for women of color in Minnesota. Obviously we couldn’t take everyone, and once they saw the amount of work that was required for training, everyone couldn’t commit, which was okay. At that point, some of us just automatically rose to the top as leaders and I convened us in what we called a Steering Committee, for lack of a better word. This is also me improvising a company structure, because I had no knowledge about how to do this formally, but I knew how to build community.

A Mandate to Organize

What level of critical consciousness prompted or inspired you to start a dance company after having earned several advance degrees, started a family, and been appointed to a university faculty position?

I had grown up with two kinds of dance modes in my training, one was that of the classical artist, who was at this point primarily a soloist, but I was also part of these other ensembles. Bengal had a strong legacy of People’s Theater and I used to dance as part of some fora of revolutionary artists associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. They called themselves Radical Humanist artists, which indicated that we were reframing our folk culture through a politics of liberation.

One of the singers and songwriters that we worked with was Hemango Biswas … one of his classic songs is Shankhacheel, where the seagull becomes his voice imagining of the bombing [atomic] of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (during WWII). I feel that my transnational consciousness was born really while working in Kolkata. The choreographer we worked with was one of my teachers, the Bengali folk dance artist, Shambhu Bhattacharya.

My choreography evolved from what I experienced growing up, a tension that threatened to tear me apart. There was the classical world which was beautiful, ordered, which I studied at my guru’s center, and then, at the bus stop right across from it was the street theatre lead by women’s groups and the ensemble theatre groups. When I came here to the US, my interest in form quickly forged into a study of ensemble choreography, encouraged by my studies of feminism—and I was nurtured by the women of color feminists whose words were burned into my consciousness. I came to my commitment to the notion of community on stage.  

I want to dance with others. Togetherness, with great difference,
has been my search my whole life.

Like so many choreographers who are at the vanguard, Chatterjea is creating a dance language to support her choreographic practice and artistic vision – a foundation for its visibility and the complex-standing-there.

Because I believed it was urgent to mark my difference through aesthetic specificity, I have created a very solid training system. Moreover, the dancers must bring a state of mind that can build emotional stamina. Often, the work is about stripping away modes of dancing, understanding how a plié is different from a mandala, and learning how to go down even deeper – to root the pelvic floor nearer to the ground. I don’t believe that everybody must look the same, but I am committed to aesthetic and cultural specificity and that is why I have to remind people [the dancers] “do not point your feet, set your weight down, find the heavy pelvis”. These concepts that are core to my aesthetics.

Why is that important?

Because aesthetic specificity allows them [dancers, students and audience] to see a different way of approaching dance, so dance can also actually become a barometer for understanding, for studies in culture and aesthetics, for society and power and gender and race.

In some ways, you could say that I have retained the core of traditional practices. For instance, I love the philosophical and conceptual belief of classical training that your body is your world and that there is so much space inside. That’s the idea when we do all of the subtle torso movements of Odissi. You don’t have to do huge jumps and leaps to create exciting dance. You can move space and time through footwork, rhythm and isolation, it’s just a different philosophy of dance.

Chatterjea believes that dance is an active practice and “a practice of activism” and “radical practice” when grounded with rhythm and purpose to develop complex-standing-there and resistance. 

When I’m in it, in the
dance, I’m in it fully and it kicks my ass and I must allow the work to be grounded in the rhythm and sustained by our shared emotional stamina. This grows from my choreographic process, how it is based on the synergy of listening to each other.

We [the dancers of ADT] are all together but not the same.
This is my choreographic principle that I call Shawngram,
resistance and struggle as an activating principle.

This idea encompasses complexity that holds both dualities and everything in between. This is also the name of the Ananya Dance Theatre’s Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice in the Twin Cities.***

Shawngram allows me space to demonstrate solidarity AND reveal difference among us. I make dances because I want to be in community and dance with people - that is exciting to me- but I recognize we all arrive from different places. It also allows me to defy nationalism, which might box me into “Indianness.” I see nationalism as an ideology about dividing us, not unifying people. Differently, this juxtaposition of difference within a shared rhythmic frame allows me to stage transnational feminist convenings.

The Work is the work! 

Chatterjea’s acumen and keen sensibility to write and create work about the world as she sees it – using an unfiltered approach to hone in on disrupted truths and lay to bare unspoken realities can be unsettling for the faint at heart. Oftentimes, painful realities – when spoken out loud are delivered with anger and rage – emotions that women are taught to suppress, yet Chatterjea uses them as fuel to ignite the creative forces behind the raw narratives in her work.  For example, in Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds (2018), an evening length work in four movements, Chatterjea dance a solo, Anthem, wherein she interrogates a deep-seated pain of the collective experiences of people persecuted on many lands. It opens with Chatterjea upside down and sprawled against a backdrop of red, as if mangled and discarded in a pool of blood. Here, Chatterjea’s every movement is a cry, a plea for help and a struggle to stay alive. Her movements are that of a tortured girl-child yet references the pain-body of womanhood that she is yet to experience. It is a riveting solo, ably performed by Chatterjea. The program notes offer additional contexts for the work: 

Repeatedly, our creative process for this work has been rocked by news of violence and injustices from across the world. We hold this pain, struggle, and devastation in our hearts as we dance Shaatranga. I dedicate my dancing of Anthem to Asifa Bano, murdered by hate on January 17, 2018 at 7 years old. (Chatterjea 2018)    

On the other hand, Shyamali (2017) is about women who speak against injustice to help sustain community. It was influenced by ADT’s on the ground justice work and standing in solidarity with communities across several regions.

After Jamar Clark [shot and killed by Minneapolis police on November 15, 2015] was murdered, we were at the 4th Police Precinct protests here [Minneapolis, Minnesota]. Being there at that time, seeing what was happening – those voices of dissent right there, and then, around the same time going to Standing Rock [North Dakota] and standing in solidarity with my Native friends [Sioux Nation], were formative experiences for this work.

Inspired by the courage of women around the world, “Shyamali” means “dark green” in Bengali, and invokes the resilience of grass, which springs up when trod upon.

The work is about women’s voices of dissent, organized to effect change. As the work opens, a singular constant is the definitive sound of feet striking the floor, continuous from a gentle brush to thunderous stomp – always polyrhythmic, accentuated with syncopated hand claps or punctuated with ululations and chants. Chatterjea is a contemporary choreographer fully invested in the process. Dance critics are careful to pen their descriptions of the work with precision, aiming to elucidate the nuanced realities they’ve witnessed. ‘Shyamali’ traces the evolution of belief in one’s personal power. Its three acts represent a journey from subjugation to freedom.…The dancing contained a multitude of emotions, from mourning and tenderness to focused ferocity.” Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune

Spatial clarity, with the juxtaposition of symmetry and asymmetry, bodies forming polycentric movement being driven by polyrhythmic feet – punctuated with breath-chants and original text. One frame of choreography is encoded with enough personal testimony to cover a lifespan. Chatterjea creates movement landscapes of blurred duality – compression and expansive, oppression and liberation, pain and joy, gender specific and gender neutral – not this nor that, instead this and that, demonstrating the luminosity found in the balance. 

Mooreechika: Season of Mirage (2012), which is the last piece that Laurie [Carlos] performed with ADT, elicits an emotional response from Chatterjea. We briefly talk about the loss of her colleague, close Sista-friend and dramaturg Laurie Carlos (1949-2016). After a moment of reflection, Chatterjea finds strength to refocus.

In this piece we worked with shadow puppets and teased out this concept of contamination of our food … basically this idea of surrender – to these larger powers of production and consumerism. We have this whole rice set-up on stage and this creates a sort of chaos over food scarcity. It’s a devastating moment because rice is spilling out all over and we are desperately trying to pick it up, but the rice has become uneatable. In the performance, it’s a hard concept to fulfill because we have to use [real] rice yet we didn’t want to be wasteful, so we used very old rice – that was being thrown away by the store. After each performance the rice would stick to our bodies, but we would re-collect it, put it in containers and reuse that same rice over and over again. At the end of the run we composted it, but it was significant for us in that it taught us a whole new way of learning to work with materials –
and understanding our politics through it all.  

This work brings together many stories about global consumption of the earth’s natural resources, particularly oil and the irresponsibility of destruction of the land and ecosystems. At several points in the work, the dancers whisper Saro-Wiwa’s courageous words, “dance your anger/and your joys/dance the guns to silence/dance, dance, dance.” Set to the mesmerizing sound score of vocalizations, meditative chanting and text by the late Laurie Carlos. 

“ … The work evolves into a welcome healing ritual when rice showers down from the rafters, a reference to the cries for sustenance so often drowned out by the demand for fuel. The performers, and audience members invited onstage, contemplate the transformed space.” September 7, 2012, Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune. 

What does Chatterjea’s work look like when anger and resistance are not at the core? Is there space for ideas of hope and celebration of the human spirit in her work? 

Heck yes, I want to dance about joy, and life. It’s all connected to the creative process, the ideas, the engagement of the artists. For me, as a transnational feminist, ensemble dancing unfolds an emotional map of women in solidarity within the narrative. My job is to understand how I stand in relationship with all the women of the world. I resonate with many stories yet realize fundamentally that all stories are not mine. It is so important not to fall into the trap of the “savior” complex. I create space to facilitate the hearing and interpretation of multiple stories at the same time. It is my job [creatively] to remain open to receive these stories – ultimately, embracing personalization and depersonalization at the same time. And, this is really the essence of abhinaya—the expressive tradition in classical Indian dance--being able to transmit energies and stories. The training allows for the work to embrace this duality yet remain buoyant.  

No Intermission!

Chatterjea choreographs dances that are evening length works – 90 minutes or more, without intermission.  These non-linear narratives are conversations of discord and balance carried by the dancers as narrators and the audience as responders. Her works are performative experiences, grounded in an observer-participatory framework, wherein she offers interactive workshops and invites participants to contribute to conversation – either afar or by sharing the stage. It is a choice – not required. Nonetheless, the viewer will be immersed in the experience. The exceptional mixed media – images, visuals and sets create a 3rd dimension breaking the fourth wall of the proscenium. The viewer becomes a part of the dance as life-like images and participatory interactions engulf the theater.  This synergy of many voices in reciprocity through dance and call and response is palpable and requires a continuum – no breaks, no interruption – no intermission. 

It’s a singular stream of intersecting non-linear narratives, the juxtaposition of different stories, and they’re held together by this energetic tension between them. They need to be experienced as a whole continuous conversation, not with a break between them.”

Talk about your level of productivity – author, educator, dance leadership-activism, a touring company and performer – how do you manage and sustain all of the moving parts, and how are those parts supporting the whole?

Even as it is difficult, I could not do any of those streams of the work apart from the other. If I was just dancing and not using my critical faculty, then the dance would not be what it is. It is rich because I have read deeply. I know what June Jordan means when she says, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” All of that comes from understanding that my scholarship and my creative work are actually completely intertwined. And, because I feel so strongly about dance being a mode of organizing community, I feel like that’s completely part of my teaching and artistry – the hybridity that I bring to my students, to the studio. There is a rigor to what I do, hours of training and creating in the studio, and that level of practice inspires disciplined thinking and analytical curiosity.

Chatterjea the author and acclaimed scholar is adept at interrogating the world through multiple lenses in search of equity and balance. In a moment of reflection, she admits that her creative labor is for her daughter and young women throughout the world. 

I’m a feminist because I’m a parent and because
I want a better world for my daughter,
for next generations of global women of color.”

When I began working within a social justice process, one of the things I realized was that in order to be effective, you cannot just do the ‘flash-in-the pan’ mode, one project and then move on. I started building multi-year works. I did a trilogy on women of color and environmental injustices. I did a quartet on systemic violence and women. Recently, I just finished a five-year series about the ways in which women work to sustain and push forward their communities, imagine and conjure most just worlds, but this unmarked labor is seldom acknowledged.

Ananya is currently touring Shyamali and Shātrangā and offers insight into her musings these days in the development of a new work titled Sutrajaal (networks of connection).****

Do you feel that icy wind blowing around your heart? Watch out. This city tends to hang icicles on our dreams.

Look above you though. Dignitaries whiz past in closed-circuit containers through extreme highways built over most of the urban areas. These flyovers are efficient short-cuts to places of work, entertainment, habitation for the special people. This is Upper City, Shiny, yet Old.

Below lie the circuitous streets and dense pathways of the Broken City, paved with mangled dreams. Hope sprouts from cracks in the cement only to perish. Despair lurks around every corner.

Yet, there is a kind of haunting, a haunting of these lonely streets, overrun by shadows. And if you look carefully, you might catch sudden glimpses of a once-vibrant history: the imprint of so many women who held this city with care. Marks of their labor, their loving, haunt this city. These moments of beauty always fade away as soon as you catch a glimpse. But they return, flashes of dynamic movement, testament to lives lived full, even if they fade irreconcilably. 

The poet walks lonely through these streets all night. She has waited for the visions of memory coded in these broken walls so many times, hoping to catch them in her rhymes, so she can share them with others.

She does not know that, in another corner of the city, the dancer languishes, unable to connect to the bells that brought vibration to her feet years ago.

In yet another isolated corner, the painter weeps, unable to pick up the colors that once danced across her palette.

Snow falls silently in piles of desolation.

- Ananya Chatterjea


*Ananya’s next book, Difference in Contemporary Dance, will be published by Palgrave MacMillan London.

** A movement practice based on Contemporary Indian Dance created by Chatterjea and two founding members of Ananya Dance Theatre.  

***The Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice was inaugurated in St. Paul in May 2018, a space for dance, conversation, and community gatherings.

****Sutrajāl is being created with the support of a MapFund grant and other funding support, and will premiere in September 2019 at The O’Shaughnessy Theater, St. Paul, as part of the venue’s Women of Substance series.  

Interview transcriber Len Foyle, VCU BFA 2019

The Many and Much: The Unarrival Experiments

UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Ni'Ja Whitson (MFA, MFAW) shares insight into their book and performance project The Unarrival Experiments.  Ni'Ja (L.A./NY) is a Bessie Award winning, gender noncomforming/trans interdisciplinary artist and writer who has been referred to as "majestic" by the New York Times and recognized by Brooklyn Magazine as a culture influencer. This post is the first in a five-part series of articles offering insight into the UBW 2018-2019 co-hort of choreographers redefining the world of dance today.

Ni’Ja Whitson / Photo Credit Scott Shaw

Ni’Ja Whitson / Photo Credit Scott Shaw

Storytelling was born to me.

In traditions and on precipices some Spirit, somewhere says, do, go, make:
we are waiting | | |

The Unarrival Experiments has led me to the stars.  

It began with research into the Seminole Indians after learning about the existence of my great grandmother, a Black Indian root worker.  Her name was Willie. I saw myself in the neutrality of the name, the healer who worked with herbs, a person between much and alongside many. 
She was my proof of potentiality.

And of what is | | |

The maternal aunt who told me about her died a few years later, and I later circled back to her, my great grandmother, and my lamentation on the absence of elders in my family.

Thyme.   Efun.   Turmeric.    Sage.   Cayenne.   Guinea Pepper.   White Willow.    Squawvine.

I cannot find their body.  Cant find where the disappeared and fractal become made. 

Willie refused | | |
As I tried to conjure Willie’s presence, they would not materialize to me in body or gender.
Willie managed to be both distant and up close.
Like the cosmos, like the body: an astral transmogrifier. Me.

the lines
the lines
the lines
the lines the
lines the lines
lines the
the lines
the lines

I’m developing The Unarrival Experiments as a book and performance project of the same name. Both are radical experiments, guided by the voice of a body-less and genderless Spirit who has led me to explore technologies of what I’ve coined, “the vaporous body” and “refusing to become.” The text acts as a map and score experimenting with symbols, images, and words themselves as letters, pictures, and new visual language which together make sense of this healer.  Willie speaks to and at the side of The Hunted: those Black Queer, Trans and Cis folk attempting to survive the historic

  There is no place that is a body
That is mine/d

  I saw you then
like I have seen all the others

soft fleshed and pickled with the insides of your mama
lungs begging
soul poised to effort a conscience

I pass between lives severing the moment of departure
in the room in the dark chambers that border dying and living
On each occasion
I lightning
I arrow

When you return early
I am restless
I make billows of madness
Create a dam from heartache
before the door of my face

I mourn the
reckless accumulation of voids

...Black Queer, Trans and Cis folk attempting to survive the historic reckless accumulation of voids.  

I turned to darkness | | |
Well… it turned to me in the way it turns all of us without our thinking or doing anything about it. In researching a work that has asked me to consider the possibility of nonmateriality as Being, I have looked to the stars as ancient wisdom on the matter. (no pun intended). 

Dark matter and dark energy have offered an invitational to make work in and about darkness.     

About a fantastical dark, 
an expansive dark,
a spectrum of dark, 
an architectural dark.
And thus, the body or the presences therein. 
A grand Blackness | | | 

The idea of making and remaking, rewinding wounds, becoming and refusing to become are ideas that I have experimented with through Black improvisatory practice, African indigenous spiritual intelligence, and Trans embodiedness. In interrogation of The Unarrival Experiments I’ve assembled a growing web of thinkers, astrophysicists, artists, musicians collectivized to dialogue, experiment, to construct creative and theoretical intelligences based on the writing. I call this convergence The Dark Matter Cypher, a collaboration model and practice that speaks to my love of Black musical traditions.            

Fred Moten talks about the rewind as a Black aesthetic, tradition. A practice. He’s conjured here. Saidiyah Hartman and her writing on Aunt Hester’s scream are conjured here. I consider myself among the lineage of Aunt Hester’s scream. Hartman, Moten, and Aunt Hester, too, are in the Cypher.

I have invested in the embodied, multiplicitous languages of Black music for more than 15 years. I’ve been a performer and collaborator with jazz and creative musicians, a choreographer and activist working with turntablists. I’ve been listening to the choruses and the cords as spectral diffusion;
the melodies and woes,
they are my work’s spinal fluid.

I was raised in the 1980s so have built a practice from what hip hop offered me, a new lens to the blues. And these accumulating voids whether it be through murders at the hands of transphobic assailants, racist police, or AIDS are a new blues being sung by Black Queer and Trans people, Queer and Trans people of color everyday. I am called to make work about them. About us.

body not place
bodies that migrate
but not place
places not
going with Them that
to go

In the room, in the gumbo, are many things. My background has always been interdisciplinary: my first MFA is in the visual arts and the second in creative writing, and all grounded in consistent embodied research in African Diasporic ritual and resistance forms. I’m proudly a titled capoeirista in capoeira angola, student and practitioner of African spirituality, thought, performance of the Yorúbà cosmology, wielder of herbal medicines.

I believe in making work that works
in, through, and on me.
And all those in the room. 

Dark energy is the aspect of the universe /that early astronomers could not explain / Newton called it God / Nothing:/a shepherd into the densities / of God / Zero is not nothing / it is the unseeable / unknown / uncontainable light / a Black so Black [dark] it’s dark [Black] / “Inhomogeneities make / the universe possible” / Dark matter is the body / the stuff / the motion that precedes / thought / wherein matter exists / merely to make motion / actionable / thus, Blackness /is motion/Then matter / Time is the space / between / inactionable matter and motion/


all italicized text is excerpted from The Unarrival Experiments

*The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, Richard Panek

Special thanks to artist and writer Sharon Bridgforth for dramaturgical support with this article.  

Urban Bush Women Announces Second Cohort of Choreographic Fellowship Candidates

With major support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and additional support from the Ford Foundation and Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Urban Bush Women (UBW) has named a new Cohort of five Choreographic Fellowship Candidates: Maria Bauman (NY), Hope Boykin (NY), Ananya Chatterjea (MN), Stephanie McKee (LA) and Ni’Ja Whitson (CA/NY). The new Cohort was selected through a nationwide vetting process to identify choreographers who have distinctive artistic voices, compelling point of views addressing particular issues of cultural narrative and history, and exemplified readiness for the program.

The UBW Choreographic Fellowship Program is structured over two years and includes a 9-month planning process with Fellowship Candidates, followed by a full year of Fellowship activity. The program supports the development of work dealing with complex narratives addressing race, history, cultural identity, ethnicity and pressing social issues.

The Fellowship program is designed to ensure the work and the works’ vision and multiplicity of components are more fully realized than would be possible without additional edification, reinforcement or support. The program includes direct financial support, one or more residencies, mentorship, writing and reflection. Participating choreographers have made a commitment to placing one’s choreographic process as the highest priority examining questions of craft, clarity of vision and execution of ideas in a rigorous and granular way through a dramaturgical and research process.

Read more about the new class of choreographers below. Feature articles will be released on each choreographer over the course of the next year.

The inaugural Cohort of Fellows – Marjani Forté-Saunders, Francesca Harper, Marguerite Hemmings, Paloma McGregor and Amara Tabor-Smith – are in their second year of the program. Working alongside dramaturges including Lizzy Cooper-Davis, Douglas Corbin, John Perpener and Talvin Wilks; and developing work through residencies at Arizona State University, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Jacob’s Pillow, Junebug Productions, the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, Stanford University, University of the Arts and Virginia Commonwealth University; these choreographers and cultural organizers are forging new paths for themselves and the field with support from Urban Bush Women.

Follow these links to read more about  Urban Bush Women and the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative

Photo Credit: Thomas Dunn

Photo Credit: Thomas Dunn

Maria Bauman is a multi-disciplinary artist from Jacksonville, FL. She creates bold and honest artworks for her company MBDance, based on physical and emotional power, insistence on equity, and fascination with intimacy. In particular, Bauman’s dance work centers the non-linear and linear stories and bodies of queer people of color onstage. She draws on her studies of English literature, capoeira, improvisation, dancing in living rooms and nightclubs, as well as concert dance classes to embody interconnectedness, joy, and tenacity. Bauman was recently recognized with a Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance with Skeleton Architecture. Currently, she is Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange and just finished her tenure as Community Action Artist in Residence at Gibney Dance. Bauman is also a community organizer and co-founder of ACRE (Artists Co-creating Real Equity). Organizing to undo racism informs her art-making and the two are folded together within her practice.

Photo Credit: Andrew Eccles

Photo Credit: Andrew Eccles

Hope Boykin born and raised in Durham, North Carolina was a three-time recipient of the American Dance Festival’s Young Tuition Scholarship. While attending Howard University in Washington, DC, she felt a call to seriously continue her studies in dance and moved to New York City where she studied at The Ailey School and worked as assistant to choreographers Milton Myers and the late Talley Beatty. She was an original member of Complexions, danced many years with Philadanco–The Philadelphia Dance Company, where she received a “Bessie” a New York Dance and Performance award. Hope joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2000 and continues to perform, educate, speak, and create for the company. Hope shares her heart lessons, as an author of “MOMENTS,” and continues to guide young artists who have a desire and are willing to learn from her mistakes and grow from her transparency.

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Ananya Chatterjea (2011, Guggenheim Choreography Fellowship; 2012, McKnight Choreography Fellowship; 2016, Joyce Award; 2016, NPN Creation Fund; 2017, NDP Production Grant, 2018, MapFund) is Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theatre and makes “People Powered Dances of Transformation” intersecting women artists of color and social justice choreography. She has presented her work at the Crossing Boundaries Festival, Ethiopia (2015), the Harare International Dance Festival, Zimbabwe (2013), the New Waves Institute of Dance and Performance, Trinidad (2012), and other locations. Ananya is Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches courses in Dance Studies and technique. She is currently writing her second book (Palgrave McMillan), exploring the politics of “contemporary dance” from the perspective of artists from global communities of color.


Stephanie McKee is a performer, choreographer, educator, facilitator and cultural organizer who is deeply committed to creating art that substantively reflects disparate conditions, and then leveraging the art as a powerful tool for change. Based in New Orleans, she is the Artistic Director for Junebug Productions Inc., the organizational successor to the Free Southern Theater (FST), which was formed in 1963 to be a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement and was a major influence in the Black Theater Movement.  In 2015 Ms. McKee was awarded a National Theater Project Grant for Gomel/To Return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue which she directed. Additionally, she is a member of Alternate ROOTS, a 2007 New Voices emerging Leader alumnus, a 2015 APAP Leadership Fellow and a Dance USA Leadership mentor.

Photo Credit: Maggie Shannon

Photo Credit: Maggie Shannon

Ni’Ja Whitson (MFA, MFAW) is a gender nonconforming/Trans interdisciplinary artist and writer who has been referred to as “majestic” by the New York Times, and by Brooklyn Magazine as a “culture influencer.” They received a 2017 Bessie Award as one of 21 Black Womnyn and Gender Nonconforming artists curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa for Danspace/Platforms. Recent awards include MAP Fund, Camargo Fellowship, Dance in Process (DiP) Residency, and a Hedgebrook Fellowship. Whitson collaborates as choreographer, performer, director, with notables cross-disciplinarily including Douglas Ewart, Cynthia Oliver, Jaamil Kosoko, Sharon Bridgforth, Charlotte Brathwaite, Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis. Recent commissions include EMPAC, Cornell Council for the Arts Biennial, BAM Next Wave Art, and American Realness Festival. Ni’Ja Whitson is an Assistant Professor at the University of California Riverside and is founder/artistic director of The NWA Project.

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