UBW Announces a Third Cohort of Choreographic Fellowship Candidates

With support from the Ford Foundation, Urban Bush Women (UBW) has named a third Cohort of Choreographic Fellowship Candidates: Jenn Freeman | Po’Chop (Chicago, IL), Nia Love (New York, NY) and Kesha McKey (New Orleans, LA).

Beginning this month, these artists begin an 18-month program designed to strengthen their artistic capacity, raise the national visibility of their work and skill sets and expand their networks and available support.

We are honored to be able to invest in these extraordinary artists, who I believe to be deeply invested in the radical Black imagination through experimentation with performance form and content. As we move into our third year of deeply attending to and caring for the visionary work of our cohort members, I am hopeful our collective storytelling capacities through dance are being rooted and strengthened in ways our history and future will benefit from.
— Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

The UBW Choreographic Center Initiative (CCI) Fellowship Program is a two-year program aimed at supporting women and non-gender conforming choreographers of the African Diaspora and choreographers of color who have developed a clear artistic voice and point of view addressing particular issues of cultural narrative and history and are exploring multiple platforms of storytelling.

The Fellowship has been designed to support choreographers who have a developing body of work and are currently receiving some support through grants, residencies and presentations but need assistance to ensure the work and the works’ vision are more fully realized than would be possible without additional support.

The Fellowship supports the development of work dealing with complex narratives addressing race, history, cultural identity, ethnicity and pressing social issues. The Program is structured over two years and broken into two distinct phases; an 8-month planning process, followed by a year of Fellowship activity. The program includes direct financial support, one or more residencies, mentorship, writing and reflection, and 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 process.

2019-2020 Choreographic Fellows: Maria Bauman (NY), Hope Boykin (NY), Ananya Chatterjea অনন্যা চট্টোপাধ্যায় (MN), Stephanie McKee (LA), Ni’Ja Whitson (CA/NY)

2018-2019 Choreographic Fellows: Marjani Forté-Saunders (CA), Francesca Harper (NY), Marguerite Hemmings (NJ), Paloma McGregor (NY), Amara Tabor-Smith (CA)

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

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

Jenn Freeman | Po’Chop, Photo Credit Candice Majors

Jenn Freeman | Po’Chop, Photo Credit Candice Majors

Chicago-based artist Jenn Freeman | Po’Chop uses elements of dance, storytelling, and striptease to create performances and inspire students & collaborators across the country. Po’Chop has performed at the Brooklyn Museum in Brown Girls Burlesque’s Bodyspeak and headlined shows in New Orleans, Kansas City, Minneapolis & St. Louis. Po’Chop is a Board Member & Cast Member, for Jeezy’s Juke Joint, an all black burlesque revue. Po’Chop performs on Netflix’s Easy (Season 2), appears in music videos for songs by Jamila Woods and is a muse for co-created experimental dance films such as Home | Here. Po’Chop was awarded as a 2017 3Arts Make A Wave Artist and was selected as a 2018 Chicago Dancemakers Lab Artist

nia love, Photo Credit Orion Gordon

nia love, Photo Credit Orion Gordon

New York based choreographer nia love was most recently awarded the 2019 Gibney DiP Residence and the 2019 Gibney Presents Artist in Residence. nia love is a 2017 Bessie Award recipient for Outstanding Performer as part of the Skeleton Architecture ensemble. A two-time Fulbright Fellow, a recipient of the Brooklyn Arts Exchange/BAX Artist-in-Residence and recipient of Dance Theater Works’ Suitcase Fund Award. Her work has been presented at NYU Skirball, Danspace Project, Harlem Stage, Judson Church,New York Live Arts, NOLA Cultural Arts Center, MOCADA, PS122, Snug Harbor, and Gibney Dance, among others. Presently, the BAX co-Artistic Advisor and most recently NYLA’s Artistic Advisor to Fresh Tracks. love also serves as Assistant Professor at Queens College, Bard College, and The New School.

Kesha McKey, Photo Credit Mariana Sheppard

Kesha McKey, Photo Credit Mariana Sheppard

Kesha McKey is a New Orleans choreographer, educator and performing artist. She received her BS from Xavier University and her MFA in Dance Performance from UW-Milwaukee. Kesha is the Artistic Director of KM Dance Project. Her latest project Raw Fruit was awarded a 2019 NEFA National Dance Project Production Grant and she is a recipient of the 2018 & 19 Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans Southern Crossings Residency. Her recent performances include Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories and Junebug Production’s Gomela/to return: Movement of our Mother Tongue. Her choreography credits include Women in Dance, Dancing While Black, Roots Week and Peridance APAP. She is a UBW SLI faculty member and the Dance Department Chair at NOCCA.

These Strands are Related

UBW Choreographic Fellow Maria Bauman-Morales and MBDance premiere (re)Source at the Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance (BAAD!) in partnership with the Chocolate Factory Theater as part of 2019 BLAKTINX Festival September 25, 26**, 27 & 28. With (re)Source, Bauman-Morales is blurring the distinctions between audience and performer; between dance, visual art and performance art; between planning and improvisation.

Maria was recently awarded a coveted 2019-2020 Gibney Dance in Process (DiP) residency to develop her next work Desire: A Sankofa Dream which will have its world premiere at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in spring 2021.

This article was written by Maria to offer insight into (re)Source and is a companion piece to her previously released article/interview with Jawole Zollar.

*Thursday, Sept 26 show has been added due to demand!

Maria Bauman-Morales (re)Source photo by Kearra Amaya Gopee

Maria Bauman-Morales (re)Source photo by Kearra Amaya Gopee


Spirit, urgency, work ethic/efficacy, and a question. It’s a conjuring, a trying, an experiment, a work of art, a synthesis, a hunch, a bet.

(re)Source is an evening-length, live danced and spoken artwork performed inside an audience-co-created installation which I designed with scenic assistance from Zimbabwean-born interdisciplinary artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti. Dance and choreography charge the space and are interwoven with original text and strong visual design. I dance through, with, in and in spite of the visual, sonic and human landscapes which house (re)Source. Within the work, I employ some of my families' history as a complex microcosm of race relations in the United States, digging into the process of other-ing, being other-ed and reclaiming radical connection. 

The installation and performance exist in and among audience members seated perpendicular to one another in duos and in clustered trios. Their empty chairs are tethered together with ombre yarn, which radiates from the walls and ceilings and is a three-dimensional color-coded map of my family tree, foreshadowing the relational nature of the performance. Once pre-arranged seats are full, audience members are invited to take a folding chair and place it wherever they like, co-creating the visual landscape and adding to the unique unfolding of each performance. Cat’s Cradle, spider web, tapestry--innumerable strands of yarn are spun and hung for (re)Source. They are both physical connectors--the yarn used for knitting and binding--and fragments of stories as in “Tell me a good yarn.”

Here is one strand, or several. In January 2017, while speaking with one of my grandmothers on the phone, she told me she was “great!” I could picture the smile on her face as she said it; when she spoke, I heard the jumped notes that made the word sound slightly musical. From her house in Brunswick, GA to the Brooklyn sidewalk on which I stood, her mood was palpable. I adore my Grandma Emma and so was thrilled to hear her so content, so excited. Yet I, a perpetual optimist, lover of people, a person determined to control my own destiny and in turn my outlook, was not feeling “great!”

That day I was feeling resentful, frightened, small, almost useless. I had been feeling so for weeks, coming up for air at times to dance, to spend time with my then-girlfriend now-wife, to continue my community organizing practice—but scared deep down. Donald Trump and his administration were in the midst of announcing their travel ban. Threats and fury about the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States had reached full cacophony. My partner and I were furious that a candidate who had bragged about the freedom he felt in grabbing women and forcing them to kiss him was leading the country in which we live. I was outwardly continuing my regular life, still endeavoring to help myself and my community members reach and retain our full humanity but, inside, I had retreated. I was in denial. I couldn’t take it. I didn’t know what to make of it all.

And my Grandma Emma was “Great!”

These strands are related. Each yarn has history, and each strand of the story has an ancestor.

Let’s follow this strand back and find its origin point. Since 2015, I have embarked on a series of outdoor dance improvisations on non-traditional, inclined and bumpy surfaces in multiple settings. I’ve danced on hilltops; on round, ridged logs; through playground jungle gyms; and atop thin rails which barricade small trees planted along sidewalks. I do this to test and hone my ability to navigate with my body and to marry my choreography to environments that feel more relevant to me than dance studios. I am learning how my physicality is both limited and expanded by the terrain. My exploration of inclined surfaces and uneven terrain as surfaces for dancing helps me know who I am. What do I really have and what can I really do? “Let’s see,” the outdoor dance practice challenges me.

(re)Source is an indoor work, but it is intimately braided with my outdoor dancing practice. The installation I created functions in a multiplicity of ways; some of the installation’s facets are an abstracted family tree, a web that ensares and tethers together audience members and performer alike, a literal matrix of possibilities. Some of the functions of the installation defy words; some facets are intuited like a whisper or like a shadow for which language is too rigid a support. One image that the hologram-like installation conjures for me—one that I can speak and write about—is of an obstacle course. In order to dance through and with it, I must jump, crawl, shimmy, aim, slow down, pick up speed, and maneuver. Unlike my dancing on an empty or near-empty stage, I don’t simply choose to enact those verbs. Within the web of (re)Source, I must bring my physicality to bear or risk bringing the whole installation crashing down and making a mess of the audience members. Like in my outdoor dancing, improvising within my carefully planned score for (re)Source is risky and  unpredictable.   

My empathetic nature and my choreographic emphasis on intimacy and risk are pulling me away from the proscenium stage setup. As Trump's US becomes more rigid, small and exclusive, I am charging myself and audience members to be more bold in our imagination of possibilities, more explicit about our desires, and more ready to connect with one another. While most of my early works are for stage, I am now fixated on utilizing the performer(s) not as “other” but as accessible entities charged with hyper-aliveness and immediacy. The proscenium, from which I have learned much, does not feel relevant enough to me right now. It does not feel urgent nor risky. I am a skilled and experienced enough performing artist to rest on (perhaps not to rest but to utilize comfortably) technique and charisma as modes of communication with audience members. Those communication modes serve many purposes including inspiring audiences, offering respite from both the gravity and mundanity of daily life outside the theater, and elevating stories and people who are often hidden pushed out of mainstream affirmation. However, I am in a period of pushing my own authenticity and experimenting with interdependence between audience and performing artist. Performing this way is a practice in intimacy and in meeting higher stakes; that practice feels urgent given the gross imbalance of power we are all living within. Offstage, in performance, I am practicing courage and inviting audience members to practice it with me.

Back to the other strand. The first one. Or was it the first? Perhaps the dream wherein my deceased father gave me lyrics and an image of me standing high above the ground on a narrow window sill was the first strand of (re)Source. Is it possible to know where a ball of yarn actually begins?

So my Grandma Emma was “great” and I was questionable, fair-to-middlin’. I meditated on our conversation and it occurred to me that my Grandma Emma has been through much worse. The travel ban, the wall, the sexual predator as leader were and are all heinous. We had and have a right and responsibility to be indignant about those maladies. Yet my grandmother had worked as a sharecropper as a little girl, had lived through obvious and legal white supremacy which affected every policy and institution in the U.S., had been welcomed to Earth this time around during The Great Depression. “How,” I mused “has she been making it this whole time?” How had my father made it, how had my great-grandparents?

And those were the Black people in my family. What about the white folks? How had my great-great-grandmother Maria Ascenson, for whom I am named, endured her only son hopping on a ship to “the new world” from Portugal, never to return to her? How had my ancestors who were formerly English and Portuguese survived trading their culture for whiteness, Americanism and power? How had they adapted, positively and to their/our detriment, to the thirteen colonies and then to the United States and to their role as oppressors within those new creations? My talk with my grandmother begged the questions “How can I make it?, What do my ancestors know and so what can I know?, and How are we able to survive the United States? Can we thrive?”

More strands. My guiding questions for the work are: What resources do I--and people like me--have for thriving within a national landscape which devalues us based on race, gender and sexuality? What specific, unique physical and imaginative capacities can we utilize to traverse this uneven and shifting terrain? What resources do my family members, both Black and white people, use to navigate racism and nationalism in the US? How, when and for what varying reasons did my ancestors--hailing from African countries, Portugal and England--assimilate into US culture? What instruments and maps do I, and we, have to guide our journeys--recipes, ancestral memories, daily routines and the like? What are costs and/or the gifts, especially to people of color and queer folks, of constantly tapping internal, spiritual and familial resources—physically and emotionally? What does it mean to be, and to have to be, resourceful--to source again and again and again?

The questions give birth to rich and juxtaposing themes including a metaphor relating mother-daughter relationships to refined sugar; contrasting the archival of George Washington's beer recipe at the New York Public Library with the archival of my Grandma Emma's biscuit recipe in my mind and in my cousin TaShawnta's muscle memory; and interrogating the similarities and differences between my (Black) disappeared Great Uncle Artis Lane's vanishing in the Southern US and African maroons in the Americas.

In dancing (re)Source, I speak with audience members, climb through them with safety and consent, ask for their help at times, and dance among them. This raises the stakes, the potential for failure and the potential for intimacy. Sometimes audience members/witnesses comment back to me as I am speaking and dancing. Sometimes they look closely at me and other times they do not meet my gaze.

With (re)Source, I am bringing my community organizer skills of building trust and mutual support to bear in performance. Because of the installation, at times I need to ask audience members for a hand in making it over or under the web. Of course, different people respond differently. Thus my skills in being resourceful, willful, honest, athletic, and vulnerable while still holding the performance space with presence and trustworthiness are tested.

The whole installation may fall down. The audience members may say “no” when I ask for help shimmying under the chairs. The strands may sag and unravel. They may not. If they do, my greatest hope is that we co-create something new together. In my dreams, we laugh out of nervousness and embarrassment and then spin a yarn to pass the time while we figure out what’s next.

Creative Dreamscapes; Maria Bauman-Morales in conversation with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Maria Bauman-Morales is a NY-based, “Bessie” award winning, multi-disciplinary artist and community organizer. With her company, MBDance (founded in 2007), Maria presents work that centers the non-linear and linear stories and bodies of queer people of color. Maria is a core trainer for The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a co-founder of ACRE/Artists Co-creating Real Equity, a UBW BOLD (Builders Organizers and Leaders through Dance) facilitator and currently Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. 

Maria was featured on the inaugural 2019 Who Yo People Is podcast with Sharon Bridgforth, the dramaturg for Maria’s next major project, Desire: A Sankofa Dream.

Maria’s article …and the Cosmos is featured in the inaugural 2019 Dancing While Black Journal: Black Bodies|White Boxes

This post, an interview between Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Maria, is the third in a five-part series of articles offering insight into the UBW 2018-2019 cohort of choreographers redefining the world of dance today.

In this frank conversation between colleagues and friends, a relationship that has spanned nearly two decades, the two speak candidly about an often unspoken gift of Maria’s: to navigate with empathy and rigor the permeability with ancestral worlds that shows up in her work. Educator, choreographer, dramaturg and scholar, Melanie George, who is currently working as dramaturg with Maria on (re)Source was witness to the interview and makes a cameo appearance.

(re)Source photo by Keera Amara Gopee

(re)Source photo by Keera Amara Gopee

Maria first met Jawole in high school and the two spent four years together during Maria’s undergraduate program at Florida State University where Jawole was on faculty. During this time, Maria first participated in the UBW Summer Leadership Institute. Over the course of two decades, the two have remained close as Maria’s path wove in and out of Urban Bush Women in various capacities. Maria took on the role of apprentice, company member, Associate Artistic Director, Director of Education and Community Engagement and even as Interim Managing Director.


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (JZ): Let’s have a conversation about things I’ve noticed and am curious about in relationship to the motivation spots and feelings behind your work and process and where you are digging.

I am curious about your noticing of when the process, the work, the moment feels really charged, right and true and what does that feel like in relationship to your work? 

Maria (MBM): I hesitate to say this to sound hokey, but have to say what has been true the last couple of years, which is that when I start getting dreams about the work then I know I have something to wrestle with. I almost always remember my dreams, but some give me a particular feeling that lets me know they are from an ancestor. In particular my dad likes to participate in my art through dreams. I start to get a snippet of a song or a bit of choreography while I’m sleeping and I start to look at it from this way and that way…and then I’m “in” and boiling and in the thick of it, in conversation with the piece. 

JZ: When you say you are boiling with this charge, is there something you notice that is starting to manifest itself physically?

MBM: One thing I notice is when that happens, then what I bring into the studio is less hesitant. Physically I get out of my own way.  I just make, and edit later.  Something is happening and I need to stay with that momentum. There is less time for me or the dancers to question (as I don’t know the answers yet, so let’s keep going). The process becomes quicker and more charged, with less hesitation.

JZ: Part of the reason I ask that is we noticed that charge at Arizona State University (ASU) in the opening performance at the 2018 Summer Leadership Institute (SLI). You had a charge and an urgency that felt like a different place. A lot of us noticed it and we talked about it. You said it had to do with the vulnerability of coming into a new space and had to figure it out on the spot and the fact you were dealing with what was happening in the moment.

MBM: Yes – that is how I designed (re)Source; to contend with those things all the time, knowing a matrix of ideas I will deal with in speech and dancing but not knowing the order and what will come out strong in each iteration.

(re)Source is an evening-length installation and performance that will premiere in Fall 2019 at The Chocolate Factory Theater in partnership with BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance). 

“Within the web visual, sonic and human landscape, I employ some of my families’ histories as a complex microcosm of race relations in the United States.  I conjure my grandmothers’ strategies for survival. I bring my community organizer skills of building trust and mutual support to bear in performance. I must bring my physicality to bear or risk bringing the whole installation crashing down.”

At ASU, it was literally a new space for me and I was coming out of the audience. Taking only a part of that work and making sure it braided or dovetailed with the rest of SLI Opening Performance, I had to quickly consider what aspect of the work – what kernel – needed to speak and would best serve the rest of the performance.

Like a dream. I need to let my ancestors speak.  

In that performance at ASU it was my Great Uncle Artis Lane, a man who “disappeared” in the Southern U.S. in the 1940s. Our family has so many questions about him—about where he went and why. At ASU, I knew I needed to get out of my own way say these truths and give up my voice to Artis Lane.  

If it was only me I don’t think I would embody the same way.

JZ: That seems like something central you are hitting. Like that nerve; explosive. How do you know it, notice it, and capture it? How do you move into Sankofa? It’s not that you go back and recapture – like an actor hits a moment – but how do you get back there again and again and deepen that place?

MBM: I think on one hand I’m still figuring this out and discovering it.  On the other hand, I need to spend time with my people. I have an altar and they have space in my living room.  I literally invite them in.

I say - I would like to hear more from you. And when I invite them I know they will come.  

I have talked to Amara [Tabor Smith] about that to understand how to do that in a responsible way. There is a spiritual part of my work that I don’t talk about much.

For dying and dying and dying, I always brought a photo of Maria Ascenson, who I’m named after, and a bowl of water into rehearsals so she knew she was welcome. I know when we think of it from a Eurocentric point of view that kind of inviting people in can seem like schizophrenia…but from an Africanist perspective, when I’m doing my best job, there are ancestors who take up space and I try to let them move through me and with me.

JZ: Also interesting, is dramaturging and crafting the voices that are speaking with me/you.   

I don’t know if you remember Walking with Pearl: Africa Diaries.  There was a point where I said Pearl wants me to do this and I was in this conversation and crafting with Pearl.  Is there something that comes to you to talk about that?

MBM: I do remember that!  I’m glad to hear you talk about it.  

How do you dramaturg your ancestors?   

I dream all the time and remember those, but I can feel in my body when it is someone else’s idea. My dad gave this idea – asking me to remember the song from Toys R Us from my childhood – I don’t want to grow up. He said – change it.  Sing that song but change it.  So I do in (re)Source, but feel vulnerable. I stand on highest point in the room and I change the words and I sing it. At this point I’m not sure if it is strong or not but I honor the fact that he gave it to me. I would like to be in conversation with him about the idea.

JZ: In one of the early pilot workshops for the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative (CCI) we had a lot of talk about fictive autobiography and ancestors and in bringing forth the story, what is fictive?  Where are our edges and our imagination as we see these stories through?  When you are hitting into your power, you are hitting something inside that play.

MBM: I think that is more the realm of Sankofa Dream.  

Desire: A Sankofa Dream is a multi-disciplinary, site-responsive artwork centered on imagination and consent as mechanisms of survival. The work, a sprawling fantasy, spilling across several rooms, takes place inside a kaleidoscope and will likely premiere at the August Wilson Center in 2021.

The script for Desire: A Sankofa Dream is fantastical. It is set back in the time when our ancestors were unicorns and ate different shades of red to feed their imaginations. It is informed by some things I know of my own ancestors and what they have done to enact their  own desires and embody their own dreams.

There are things I know, things they know and things I can imagine with their encouragement.

(re)Source is not so fictive – it is nonlinear – but it is about my family as a microcosm of racial dynamics in this country, whereas Desire really gets into imagination and fictive territory.

JZ: What we were proposing in the CCI workshop is that any time it is autobiographical, it is fictive. I used to joke about Maya Angelou…did she carry around a tape recorder with her everywhere?  

Of course she makes it up – a plausible story with memory and connections – but the truth is she is making it up. Not making it up from Octavia Butler sci-fi fantasy, but really from a place of reality. I think that is where the permission comes; to craft; to see their stories. I’m still working and struggling on that with Scat! with our dramaturg Talvin Wilks.

Scat! is set in a fictional jazz club, a dance-driven musical that tells a love story of two people making their way during the Great Migration through song, dance and story telling.

“Scat! is my story. It is my family's story. It is a personal and collective story of a family and a people, moving from the Jim Crow south during the Great Migration.”

I just read “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward. Such a powerful book of ancestors and story and trying to find resolve. I’m curious – what are you reading that is helping you dig in or question or deepen?

MBM: I appreciate that you asked that as you and I have a long history of trading books! Reading is a big part of my creative process. It helps an idea get lodged in me and to start to look for cousin-ideas in lots of different ways.  

Really influential to me is Ben Okri’s “Famished Road.” I appreciate his willingness to go into his fantasy/ancestral vision and the way he played in that space. On one hand it could be science fiction/fantasy and on the other an almost spiritual text to go into his land of ancestors, learn, and then write down and share. Right now I’m reading N.K Jemison’s “How Long ‘til Black Future Month?: Stories” and you know I’m a big Octavia Butler fan and just finished her Xenogenesis series.

But N.K. Jemison has this collection of short stories that is wild to me as she has written in a largely white genre of science fiction/ fantasy – and won three years in a row of Hugo Awards, unprecedented.  When I read what she is writing I see how it slides into sci-fi fantasy and on the other hand it’s telling our story. She tells of a young man, homeless in NY having visions – yes sci fi/ fantasy/ superhuman; and another way to read this is that what is happening is real but on another plane, in a spiritual place. That intermingling had been freeing me up – whether spiritual or creative – all true on some level. 

JZ: When I think about Ben Okri’s work –I’m interested in the bridge you will make between the beauty of the conversation and this work. In many cultures, the dream world is as valid as any – and how you will craft and bring the passion and intelligence of your voice into what happens. Going back to what happened at ASU, something lit up around you that we all saw and it is not like we want to capture photographic moments and go back to over and over, but how do we notice that place when something breaks open and where to go from there?

MBM: You know it’s funny, I want to share a memory from back when I was younger and dancing in your work in Urban Bush Women (UBW). A seed was planted around going in and out of time and that being ok. In Walking with Pearl Southern Diaries – that section after Chanon [Judson] has gotten the news about the lynching and we are all helping her out, there was a moment on stage on tour and I went out – there was a portal that opened and you asked me about it later and I said – yes – I think I went out, and didn’t know what my body was doing. But it felt ok, as I was getting positive feedback from others on stage when I started coming back to that present. I remember talking about it with you. You know how we don’t know how we will store things and how they will come up?  That was a seed planted then that offers a permeability I draw from now in my choreographic process. 

JZ: I’m wondering how you can create that space. It happened once with me in Germany – you don’t know when it is going happen.  In thinking about Desire: A Sankofa Dream and (re) Source, are these part of a trilogy and/or connected in some way together?

MBM: It’s funny, you and I were talking about this last time. The idea is I don’t know, and yes!  

I wonder if it started with dying and dying and dying as that is the work wherein I started opening up to my ancestors as artistic co-creators. I don’t know what that trilogy looks like and how it works but there is a through-line.

JZ: I would say it started earlier with your piece Fifty Ways to Say… – on the murder of Sean Bell – that was a place where I saw your solo again that I thought - what is happening here - maybe there is a channeling?  That is the point where I saw something change and then I saw it close again.  Then I saw the opening again at ASU. 

In this spiritual work we are in a Western normative. We are discounting ways we have an experience that opens, enlivens, shocks, soothes our work in some way but all of the Western culture says that’s not normal or wasn’t’ real or you could be crazy.  So I wonder if some of the reading you may want to look at – how people have discounted that in different kinds of ways.

MBM: That is what I meant by I don’t talk about it as much. I made Fifty Ways to Say… in 2010/2011 and felt like I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that police officers had shot at Sean Bell literally 50 times. I understood it on one plane. We know racism is alive and well, but I was numb in another way. 50 times??  

That was a time I opened myself up. I choreographed every one of those bullets. I was scared to do it. Who wants to reenact that type of thing? But doing it, I gave up my body to experience someone else’s reality; to learn from it even if I was scared of what I would learn or less in control than I was used to in my process. Perhaps now I’m getting more and more courageous and noting that this is where my creative process lives so [I must] create the conditions for it.

JZ: And that is the craft. This is the thing I have to do every night - because the 50 ways was SO powerful and SO shocking in a profound way.  As you are looking at the continuum of your creative practice that is something I have noticed.

The other is your profound sense of intimacy.  You have this amazing physical power; full on. Then you shift into this vulnerable intimate space. Has this found a space in Desire: A Sankofa Dream or in (re)Source?

MBM: As far as the craft, I think that is where having danced with UBW and toured for so long holds me in good stead. Because I do understand the lightning bolt that is creativity and also that we took this on as a vocation. I keep myself conditioned for when that lighting bolt comes; I’m ready. That company class/ rehearsal/ performance/ experience has fed my creative practice.  Also the intimacy piece certainly has come up for me and that is why I’m not dancing on or choreographing for proscenium stages right now. I want to be in more immediate relationship with people around me. And I want that for the performance collaborators I work with.  

One way for me to get at the idea that we are in this together – as allies and co-conspirators – and also that we are each implicated – is that we have to do something (or not), but we have to do it together. I was talking about this last night with cast of Desire: A Sankofa Dream.  I purposely put audience members in with them [the performers] to see and to be seen – to eschew some of the elitism of us powerful dancers being showcased on stage and admired that way. And I also want to interrupt the dynamic of audience members passively consuming the performance and performers. When we are closer, we have more skin in the game.  

In terms of intimacy - growing up as an only child with a single parent, one-to-one is part of how I’m wired and why I’m drawn to community engagement, community organizing, and dialogic work. I feel empathetic and porous and the artwork needs that. Dancing is a way to soften ourselves, and I don’t necessary mean physically but after performances, people come up to me and feel softer and talk about their own families. Their voices are different than before the experience, and they want to hug me and the other dance artists. We seem to shed a thin layer of distance.   

It’s funny about the power – I feel powerful physically, and it’s something I crave, and I’m curious about that as I don’t think it’s the opposite of intimacy. Dance folks in the past have coached me to soften up and have talked about the physical power as a kind of armor. I think those dichotomies are not quite right and my work is walking the edge. Especially as a Black woman, it feels like dancing is a being-ness in space where I and we get to take up space and be powerful, and I don’t want to give that up. We get to be this big and unapologetic and yet – it doesn’t mean we are aloof and uncaring about the audience members.  I’m trying to interrogate – can I be bigger and bigger and still be more connected to others…or do I need to diminish in order to be connected?

JZ: There is a huge racial dynamic to that.  

MBM: Right?! Can we be this powerful and intimate at the same time?  [This is] an element of MBDance I’m continuing to excavate all the time.

JZ: Remember Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto”? If you had to make a no manifesto right now what do you say no to?

MBM: My spiritual self has gone to a yes manifesto! But if I were to be able to create a yes manifesto – I would say

Yes to multi-linearity

Yes to multiple planes at the same time

Yes to people of color

Yes to audience members as participants

Yes to physicality

Yes to narrative as an innovative structure

Yes to multi-valence, multiple values and meaningful values at the same time.

JZ: I still want to get one no.  

MBM: Yes to dream state; Yes to ancestors. But a no?

No to two-dimensional creation for me

No to works that live only on one or two planes – intensely physical virtuosic work without anything else or to work that situates itself as intensely narrative but that’s it – we have more all the time

No to physical categorization  

In thinking about the aesthetics I bring in – capoeira, athletics, ballet, modern, hip hop, house, post modern – all of this comes into play. All of the above yes, and all at once in varied ways.  

No to concretizing of our aesthetic categories

JZ: Melanie is there anything you want to ask?

Melanie George: My brain is exploding. The thing I’m going to want to dive deeper to at this moment – is perhaps because I am pre-occupied with this Western normative idea and primarily because in part coming up in other work and writing I am doing. But also for me – I’m trying to figure out how to language this really profound and really clear way you talk about spirituality in whatever I’m going to write without feeling I have to quantify or defend it. How to language it for what it is and the values it holds?

MBM: That reminds of something I was talking about with Sharon Bridgforth, the dramaturg for Desire: A Sankofa Dream. It came up because I am writing this script for the piece and studying the way my Grandmother Emma talks.  There is a person in Desire: A Sankofa Dream,a guide of sorts. Her name is Tempo. Some people may not understand some of the vernacular this character is speaking and I’m ok with that. She says things plain, in her language, in her community, and she doesn’t bother to translate. She simply is and her language simply is.  

In thinking about this with spiritual portals and codes I the artwork, for folks with whom those doors aren’t open, it is ok; some doors aren’t open for me and I haven’t yet learned how to know about them. It’s fine. But for folks for whom the codes and portals makes sense, the truth just is. This is a co-creation with some folks who don’t have bodies. There are some things that simply are and don’t need translating and if they don’t get it no problem, there is plenty else to be gotten.

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

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