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AnanyaChatterjeaAnanya Chatterjea

Ananya Chatterjea is dancer, choreographer, dance scholar, and dance educator who envisions her work in the field of dance as a “call to action” with a particular focus on women artists of color. She is the Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theatre, and Director of Dance and Associate Professor in the Department of Theater Arts and Dance in the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Ananya was named "Best Choreographer" by City Pages in 2007 and has received numerous other awards for her work weaving together artistic excellence, social justice, and community-building. She was recently honored by the Josie Johnson Social Justice and Human Rights Award at the University of Minnesota (2008). One of her earliest works linking together the violence on women's bodies and women's work of transformation, Unable to remember Roop Kanwar, was supported in part by a grant from the Asian Arts Initiative; and she has premiered two additional works at the Initiative.
Ananya Chatterjea in "Pipaashaa, extreme thirst." Photo courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre/Paul Virtucio

What issues are important to you as an artist?

I think that Asian movement artists get caught up in all the time the issue of: tradition vs. contemporary, tradition vs. modernity. This binary understanding, it's quite ridiculous actually. Because I think-and this is something I write about quite a bit-I think that in the West when modern dance came along, it needed to reject ballet. But I think that within Asian aesthetics, what happens if you have any artist who tries to convey a contemporary voice? The artists who I really think are important have gone back deep inside existing cultural practices and tried to deconstruct them, right? . . . So it's an extension of what we deify as tradition; it's not a relationship of conflict. Essentially I think this is the problem: If we have a relationship of conflict-if we want to break off-then we always fall into what I see as the black hole of Western aesthetics in terms of movement. Because there's not one way to be contemporary. There are many ways to be contemporary.

When I travel in Asia this is what is interesting to me: Western modernity-you can see in the architecture, right?-was forced on us in many ways, but we always figured it out in our own way. We tried to take those models and tried to shift it a little bit. What I love about Calcutta-or Kolkata-is there are all these people talking on their cell phones and whatnot, but at the same time, the man on the street has more knowledge about what's going on in the community without his cell phone than anyone else. I mean, there's a way in which life kind of defines the way in which cities are organized, the way in which people's work seems to defy and return to the Western gaze another way. So I feel there is a way to achieve a contemporary Asian aesthetics-that is my big search in life.

What was your first experience wth the arts?

[In India] because the legacy from the colonial period was very strong, there was a sense, "I don't know what it means to dance." Real histories of the dance that we were learning had been erased through the colonial period. In any post-colonial society, culture was sort of the way women reinstated themselves on the map, and there was this heightening of tradition around dance. . . . So we always thought, "Oh my god, this is great tradition" and whatnot.

At the same time . . . I saw a lot of street theater, performed in a lot of street theater, in women's groups in India. And what I realized was that the classical song, the dance songs that I was learning were couched in an ideal world. Where in the real world I saw a lot of violence against women, and women protesting against that violence, right? So I just couldn't reconcile those worlds. For me they were very different. There was the fashion industry theater-women campaigning against Dalit deaths, women campaigning against domestic violence, women campaigning against rising prices of goods-through performance. And then I saw the sort of world of the classical performance, which kept everything outside the sanctum space. And every time I asked my guru about it, he said, "Well, this is the ideal world, you know."

What issues do you care about in the APIA community?

I think the aesthetic issue is very important for youth. There is a way in which racism works, too, that makes us fall back on the validation of tradition-which I think that can be problematic. I think there is a way in which the histories of resistance within Asian and Asian American communities have been either erased or they have such low visibility that our youth are not able to claim that. You know, those are things not taught in our history in K-12 education, right?

What about the women's movement in different Asian countries? What about the Asian American women's movement? Those are not taught here. So to me it's really, really scary that our youth are growing up without this knowledge. This is a very important resource for our youth, that they know that there are-in terms of aesthetics and politics-a lot of models that we can go to. And I think that Asian youth are being swallowed up by sort of neocolonialism, which is coming through globalization. Certain cultural imperatives are coming by way of globalization. I feel it in Asia very strongly. I see this here too.

How do you see art connecting to social change?

Right now I have a company called Women Artists of Color. And my work is in trying to intersect artistic excellence with social justice . . . It also means that we have to decolonize our own minds and say, "Well, the work really has to be excellent."

One of the things I've focused on within my company work is feeling the relationship with each other. You know, I think there's a lot of internalized colonization. And there's a lot of internalized racism. So what pains me most, is this sort of non-relationship among-or sort of a relationship of distrust-among different communities of color. And within Asian communities, you know, black people are demonized, right? And the reverse is also true. So that's something that's really painful . . . and that's why my company's a company of women artists of color. I really think it's important to create these relationships that we can-together-decide to work against things like racism and other issues that prevent us from going anywhere together. I don't know how else to move forward-how else to create a viable environment for the next generation of people here.

Why do you believe that art is important?

You can have all our researchers and academics with amazing facts and figures, but what they cannot do, and where art can come in, is to create emotional access to those issues. That's when change is created. Because whoever comes into activism and social justice work, they don't come because of money, they don't come because of fame-because nothing like that is going to come, right? They do it because they are moved to do so. And what can move people is art.

And not, and honestly not, crappy art. You have to move people to come to work in a certain way, to work for a community-to work for community building and all of that-it has to be excellent. Asian artists, particularly, get a bad name for doing community-based art. You know, like they'll get labeled "community," which means it's "ghetto," which means it's, "Oh, a school program," or something bad news. But I guess my urge is that we've got to claim that excellence. We've got to produce that excellence, we've got to claim that space of excellence, and we've got to remember the power of what artists can do: Create that strong emotional access-create that insight that I think facts and figures cannot generate.

What is your connection to the Asian Arts Initiative?

I was going to school to Philly and the Asian Arts Initiative was starting out at that time. And it was so exciting to me-I told you my search was for contemporary Asian voice. And I had been searching, and when I came to New York, I'll tell you there was no space for that. So it was not really supportive at that time, in 1989. And I came to Philly, and I was so excited when I found the Asian Arts Initiative. The Asian Arts Initiative was influential because it created a space for a contemporary Asian voice. It allowed us to claim that space-as new artists, to claim that space. That kind of space didn't exist before. And, yeah, it was something that was clearly run by young, really exciting people. So it meant that we could do this work, we could present our work in ways that were fresh-it didn't have to be all old traditional, you know, like run-of-the-mill status quo work, right? It was about being able to take chances and risks.

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