A Reflection: The Ananya Dance Theater Audience Empowerment Workshop

Ananya Chatterjea layers classical Indian Odissi, yoga, Indian martial arts, and combines them with activism and social justice. Her goal is to inspire and raise consciousness. With her company, Ananya Dance Theatre, she is currently building a 4 year dance piece on oil, gold, mud, and water.

The Ananya Dance Theater (ADT) hosted an Audience Empowerment Workshop on August 22 at the Frey Theater in The O'Shaughnessy complex at St. Catherine University in St. Paul for the community to learn more about "Horidraa: Golden Healing," ADT's 2016 production. ADT dancers performed excerpts from "Horidraa" and after each performance, Ananya Chatterjea, founder, director, choreographer of ADT opened the floor up for reflection and discussion. 

My mind is still processing what I experienced. I felt naive as I listened to people's reactions, thoughts, and comments regarding the four pieces performed. Naive in the sense that the movements were familiar. Have I been performing this? When was the last time I was seduced? When was the last time I tried to hide my imperfections? When was the last time I told someone to stop and think about what they were saying, consuming, and enforcing? I realized that on a daily basis these dances are performed. The dance I saw today was unpolished, raw and truthful. Below are a brief observation of the first and second performance.

The first performance:
In the first performance I saw one dancer's face with pain, fear, confusion while the rest of the dancer's faces were emotionless. Majority of the dancers were emotionless yet not less expressive while contrasting against a seated female figure. I perceived emotionless as automated routines, daily activities or instincts. It was visible that the seated figure was struggling as if she was out numbered by the figures towering and moving around her. 

I saw balance and imbalance of power play out in the space. Visibly the contrast of balance does not mean that the seated female figure was powerless. The figures dancing around her were and moving all over the space, enticing the audience, distracting the them from the pain and grief shown on the seated figure's body and face. There were dancers that moved towards to seated figure as if to re-educate the figure on how to behave. As the seated figure resisted the interaction with the dancers surrounding her, the dancers would move away. I found my eyes wandering from one figure to another and my eyes moved back and forth between the seated figure and the rest. It's interesting that almost all the movements from majority of the dancers were similar, repeating the same movements over and over again and eventually I lost interest in them. In an anguished scream, "STOP", the seated figure commanded silence, and all eyes were on her. At this point I was reminded of what it means for people to be re-educated, to "assimilate" into a dominant culture. What does it mean to be a minority? What does it look like to be silenced? What does it look like to unsilence? 

The second performance: 
The second performance felt even more tense than the first. Right when the music cued, the ADT dancers moved in unison, crossing eachother's paths. Each dancer moving from a standing position, tipping forward into a crouching position and crouching into standing. With all bodies performing this motion in the backdrop of loud mechanical gears, motor boats, waves, water, these dancer were moving as if they were treading for their lives. 

Toward the end of this piece, the dancers' momentum picks up as their movements and strides become longer and then one dancer becomes separated. The rest of the dancer's movements do not stop and the gap in between one figure and the group grows larger. Eventually what’s visible on the stage was one figure. Fully alert of the situation her eyes continued to stare in the direction which the group disappeared in. She’s alone, isolated, and eventually, her body gives up on the floor as the piece ends. 

Ananya later shares that this performance was inspired by life journeys. One audience member commented that he saw boats, water and immediately thought about the current refugee crisis in Syria. With this performance, I was reminded of the time when my grandmother was on her deathbed. Her strength was depleted to the point where she was not able to speak, drink water, eat, nor wipe herself as she released her bodily waste. We stared at each other and I knew this was the last time I was going to see her. I couldn’t say anything to her as I saw her dying before me. Eventually I had to leave her side and drive back to school because I had college exams the next day. It was the last time I felt her warmth. 

The Audience Empowerment Workshop presented four different dances, the first two pieces were intense while the last two offered an uplifting and healing experience. At the end of the workshop, ADT invited the audience participate and learn new dance moves. 

ADT's movements were recognizable and relatable. What I saw and experienced was life as dance, as memories and lived experiences. ADT performed the first and second piece twice (thank goodness they did). The workshop delivered more than a learning experience, it offered a space for conversation and community engagement. I felt welcomed and sensed that I belonged in this space. To the dancers of ADT and the audience members who shared their comments and stories, thank you. 

How to support the Ananya Dance Theater (ADT)?
I think the best way to experience intersectionality is to listen, observe and participate. If you are interested in learning how dance and arts intersects social justice and healing, "Horidraa: Golden Helling" will be showing at The O'Shaughnessy on September 16-17, 2016. Please click the link below to purchase tickets to see the full production and learn more about ADT.