Today we're launching a new series on Minnesota Public Radio News called "Art Heroes," stories about some of Minnesota's finest artists who are also exceptional community leaders. These are not just artists who do a charitable project on the side, but have made it their passion and life's work. Their art actively seeks to address social ills, transform their communities and the world.
Ananya Chatterjea is the founder and artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre; her dance company uses its performances to raise awareness around issues such as environmental racism, violence against women, and the ravages of unrestrained capitalism. Chatterjea said that she was first inspired as a young dancer studying Orissi, the classical dance form, in her native home of Bengal, India. She says the beauty and harmony she felt in the studio was a stark contrast to the world outside.
"I would catch the bus at the bus stop and there were many active women's groups then, they would be demonstrating against dowry debts, or there would be some kind of political theater on the streets, at the bus stops, barricading the road," she said. "People would lie down in the streets, not letting cars get through because they had to get their message across. And I kept thinking, 'How can these worlds that were colliding with horrible noise inside of me — there was a cacophony — I just didn't know how to get them to resolve.' "
• Photo gallery: Ananya Dance Theatre
At the time, the seeds of contemporary dance were just beginning to be planted in India. Chatterjea came to the United States to study, and eventually landed in the Twin Cities teaching at the University of Minnesota, where's she's currently chair of the dance department. It was here that she formed Ananya Dance Theatre.
"Honestly it started because I sat at the airport with my 2 1/2 year-old kid and I didn't see a single face looking like me. It felt very white, and I felt I couldn't connect," she said. Eventually she put out a call for women of color interested in moving their bodies and changing the world, no experience necessary. She knew if she could find the people, she could train them to dance.
Hui Wilcox was one of the people who answered the call, and she's been with the company ever since. While she'd had some experience with traditional Chinese dance, she didn't consider herself a dancer at the time. Sitting in the lobby of the Southern Theater on break from a rehearsal, Wilcox says Ananya Dance Theatre has become a core part of her life.
"It's a healing space, spiritually," she said. "There's a very strong sense of community — this is where I get my community. This is my church, kind of. It's a weekly, sometimes daily, ritual."
As a member of the company, Wilcox is not just required to learn the movement in a dance piece, she also helps create it. Every dancer does research into that concert's given subject, watches documentaries, collaborates with community activists, and write creative responses to what they've learned, all to help them embody the emotions of the story on stage. This year's performance, called "Moreechika: Season of Mirage," deals with impact of oil drilling, both on communities and on the environment.
One of the dances in Moreechika is inspired by the explosions of gas pipelines in Nigeria, another by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its effect on wildlife. A third dance examines how the pursuit of beauty leads women around the world to contaminate their bodies with toxins found in cosmetics made with petroleum products. The Bhopal disaster is referenced in the work, along with the familiar human costs and crime associated with the new oil boom in the Dakotas.
For Wilcox, it's a story she knows all too well.
"I grew up in China, and both my grandfathers were among the first generation of oil workers. I grew up in an oil field. And just the impact on the environment — I didn't realize it at the time but I never thought about cancer as being something abnormal because it seemed to me that everybody died of cancer in my community," she said.
Tommy DeFrantz is a professor of African and African American Dance at Duke University, and has been following Ananya Chatterjea's work since the late 1990s. He says there are lots of companies in the U.S. that try to have a mission of serving their community, but none succeed quite as well as hers.
DeFrantz says while there are other dance companies that focus on social justice, they end up spending much of their time touring. He says Ananya Dance Theatre is more rooted in its community, allowing it to have a greater local impact.
He also says having dancers on stage who are so engaged and informed about the subject of their work makes the performance that much more vibrant and compelling.
"Ananya Dance Theater looks at issues that are urgent to the people living in the area," he said. "Then it refracts and reflects ideas and stories around those issues through dance theater back towards audiences in the hopes of raising consciousness, raising action, inspiring beauty. It's a remarkable success story in terms of how the company is actually embedded in the community and serves its artists and its audience in such meaningful ways. On a national level it's incredibly valuable."
On a recent Friday night Ananya Dance Theatre performed Moreechika to a packed audience at the Southern Theater. Using a blend of movement derived from classical Indian dance, yoga and martial arts, Chatterjea and the other performers created a formidable image, stamping their feet, breathing deep, and often opening their eyes wide in anger or fear.
In the closing act, uncooked rice is spilled on the stage, and audience members are invited to "Occupy" the space, in a reference to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. Afterward, the audience is encouraged to stay for a discussion, and in the lobby they are offered small cups of simply prepared rice, symbolizing how little we need to get by, if we all share.
Sociology student Anthony Jiminez said that for him, the experience was transformative. Jiminez says he left the theater with questions, mainly about how he can contribute more to being a part of the solution.
"I mean there were so many moments throughout the performance where I had chills, and it wasn't simply the performance itself, it was the message and how clear the message was that we are a part of this as well," he said. "We're part of the solution, but we're also part of the problem. And I think that's something that artistically this performance has done brilliantly."
Ananya Chatterjea said that's the goal of her work.
"We can have facts and recognize them but not really be moved by them. Otherwise I think the whole world would be an activist place because the facts are out there. But there's something about creating emotional access, just revealing something about the human condition at the receiving end of these horrible policies and the kind of damage that happens to humanity. I feel if I could just reveal that through different stories, maybe we could look at it," she said.
Because of Ananya Chatterjea and her dance company, people are looking at these issues, and they are feeling compelled to make a difference. And that's what makes her not just an artist, but a community leader.