Pipaashaa means thirst

Ananya Dance Theatre takes on global warming, industry, and the affects of pollution on the human body in "Pipaashaa" at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

The name of the dance is Pipaashaa. Choreographer Ananya Chatterjea says it means "thirst" in Bengali.

Ananya Chatterjea
Choreographer Ananya Chatterjea explores the effects of industry and global warming on impoverished women in "Pipaashaa."
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

"It's because the earth is being robbed of its natural resources," says Chatterjea. "I think of the global warming that's happening, and I think the earth is thirsting, and hurting from the thirst."

Chatterjea, who travels regularly to India and other parts of South Asia, says she has been dismayed by how commerce can have a direct negative impact on the health and well-being of women and children in impoverished countries. She says Indian women who used to collect firewood for a living are now rummaging through trash piles, or they're working in factories in abysmal conditions.

Working with local environmental activists, Chatterjea's dance troupe began exploring the realities of pollution in places as far away as Chechnya, and as close as the Philipps neighborhood. They created movement based on what they learned: women gasping for breath, or making the repetitive motions of hard labor.

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Cecilia Martinez and Shalini Gupta
Cecilia Martinez and Shalini Gupta are environmental activists working with Ananya Dance Theater to raise awareness about the effects of industrial waste and pollution on women's health and wellbeing.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

In the dance, toxic ooze flows onto the stage, covering the women and staining their clothing. Black ash falls from the sky. And plastic ropes entangle the dancers. Cecilia Martinez, a consultant with Women's Environmental Institute, helped the dancers research Pipaashaa.

"I think they express the reality of what is happening to indigenous women, children around the world in such a poignant and real way," says Martinez.

Martinez has been working with low-income communities in the Twin Cities to raise awareness about how their environment affects their well-being. But she says it's hard to rally people around something as intangible as toxins. So she's thrilled that in exchange for her help, Ananya Dance Theater is presenting its dance for free to the people she's trying hardest to reach. The dance uses traditional and modern movement to tell a story of women suffering, and the affects of pollution on their daily lives.

Mother and daughter
Choreographer Ananya Chatterjea dances a piece with her eleven year-old daughter Srija. In it, the mother is so affected by poor working conditions and environmental toxins that she can't care properly for her child.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

"This is a way of bringing the message to the community in a way that's accessible. That's not highly technical, not jargon, and not 'bringing in the expert,'" says Martinez. "It's bringing the issue to the hearts of the community, and through that we're hoping the community becomes more and more engaged around organizing to deal with these issues."

Chatterjea says she believes strongly that dance, when done right, has the power to create social change. Ananya Dance Theatre is made up of women of color, aged from eight to 56. They participate in workshops and study in preparation for each dance they perform. Chatterjea says many company members were deeply affected when they learned of how toxins can affect their control over their own bodies.

Women working together
The dance piece "Pipaashaa" deals with depressing topics - environmental waste, poor health and poverty - but the company works to bring hope into the dance by showing what can happen when women unite to fight for a better world.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

"As dancers we totally depend on how trained our bodies are," says Chatterjea. "You take a big leap, you fall, you catch yourself. But if your body's messed up inside, how can you possibly depend on your body to go through basic functions - forget dance - but basic functions even."

Another researcher involved in the creation of Pipaashaa is Shalini Gupta. She danced with Ananya before she moved on to work full time as an environmental activist.

She says while Pipaashaa shows the negative relationship between the environment and our bodies, it also shows the positive side.

"Because you do have control over your body," says Gupta. "And the kind of control the dancers have, they show that power that control - I think that in itself is really powerful for activism."

Gupta says Pipaashaa offers hope, because it shows the power of a group of women working together for a better world. Pipaashaa runs September 6 - 9 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Ananya Dance Theater will host a series of workshops in conjunction with the performance. Pipaashaa is the first in what Ananya Dance Theatre plans to be a trilogy on similar themes.