Dancing for the land beneath their feet

Women working together
"Daak" is the second part in a trilogy of dances by Ananya Dance Theater which looks at social justices issues through the body and movement.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

In Daak, dancers portray ordinary women defending their land. They dance with hand brooms in a way that makes them look more like warriors. They link arms in a protective circle. Repeatedly, throughout the dance, one member of the company leads the others to action.

Ananya Chatterjea
Choreographer Ananya Chatterjea explores the effects of land appropiation on farmers and villages in "Daak."
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

Choreographer and artistic director Ananya Chatterjee says she was inspired to produce Daak on a recent trip to her homeland of Bengal, India. She noticed things were changing, and the citizens weren't happy about it.

"Romantically, I think of Bengal as sort of these green rice fields in the villages, and suddenly I began to see unrest and huge factories set up," said Chatterjee.

It turns out the government was taking land away from farmers in order to make way for industry. Entire villages were being displaced. Chatterjee says in a culture where families have lived on the same land for generations, the idea of ownership is often foreign.

"There was this one woman who said, 'You know I sit here under this palm tree - I don't know who it belongs to, but this is my palm tree. And when I go off in the morning my cows go to that field when I go off to work the lands - my cows graze in that - that's my land.' This idea of public commons," said Chatterjee, "that is what is disappearing: communally held land."

The movement in Chatterjee's new work is inspired in part by the protests of people in Bengal and elsewhere around the world. Dancers throw themselves to the floor to reflect women and children lying down in intersections to bring traffic to a standstill. Swooping arm movements refer to an entire village digging a huge moat around itself to block government vehicles.

Throughout, the piece is the sound of feet pounding on the floor - a constant reminder of the earth beneath our own feet here in Minnesota. Land that once was the home of the Dakota people. Ananya Dance Theater member Omisheke Natasha Tinsley says it's something she feels very strongly about.

"Ever since I've lived in Minnesota, it really feels like this is stolen land," said Tinsley. "The people think the land belongs to us and it doesn't."

Tinsley says working with the dance company has increased her awareness of land rights issues locally and globally, and it's pushed her to think about what her responsibilities are as a citizen living on what she considers stolen land.

Theater director and choreographer Dora Arreola has worked with Ananya Dance Theater for the last two years helping the dancers to prepare for this piece.

Arreola is from Tiajuana, Mexico, and has witnessed the effects of land appropriation in her own backyard. She sees families losing their homes to make way for factories that will assemble televisions sold in American stores.

Arreola says Ananya Dance Theater is one of a handful of activist dance companies that are working to raise awareness. In this case awareness of American consumers complicity in international land disputes.

"The challenging thing is the action," said Arreola. "Because we can be very provocative, but it's not enough. I think Ananya's question and my question also is how can we make the affect a chain effect, you know?"

Arreola says in order to be truly affective, their work needs to be visionary, to be a call to action that's heard ten years before it's needed.

Choreographer Ananya Chatterjee acknowledges creating social change through highly stylized modern dance is incredibly difficult, but she does think it's worth the effort.

"You know I'm a dance freak, I love dance, I think dance can do it all!" Chatterjee laughed. "Not really, but I think that dance can be a very vital medium in shifting people's frames of mind, in shifting people's bodies to look this way instead of that way."

Daak runs this weekend at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Once the run is over Ananya Dance Theater will get to work on the next installment in its trilogy on social justice issues, this time on climate change.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.