For their new piece celebrating the role of women in protecting the land and promoting sustainable food production, members of the Ananya Dance Theatre had to do some digging of their own.
The show, titled "Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine," is about seeds, soil, food, nurturing and love — and how every culture has its own relationship to the land. It's also a critical look at industrial farming, pesticides and genetic modification.
Dancers not only studied the issues surrounding sustainable food production; they also visited local organic farms, worked in the fields and broke bread together. Founding company member Chitra Vairavan said the experience was powerful.
"We met Hmong farmers, we met Ethiopian farmers, we met people from different lands coming to Minnesota — of all places — and farming," Vairavan said. "Planting things that are native to where they're from, and talking about their lives and the stories with so much pride."
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Company founder Ananya Chatterjea explained that the title, "Roktim," comes from a Bengali word that means "blood."
The blood is an allusion to the lengths women have gone in order to protect land from development. Chatterjea recalled the Chipko women in the early 18th century who organized to prevent Indian forests from being logged.
"They're the original tree huggers, the Chipko women," she said. "They surrounded the trees and they said, 'You have to cut our bodies, first, before you can get to the trees.'"
Dancer Alessandra Williams explained that the preparation also involved some deep listening.
"So when Ananya talked about farmers committing suicide because of the high debt," she said, "how can I hear her telling that story, and how can I find a relationship to my own experience and to my own history? So that, in the work, we're dancing those relationships?"
The result is an evening of dance that reflects more than a dozen different cultures, while telling stories of food and the land that have universal themes.
Like all Ananya Dance Theatre productions, the movement is a unique blend of traditional Indian dance, yoga and a form of martial arts called Chhau. Dances of grace and beauty blend with powerful images of uprising.
Chatterjea said the work of women to protect the planet is marked by both strength and softness.
"You know seeds are strong, and they also really need care and love, so we must have softness," she said. "It's like grass. You can tread on grass all you like; it's going to spring back up."
Chatterjea hopes "Roktim" will plant seeds in the hearts of audience members, and grow into something revolutionary. Performances are this Friday and Saturday at The O'Shaughnessy, St. Catherine University, St. Paul.