A Conversation with the Performance and Social Justice Collaborative, September 1, 2012
Conveners Ananya Chatterjea, Jigna Desai, and Rose Brewer
IAS staff writer Amir Hussain sat down with professor, dancer, and choreographer Ananya Chatterjea in the Dept. of Theatre Arts and Dance to speak about her most recent performance, “Moreechika,” and the work of the Performance and Social Justice Collaborative.
Amir Hussain: Can you speak about Moreechika?
Ananya Chatterjea: Moreechika, which means mirage, is the third part of a quartet of dance performances. For four years now we have been researching the ways in which women in global communities of color both experience and resist systemic violence. I identified four natural elements—land, gold, oil, and water—that have been harnessed as capital in ways that has inevitably led to violence across the world. When I started working with Jigna Desai, Omise’eke Tinsley, and Rose Brewer—and other collaborators—we started to really think about how a history of women can be told by investigating the history of these elements.
Moreechika is about oil. It is inspired by the story of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-wiwa whose activism along the Niger Delta against Shell resulted in his being put to death. But Moreechika does not tell literal stories; it refers to multiple stories, but in an abstract way. Direct telling of a linear story does not always allow for interpretations to come from multiple places. The narratives in dance are very often abstract in that they invoke an emotional landscape which is not specific to one story. So for instance there’s the story of the Kichwa community of Ecuador where the women ran through long distances of rainforest shouting Anchuri! (“Get Out!”) to Chevron, which was poisoning the waters of their land through oil drilling processes. Then other stories of oil fracking here [in Minnesota], which is destroying indigenous community’s water and poisoning fish. There’s also the story of the U’wa community of Colombia who, like many other indigenous communities, believe that oil is the “blood of the earth” and should therefore be left where it is. Then you start to remember that oil is originally a natural product produced by the fossilization of older forms of life; it’s the way in which we use it that has associated it with greed, violence, and war.
AH: You mentioned the connection between natural resources and capital. Do you see these performances as a critique of capitalism?
AC: Yes, absolutely, my work is always a critique of capitalism. Capitalism harnesses a product; it is always interested in a product. In dance, there is no product that you can buy or sell. You can license a choreography that you can take and put on other bodies, but there is no dance outside of the dancing body. There’s no thingness in dance. Witnessing and performing bodies come together and there is an experience to be had, and there’s resonance. The essence of change is not a product; it’s a shift in the mind in that moment of experience.
AH: What led you to this collaborative project?
AC: I’m interested in the way dance actually comments on life. That basic premise led me to working with researchers in other disciplines. Jigna Desai, who works in Women’s Studies, Rose Brewer, who works in African and African American Studies, and Hui Wilcox, who works in Sociology, are a really important part of this collaborative because we are all looking at the ways in which bodies—especially women of color bodies—take cultural expression and make knowledge out of that. Dance becomes a way to materially record the histories of women who have been at the forefront of struggles to safeguard communities, environments, identity, and culture. Dance is not just a way of entertaining, but a way of producing more knowledge about what’s going on in society.
AH: What do you mean by the “bodily production of knowledge”?
AC: In 1998, I created a piece called “Unable to Remember Roop Kanwar.” Roop Kanwar was a woman who was burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre [in 1987 in Rajasthan, India]. I was interested in choreographing a piece about her because I was shocked that this could happen in the 20th century because that practice had been outlawed many, many years ago. I started to create a piece called “Remembering Roop Kanwar” but in the process of choreography I realized that it is impossible to know that kind of subject. If I cast her as a body that was very sure of what she was doing, clearly marching to her death, then one would think she was full of false consciousness. If I cast her as someone who was pushed into it, then she’s entirely a victim. The clarity of the body presents a particular kind of way of knowing a situation. I understood much more when I came to that moment and I felt I could not choreograph it. That is an unknowable subject. The only one who knows what it was like at that moment is a dead person. No one knows what it means to walk to one’s husband’s funeral pyre and die. That moment is unrepresentable. So that actually became a hole in the piece; in some ways, we can only represent it by absence. After that moment, the piece became “Unable to Remember Roop Kanwar.” That was where I began to think about how the body at the moment of performance—which is a heightened state of reality always signifying a huge amount of presence—is always something bigger than life in some ways and yet completely at the same level of life. What I’ve begun to look at more closely now is the relation between what I call ‘social choreography’ (social ways of behaving inscribed on the body) and stage choreography. There are ways to study the body and interrupt patterns through a choreographed intervention in order to raise questions in the minds of audiences.
AH: How has the IAS been a good place for supporting this work?
AC: First of all, the IAS is the Institute for Advanced Study, so already there is an indication in the name that this is about serious research. What happens when you locate dance in a research-based institution in a top ten University in a place called the Institute for Advanced Study? It’s a huge cultural shift and almost immediately we start to be able to shift the perceptions of a lot of people about what dance can be. It really helps me shape the perception of dance as a research area, as an area of knowledge production.
AH: You’re both a scholar and a dancer. What does your experience teach about being both cerebral and bodily?
AC: I’m in the University as a scholar and I’m entirely in the public arena as a performer of dance. Because I traverse both, I came to see the split between these two worlds. In the intellectual community, there is often a fear of the body; while in the art world there is often an anti-intellectualism. There are many, many permeable borders but there is also a way in which the worlds of the University community and the broader community are structured differently for some reasons and not for other reasons. How can there be a two-way street between the different kinds of knowledge being produced? What is important for me about this collaborative is that it helps me bring together public and private discourses. There’s a lot of knowledge that exists in the community but it’s not connected to knowledge in the University-setting. Performance, which is a public interface, really allows me to bring those communities together—the University community and the non-University community. I feel that I lead a richer life as a thinker and as an artist when I embrace both. This collaborative has helped me be intentional about that. That’s humanity, actually, when it is not one thing or another.