Last Saturday, in the black box of the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts & Education Complex (home to Tanner Dance), the audience was treated to an incredibly intense, thought-provoking, rarely soothing, but ultimately affirming performance by Ananya Dance Theatre and its team of nine dancers, all of whom are women of color.
The evening, programmed by UtahPresents and lasting a little over 90 minutes with no intermissions, gave the audience a visceral and occasionally physically uncomfortable, but altogether fascinating, view of grassroots movements, dissent, oppression, and support within that dissent, as well as eventually that of resilience and renewal.
I had an opportunity to do a workshop for three days before the performance, where I became familiar with the dancers and their unmitigated commitment to activism for social and environmental justice; they embody that commitment at all times, both on stage and in life. The process of taking individual experiences and memories and creating choreography was eye-opening for me. “In our bodies live our stories,” said Dr. Ananya Chatterjea, the arrestingly charismatic director of Ananya Dance Theatre. The choreography and performance of Shyamali: Sprouting Words demonstrated that convincingly.
The performance consisted of three acts, which followed each other seamlessly. While waiting, we listened to rhythmic chiming of what sounded like Indian hand cymbals, or manjira, followed by bird sounds. This soundscape created a tranquil bridge to nature, and was an effective foil for for the first act that followed.
Act One: Unravelings at razor’s edge
Invited members of the audience sat on the sides of the stage, holding the space safe and sacred as the dancers entered in dim, portentous lighting. As they moved in varying ways to various parts of the stage, one had the impression of women of humble, rustic backgrounds going about their daily lives, trying to face up to the enormous challenges of industrial overbearing -- and of the resistance to a loss of livelihood, habitat and control.
A quick note on the movement vocabulary of Ananya Dance Theatre may be useful here. Known as Yorchha™, it is a tribute to three Indian movement disciplines it draws from: yoga, Odissi (a classical dance movement from the eastern Indian state of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa), and Chhau (a dance form with martial, tribal, and folk origins). Yorchha™ was created by Ananya in her quest to create a contemporary language that allows for a feminine aesthetic and energy to embody resistance and new possibility.
One of the namesakes, Odissi, is characterized by an undulating grace and by Tribhanga (a three-part bend of the body in a gentle 'S' curve, with oppositional breaks at the neck, torso and knee). Another, Mayurbhanj Chhau, is a virile and vigorous dance form derived from a martial arts tradition, and has historically been male-dominated. By combining elements of these allied but disparate movement vocabularies, Ananya has created a unique, subversive language to explore themes that are far removed from the idealized mythological and spiritual worlds these styles usually occupy.
As the dancing in this act intensified, we witnessed violence and assault in the form of chopping, slashing, cutting and hacking. The women screamed, vocalizing their pain, their grief, their resistance, even as they were cut down and fell one by one into a heap, motionless. A lone survivor lifted a prop -- which was first a lifeless baby, then a blanket, then a backpack -- heartrendingly mourning the loss of these other lives. She issued a desperate plea to the universe against the injustice, compelling us all to look, listen, feel and care.
Guest artist Janzell Luika walked in as the Goddess of New Dawns, with otherworldly vocals, dressed in white flowing robes, and issuing a call for healing and rebirth: “...Come, let us sit in hope, breathe life, change, birth anew...” At this time, the audience members holding the stage space returned to their seats gently and with the flow of her voice, reluctant to disturb the cursive tide of renewal.
Act Two: From the archives of our bodies
Dancers crawled and rolled in. A toe poked out here, a hand raised itself there: all were emergent movements that reminded one of burgeoning shoots and sprouting cotyledons. In the background, barbed wire and different images of walls appeared, reminding one of the boundaries being enforced and perhaps closing in menacingly on the stories unfolding before us.
The highlight of this act was a sensuous and undulating duet by Leila Awadallah and Renée Copeland. They intertwined like vine and creeper, forest tree and flower, and danced like nymphs immersed in play, in each other, and in their mutual love and support. I felt afraid to breathe lest I disturb the painting of ethereal joy that they presented. The aesthete in me relished the Odissi technique on full display in this segment.
Another poignant segment was Ananya's own solo, in which her physical discipline and power was evident in the series of formidable yoga movements she utilized to summon up a commanding image of dissent, strife, and the energy it takes to sustain that struggle.
The musical landscape, with fragmented melody interrupted by rough unsettling sounds, kept one at the edge of one's seat and with a knot in the pit of one's stomach -- never letting one ease into a state of passive consumption. Large, undulating movements revealed pulling in different directions, perhaps a metaphor for the emotional toll that activists undergo. The penultimate image was one of Ananya lying spent on the floor. Then Felicia swept in, a surging, billowing, gushing river, with a couple dancers holding a long rippling train; these women washed away the fear, pain, grief, and sheer fatigue, making way for hope and new beginnings again.
Act Three: Moving as grass
The screen displayed a wall, or perhaps a fence, with cracks in it; we saw small, mossy fragments hinting at the resilience of life, and of hope.
One by one, the dancers entered with mirror shields which, the program notes indicated, were inspired by the Oceti Sakowin water protectors at Standing Rock. Mirror shields, but no swords, spears, or instruments of offense: only the clear reflection of the oppressor staring right back at himself in the shield. What a powerful statement with which to embrace the higher principle of love and support, and to refrain from violence while being violated! Speaking with Dr. Ananya Chatterjea, I learned of the profound impact that the water protectors and their unwavering adherence to the principle that inspired this segment had at the Standing Rock protests.
The Odissi stance of Chowka, wide-legged and low-hipped, was clearly seen here, as strong footwork created percussion. The dancers recited rhythmic syllables -- Taa Kada Taka Jham -- where the music offered no such support.
The cracks on the wall, permeated with green, become more widespread and larger; the soft green moss had won the war on concrete. (The title of the program, Shyamali, is a Bengali word that means dark green, and invokes the resilience of grass, ground cover, and moss.)
The dancers ended with the insistent drumming of their feet in resonant rhythm while offering up a poem penned by Ananya. The poem served as a call to let go of the hate unleashed in protest, and to hew to a greater love and a common humanity.
“Standing in the scorching sun,
we kiss the earth, hold each other sacred.
........No, no, no, no, no.
In radical love,
And finally, silently coming together, the dancers swayed together like lush grass in a breeze. Like the image on the screen behind them, with typical Odissi grace and ebullience, they bent but never broke, united and inspiring in their resolve and credence.
I left the hall with a recalcitrant catch in my throat, unable to attribute it to any one moment in the evening, but compelled by the sheer ferocity of will to prevail and the galvanizing power of conviction that seemed to descend from each of the women on stage that evening.
Srilatha Singh is a Bharatanatyam artiste and the director of Chitrakaavya Dance. While interested in encouraging excellence in her art form, she is also keenly compelled to explore relevance and agency through the artistic medium.