Founded in 2013, the St. Paul, Minneapolis based Ananya Dance Theater avers that it is “the leading creator of feminist Contemporary Dance in the global arts and social justice movement”. Recently, the Skirball Cultural Center released the company’s new dance film Dastak: I Wish You Me conceived and choreographed by Founder, Artistic Director, Choreographer, and Dancer Ananya Chatterjea, and directed by Darren Johnson. Chatterjea is a 2011 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow, a 2012 McKnight Choreography Fellow, a 2016, Joyce Award recipient, a 2018 UBW Choreographic Center Fellow, and a 2019 Dance/USA Artist Fellow has also been the leader of the Shawngram Institute for Performance & Social Justice since 2018.

In 2018, the company acquired their first facility which is located on University Avenue in St. Paul at the convergence of the Rondo, Little Mekong, and Little Africa neighborhoods. Their website states that the company’s artistic work “unfolds through Yorchha™, a unique movement aesthetic of contemporary dance that draws on Classical Odissi, the martial art Chhau, and Vinyasa Yoga, to celebrate a feminine energy and celebrate a feminist aesthetic”. That sense of feminist energy and unity definitely comes through in this production as does the Indian style of dance and martial arts movements. That movement is often combative and/or aggressive but the reason for it is not always clear.

Dastak: I Wish You Me is divided into four sections representing nature’s elements, Earth, Water, Fire and Air. The movement in each section is similar yet not often enough is it performed with a vastly different intent behind it to make each section unique. There is a ritualistic sense to this film, a call to nature, a cry of warning; all with a reverence for Mother Earth. The cast includes eleven women, all of whom perform Chatterjea’s choreography with the same passion as the compelling music composed and performed by Dameun Strange, and the inspiring Incantations written and performed by Sharon Bridgforth.

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Ananya Dance Theater in "Dastak: I Wish You Me" - Screenshot by LADC

For this film Chatterjea’s movement is a fusion of styles and cultures, but she holds to a central movement theme of wide stances (or in dancer terms, wide second positions), East Indian hand gestures, circular formations, and percussive footwork. The film is constantly shifting in the rhythms set up by the composer and Bridgforth’s spoken word. Layers of different textures – earth, fire, water, sky, fields of flowers and more – overlay the dancers as they move through forests, fields, decimated urban areas, beautiful lakes, and in front of urban graffiti covered walls.

Although I was not clear on the overall vision or meaning, and in spite of the symbolism being simply too obscure at times, I enjoyed Dastak: I Wish You Me.  I was, however, most impressed with Strange’s music and the vocals, songs and music performed by Spirit McIntyre (as arranged by Darren Johnson) that are inspiring, invigorating and ring true to the meaning of the word dastak – knockings. Bridgforth’s Incantations is thought provoking. The additional vocals are performed by Alessandra Williams, Kealoha Ferreira, Noelle Awadallah, Lizzette Chapa, Ananya Chatterjea, Julia Gay, and Laichee Yang.

The diverse and dedicated cast of dancers include Noelle Awadallah, Fei Bi Chan, Lizzette Chapa, Ananya Chatterjea, Renee Copeland, Alexandra Eady, Kealoha Ferreira, Julia Gay, Nakita Kirchner, Parisha Rajbhandari, and Laichee Yang.

The cinematography by Leila Awadallah, Darren Johnson, Daniel Kerkhoff, and Emma Marlar is gorgeous. The editing and post production work was by Darren Johnson.

To learn more about Ananya Dance Theater, please visit their website HERE.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Dastak: I Wish You Me – Ananya Dance Theater – Choreography by Ananya Chatterjea – Photo courtesy of the artist.