Thinking Souls: Interview with Ananya Chatterjea

This is the first installment of our new series "Thinking Souls," which will offer author profiles, book reviews, and online forum discussions with authors. Next month we'll read, review, and discuss Ed Bok Lee's "Real Karaoke People."

Ananya Chatterjea

Fiction writer and journalist Shannon Gibney is searching out the best of Minnesota literature, from nonfiction to novels to poetry, for this regular monthly feature.This month we review and discuss Ananya Chatterjea’s Butting Out (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), an investigation of choreographers Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha. The book makes the argument that dance becomes an act of resistance in Zollar and Chandralekha’s work, opening up possibilities for dialogue and critique, and in the process, presenting new paradigms for reading the bodies of women of color.

Ananya Chatterjea is a dance scholar whose 1999 article on Chandralekha has quickly become part of the required reading for dance history students. She is assistant professor of dance at the University of Minnesota, and artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre.

Read the interview with Chatterjea below, and check later this month for a review and an online book discussion.

SG: Why did you write this book?

AC: I wanted to share with people that some of the most interesting and most revolutionary ideas can come through the form of dance. It’s not just a form of entertainment. I believe that choreographers think seriously about dancing bodies, and think very carefully about the power of dance images.

SG: Who is your intended audience?

I would say people who want to think about dance as an important measure of what is going on in society. Sure, it’s for people who take dance seriously. So, certainly it’s for people who are studying dance at the undergraduate and graduate level. But also for theater and performance and Women’s Studies. It’s about people in different disciplines like that, because I talk about histories and histories of bodies.

But I really want it to be for people, generally: All of us who take the idea of making culture, of producing culture, seriously. I’m trying my best to talk about the body in language, and it’s very difficult to do that, I feel. The body is moving in terms of time and space. In dance, when we do rhythm that’s a time thing, but we are also simultaneously thinking about time and space. So it’s difficult, because I think the way in which dance works and language works are different.

SG: Can you talk a little bit about what dance studies entails?

AC: Dance leaves behind no trace. It’s a moment of live encounter between performer and audience. And you can record performances all you like, but that’s not what is exciting about it. So I think that dance studies tries to extend that life of dance by remembering what happened, finding resonances between the moment of liveness and what stays behind – what is actually in the minds of the audience after that. And wondering, “What happened? Why did I think about that image? Maybe it reminded me of this; maybe this is what the power of that image is.”

SG: Why is the book called Butting Out? How did you come up with that name?

AC: It came out of one very particular instance. When I was new to this country, I had heard so much about Martha Graham, and I was very inspired by her, and I went to her studio to take classes. There were two people of color in the class. There was me, and there was one African American woman, and we used to stand next to each other.

One day, a particular teacher, who actually wasn’t our teacher every day, was trying to get us to stand up tall, and she said, “Your butts both pop out!” She pointed to the African American woman, and she said, “Yours pops out because of your body type or something,” and she said to me, “Yours sticks out because of your training. That’s just rude; you’ve got to get rid of that.”

And I was like, “Ooo. I like the butt sticking out.” I remembered that. So I was like, “I’ll butt out even more.”

I really think of this concept of a lot of people saying, “tucking in” or “put your pelvis in,” and I never learned that. We had learned to let our pelvis hang out. That way you can go low in the mandala [in Sanskrit, this means world, circle, and body position]. So I figure, “butting out.”

SG: The book’s subtitle is Reading Resistive Choreographies Through Works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha. Why those two choreographers, and why are theirs resistive choreographies?

AC: Resistive, because as choreographers, they make certain choices. They could have both gone toward work that is all about beauty. They both had as choices very fantastic dance idioms – rich ones. Chandralekha could have worked with the whole idiom of Bharatanatyam, which is beautiful, and very powerful. Jawole could have worked with modern, she could have worked with ballet. She could have worked with different forms of African-inspired movement. But they both chose to deconstruct those idioms, because they needed to say something else through their work.

One of the first things I learned about dance is in this old text Abhinaya Darpana [The Mirror of Gesture, written by Nandikesvara around the third century B.C.] . He says, “Angikam bhuvanam yasya,” or “Your body is your world.” So, you begin to fashion your world in relation to your body. That’s why the idea of the mandala is so important. That is a formation of your world. Therein begins the tradition of yoga, or of other art forms.

How you fashion your body through your world can be a resistive way – you can change certain formations that are there, you can redesign them. That’s why the relationship between the world into which the body is born, and the world upon which the body will imprint differently, is a very important relationship. And I think these choreographers understand that.

I also want to say that I did not ever want to do a comparative study of these two choreographers. I put them side-by-side because I felt like I had access to two choreographers who work in very different realms.

SG: Can you talk a little bit about the specific choreography and choreographers?

AC: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is an African American choreographer who is extremely well-established at this point, and highly respected. She’s also a professor at the University of Florida, Tallahassee.

But when she started her company in New York, it was very difficult. She started with a small group of women. From the very beginning, she was about making work that was different. And she talks about how she had learned dance in very different ways. And as she learned dance in college, she was like, “I don’t fit. It doesn’t work.” And then she started making her own work.

She works in diverse ways – she draws in drama sometimes, she will do some pure dance sections, like Batty Moves. She will do pieces where there is sort of a storyline, like Bones and Ashes, which is based on Jewel Gomez’s novel about two lesbian vampires from a different times. And she’s collaborated with some amazing people.

Chandralekha trained in Bharatanatyam. She did some performances, but she was very impatient with the classical performance mode. She had this one performance where she was dancing a very traditional repertoire piece about the abundance of water, and the women were playing with the water. And immediately as she was dancing, she had this image which she had seen in the newspaper, which was everywhere right then, because there was a drought in the country, and people were standing with little tins, and long lines across cracked earth. There was no water to be had, in the villages, especially, and people were suffering.

And the contrast between the two situations was so alive to her, she just stopped dancing. She stopped dancing.

Then she joined the Women’s Movement. She didn’t dance for a long time – for a decade, maybe more. Because she felt that dance had become a sort of luxury.

So she felt that that’s what it had become, so she didn’t want to be there anymore. After working in the Women’s Movement for a long time, then she came back to dance, and then she started choreographing her pieces.

SG: You have this idea of brown postmodernism running through this book. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?

AC: How do we think about the fact that in all cultures, there’s movement? And every culture has its own cultural specificity? It seems to me always that the modern, the movement through time – modern into postmodern – is always reserved for the West. And for the White West, specifically. However, how do we account for the kind of changes that happen, the movement that happens, in others?

Brown postmodernism for me is about drawing attention to the fact that in each of these cultures, there is always movement. Inevitably. There’s always a movement. There’s a set of cultural practices that are codified as technique, and then it moves on, until people resist it, and they break it and they make something else, and then again another wave comes. This is part of everything.

The idea of brown postmodernism is important because I think we really cannot afford to be stuck anymore in this idea that one group of people do innovation, another group of people do tradition.

It also allows us to brush over the fact that in countries like India, farmers are committing suicide because there’s no water, because Coca-Cola has taken over. So, how do we reconcile this kind of discrepancy? How do we reconcile this modern/tradition binary with the fact that globalization is changing the world?

Are Third World countries, for instance, only postmodern when its convenient? So I want to also draw attention to that politics of convenience in naming things.

SG: So, how do we then assess and understand the work that we’re seeing, if this context is constantly shifting?

AC: I think we do it by two ways: One, by doing some homework. By that I mean that we study the specific context in which we are speaking. And second, by getting used to the idea that the big umbrella categories which we are used to are really difficult to work with. They have to be dismantled.

I feel like what has masqueraded as History with a big “H,” is this Western, European History. This is the shadow of the hyper-real Europe. We’ve had modernity forced upon us, some of us. Because that’s not necessarily what we would have termed it. But now that we have it, it’s here to stay. We can’t not acknowledge that it is there. So I want to work with those terms.

Research has also shown that through the process of colonization, things that we understood in culture, for instance, were categorized in boxes and labels, which the colonizers could understand. Then all of the thinking about everything that exists in our lives, whether it’s cultural practice, religion, social practice, economy – everything works according to one grand norm, one grand paradigm. And that is the Euro-American way of thinking.

So then now, I think it’s really time to think about how we can dismantle it. How can we think in local terms – the local histories of places?

To illustrate that, I will tell you a very interesting anecdote. I was recently in Kolkatta, my hometown, and I was looking at a poster, which my cousin, who is a professor, had in her office. It said something about choosing life – which had nothing to do with anti-abortion politics. It had everything to do with the history of women’s lives in some ways, against female infanticide in India.

And I said, “You know, it’s interesting that that poster is there. It could be co-opted by the Right as being a pro-life policy.” And she was quite indignant. She said, “Well, we don’t have to submit to American terms of thinking. We have our own ways.” I was nicely humbled, I must say.

People are really resistant to being forced into an American way of thinking – as if everything has to be subsumed into American politics.

SG: Do you think that, in the field of dance studies, and dance itself, you’re sort of straddling this difficult divide – yourself, being a dancer, choreographer, scholar? Do you think that people are starting to understand what you’re saying? That we need to do that – that we need to be able to shift? I mean, you wrote this book as an act of resistance, as well, right?

AC: Absolutely. I totally wrote it as my own act of resistance. And I think I do my work as a choreographer too, as an artist, as an act of resistance.

I think that people are used to certain ways of thinking, and those are comfortable, they become comfortable. Some big shifts and changes are hard. So all of us resist them. When I teach, though, I see that students do want to learn, and shift. They’re excited by new ideas, and that’s very productive to me.

It does not, however, ever mean that we just say, “Oh, that’s part of that culture. According to their terms, that’s what it is. I don’t have to comment on it.” We do. I feel that that is its own kind of racism – pushing something aside, saying, “Okay, that’s what it is. It’s far away from us. I’ll understand my own stuff, and they’ll understand their own stuff.”

I think it has to be messy. And messiness is okay, because we’re not looking for that grand organization anymore.

Make sure to tune in to our coverage of Ed Bok Lee’s Real Karaoke People next month, and pick up Peter C. Brown’s novel The Fugitive Wife (Norton, 2006) for your summer reading, as we’ll be discussing it in June.