In times of trouble the act of rising up celebrates what makes us human when confronted with inhumanity. On Friday night Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT) premiered "Shyamali: Sprouting Words" at The O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul. It was a soaring tribute to the global community of women who challenge oppression, often at great risk to their bodies and souls.
Artistic director and choreographer Ananya Chatterjea (collaborating with director Marcus Young) never hesitates to remind us that we are part of the solution, if we want to be. She creates performances for the stage, but her commitment extends beyond the proscenium — her vision is as much about activism as art, with no separation between the two.
"Shyamali" traces the evolution of belief in one's personal power. Its three acts represent a journey from subjugation to freedom. Chatterjea's own poetry, recited by the dancers, sums up the experience: "In radical love, I dissent. I affirm. Yes." As the 12 performers, including Chatterjea, interpreted her potent combination of three Indian forms of expression — dance (Odissi), martial arts (Chhau) and yoga — they sent a collective kinetic shout of "We are here!" into the universe.
The dancing contained a multitude of emotions, from mourning and tenderness to focused ferocity. The multifaceted score composition and sound design by Greg Schutte reflected this universality while singer Mankwe Ndosi's appearance on stage as the Goddess of New Dawns signaled hope as channeled through her otherworldly vocal tones. A recording of poet/performer Laurie Carlos, an ADT collaborator who died last year, reminded us that the quest for justice transcends this earthly plane.
Memorable moments abounded in "Shyamali." A duet for Leila Awadallah and Renée Copeland offered a seamless blending of limbs, recognizing the sensuality within support. Chatterjea's own fiery solo summoned a ghostly being, yet another reminder of the thin veil between now and the beyond. At one point the dancers wielded mirror shields, an homage to those used by the Oceti Sakowin Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Art plays a role in deflecting, and reflecting back, acts of intimidation.
Darren Johnson's media design tied "Shyamali" together with visuals ranging from barbed wire to abstract color. In the final moments the dancers stood in front of a soothing image of waving grass, swaying together, in solidarity, with the winds of change.
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.