In these uncertain times, it's not surprising to see performing arts companies addressing current events in their art. In fact, Ananya Dance Theatre has been taking on social justice issues as a core part of its creative voice ever since its inception in 2004 as a community-based ensemble.

This fall, artistic director Ananya Chatterjea will continue on that journey with "Dastak: I Wish You Me" at the O'Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

Originally set to be performed in fall 2020, work on "Dastak" began two years ago in collaboration with a number of guest artists, including Sharon Bridgforth and composer Spirit McIntyre.

Just when the creation of the piece wrapped up in March 2020, the pandemic lockdown began. It was followed by the murder of George Floyd and the resulting civil unrest, during which a window was smashed at the dance studio.

The events that ensued in the following months shaped the piece. Last summer, for instance, the company began rehearsing in Minneapolis' Brackett Park because it wasn't able to use its studio in St. Paul. At the time, an encampment for mostly Black and Indigenous women and unsheltered people had been set up.

Chatterjea said the experience helped clarify ideas around capitalism she had already been exploring. In her original conception of the piece, she was investigating movement responding to the India/Pakistan and U.S./Mexico borders. She began to think of the notion of borders and boundaries more broadly, including militarized borders across the world and boundaries that people establish to stay safe.

The Brackett Park encampment was a boundary, Chatterjea said, and it took on additional meaning because the space was shared with people who had experienced the worst outcomes of capitalism.

Also, the concerns over the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project became infused in the piece. Chatterjea and other ADT dancers traveled to the Mississippi River headwaters region where the Enbridge pipeline was being constructed and the Native American-led "water protector" movement holds an active resistance.

"They are crossing a boundary onto treaty lands," Chatterjea said of the oil company.

ADT performed an earlier version of the work virtually in 2020, through a series of online films. Those will also be presented online by Northrop auditorium Oct. 8-15. Since creating the dance videos, the piece has transformed even more.

"It's shifted so much because of all the histories that have accrued through the piece," Chatterjea said. "What is capitalism calling up? Who are the people being called up by the song, by the dance? Who are the people being invited to raise their voices? It's become something very different."

"Dastak," which will be performed Oct. 29-30 at the O'Shaughnessy, is structured through four journeys, each tied to a different element.

In the earth section, the notion of trying to push through borders is probed.

"It's about people who traveled through many different difficult journeys only to perish with the stars as their witness," Chatterjea said.

From there, the work moves into the element of water, inspired partly by the Ocean Dance Festival in Bangladesh, where ADT conducted research around Rohingya refugees, drawing on stories about women who were forced to put their children on rickety boats to survive.

The piece next moves to fire, where the dance layers references to incarceration and solitary confinement, inspired through a collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Finally, the piece shifts to the element of air and its possibilities for liberation. That notion came in part from ADT's outdoor rehearsals.

"Because we were in the open, we got a chance to imagine what it means to dance under an open sky," Chatterjea said. To dance about liberation is to understand the sky has no limits. It's really a meditation on that kind of freedom that could be about home and belonging to each other."

While she has been busy with "Dastak," Chatterjea, who also is a professor of dance at the University of Minnesota, has remained active in her work with the community. In March, she received the Anderson Award by the Anderson Center in Red Wing for her contributions to the arts, social justice and education. She also was named a McKnight 2021 Choreographer Fellow along with Alanna Morris-Van Tassel and Darrius Strong.

Over the summer, ADT gave a performance in its St. Paul space on W. University Avenue. Dancers and live musicians could be viewed through the studio's windows, which students from the high school across the street and children at the day care center next door often pass by.

"I've been wanting to do a project that connects the important social justice locations along University Avenue," Chatterjea said. "That was about awakening the sacred and everyday life."

Now, as ADT gears up for its fall performances it is reflecting on its growth and healing from last year. When strife, violence and pandemic have a grip over the world, arts companies like ADT don't sit back and watch. They carry onward.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts journalist and critic.