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The Duurbaar performers.

Duurbaar: Journeys Into Horizon features University professor Ananya Chatterjea and several U students among the multicultural cast.

Force and flow

U professor Ananya Chatterjea explores the meaning of femininity through the imagery of water in her latest dance project

By Pauline Oo

Sept. 13, 2006

In her Nobel Prize winning novel, "Beloved," Toni Morrison uses water to introduce a transition between stages in a character's life. In the upcoming dance production "Duurbaar: Journeys Into Horizon," University of Minnesota associate professor Ananya Chatterjea uses water as a metaphor to investigate the power of women's dreams and labor.

"Duurbaar" is inspired by the organization Duurbaar, created and led by sex workers in Kolkata, India (one of the largest and poorest red-light areas in the world), and honors these workers' struggle to be recognized as an integral part of society--as laborers in their own terms and as citizens who refuse to allow anyone from the outside to speak for them. On a more universal level, "Duurbaar," which also means "unstoppable" in Bengali, explores ideas and stories of loss and struggle, sexuality and sensuality and women's relationships to femininity.

To bring those stories and ideas to life at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis (Sept 14-17), Chatterjea has brought an international group of artists together and selected several forms of movement for the stage. Her artistic collaborators include Delhi-based composers and musicians Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, Toronto-based costume designer Rex; Minneapolis-based scenic designer Seitu Ken Jones and 22 women of color--African American, Latino, and South and East Asian--between the ages of six and 64.

"These stories, experiences and ideas, which come from diverse diasporas, cultures and histories, cannot be explored through any one dance language available to us," says Chatterjea, "so we work to deconstruct and extend the forms we work with... the sculpturesque and rhythmic [classical Indian dance form of] Odissi, the sustained breath-based and extension work of yoga, and the quick shifts and strident movements of Chhau, the martial art form."

As it transforms itself into one of the top three public research universities in the world, the University is continuing its efforts to bring international scholars, in addition to foreign students, to its campuses. Chatterjea, who's childhood began in Calcutta, is one such example. She was hired to teach dance history, philosophy and aesthetics on the Twin Cities campus. After eight years, Chatterjea, who is also the artistic director of award-winning Ananya Dance Theatre, has addressed themes in class and on the stage ranging from domestic violence and gender inequality to religious fundamentalism and society's growing complacency about state-sponsored aggression and war.

 Ananya Chatterjea in a dance pose
Ananya Chatterjea

"I've learned so much from her since I joined the group last September," says Duurbaar cast member and U student Serena Thompson. "We spend about three hours a day from Monday to Friday and four hours each on Saturday and Sunday training or running through specific parts of the show at the Barbara Baker Dance Center [on the U's West Bank). We work on things like strength building, classical Indian moves, stamina, torso placement and movement and footwork."

Thompson, who is pursuing her M.D./Ph.D. in neuroscience at the U, says she was drawn to the Ananya Dance Theatre because it meshed dancing with political and social activism. "This group makes me think, it requires me to be critical as a dancer and community member," says Thompson, trained in hula, tango, salsa and Greek folk dancing. "As performers, we're not just striking a pose, [we're dancing for social change.]"

"Duurbaar" has something for everyone, says Beverly Cottman, a local storyteller and the oldest dancer in the cast, because "what's happening on stage is open to interpretation," she says.

"We're there to cause a response, and those reactions can be on various levels," Cottman explains. "Even if you do not agree with us socially and politically, there's the artistic excellence you can appreciate."

"Duurbaar" is presented as part of the Sept. 15-16 international women's studies conference "Transnational Feminist Praxis" sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Institute for Global Studies and Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change.

Cultural historian, actress and dancer Brenda Dixon Gottschild will lead a post-play discussion on Saturday, Sept. 17. Gottschild is professor emerita of dance studies at Temple University, a senior consultant and writer for "Dance Magazine" and author "Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts" and "The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool."

Duurbaar plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, to Saturday, Sept. 16, and at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17. Tickets are $18. To buy tickets or for directions to the theatre, see the Southern Theatre.

To learn more about Ananya Chatterjea and her dance troupe, visit Ananya Dance Theatre.