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Review: Ananya Dance Theatre makes waves with political message

September 23, 2018

Ananya Dance Theatre is known for the social justice aspect of its performances, but in “Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds,” at the O’Shaughnessy last weekend, the troupe pushed its message further than ever.

More than once, the house lights came up in the show, and Alessandra Lebea Williams, a kind of poetic narrator throughout the piece, addressed the audience directly. At one point she asked them to raise their hands and join her in an invocation, and in another case, to recite words of a repeating refrain: “public fury, public joy, public dance …”

Breaking the fourth wall in those moments created a sense that what was happening on stage was more than just dance. ADT has often verged on agitprop, where the narrative and imagery supported a political message, but with this show’s added element of audience participation (there were also invited audience members on stage for the first part of the show), artistic director and choreographer Ananya Chatterjea made it clear the performance was not just entertainment — it was a call to arms.

There was some dynamite dancing to be seen along the way, too. The large ensemble numbers particularly held a raw power and force. As a choreographer, Chatterjea has a knack for drumming up compelling images through the use of bodies on stage. Toward the beginning, the dancers became a ship sailing an ancient trade route along the Indian Ocean. With their feet taking tiny short steps while their arms swept like sails in the air, they moved as one across the stage. Later, as capitalism took hold, they were like parts of a machine, clapping and repeating gestures while their eyes bulged with exhaustion.

The performance also featured a number of fine solos. The highlight was Alexandra Eady, who with the help of a mythical mask transformed into a golden deer with alluring and dangerous grace.

As with past performances, Chatterjea brought in a stellar group of collaborating artists. Dameun Strange’s sound composition and design, created in collaboration with Andrea (Queen Drea) Reynolds and Greg Schutte, was layered and complex. With orchestral music combined with intense vocals, global sounds, and contemporary beats, the music was a character all in itself, at times taking unexpected turns. The dissonant ending to the score matched the movement’s lack of finality, leaving the audience to wonder: What comes next?

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.

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