Building Belonging & Creating Welcoming Organizations
What does it mean to be a truly welcoming organization and how can arts leaders be more inclusive hosts who foster belonging? Dig into a discussion with two artists who regularly tackle these questions, Ananya Chatterjea and Marcus Young.
About The Guests
Ananya Chatterjea / অনন্যা চট্টোপাধ্যায়
Founder & Artistic Director, Ananya Dance Theater and the Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice
Ananya Chatterjea/ অনন্যা চট্টোপাধ্যায় ‘s work as choreographer, dancer, and thinker brings together Contemporary Dance, social justice choreography, and a commitment to healing justice. She is the creator of Ananya Dance Theater’s signature movement vocabulary, Yorchhā, and the primary architect of the company’s justice- and community-oriented choreographic methodology, Shawngrām. She is a 2011 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow, a 2012 and 2021 McKnight Choreography Fellow, a 2016 Joyce Award recipient, a 2018 UBW Choreographic Center Fellow, a 2019 Dance/USA Artist Fellow, and recipient of the 2021 A. P. Andersen Award. Her work has toured internationally to the Bethlehem International Performing Arts Festival, Palestinian Territories (2018), Crossing Boundaries Festival, Ethiopia (2015), Harare International Dance Festival, Zimbabwe (2013), New Waves Institute of Dance and Performance, Trinidad (2012), Aavejak Avaaz Festival, India (2018), and Ocean Dance Festival, Bangladesh (2019). Domestic tour venues include the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (Pittsburgh), John Michael Kohler Arts Center (Sheboygan), Dance Place (Washington), Maui Arts & Cultural Center (Maui), and Painted Bride Theater (Philadelphia), among others. In response to the Twin Cities Uprising (2020), she created the Kutumkāri (Relationship-making) Healing Movement series with a particular invitation to BIPOC women and femme healers. Ananya is Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota where she teaches courses in Dance Studies and contemporary practice. Her second book, Heat and Alterity in Contemporary Dance: South-South Choreographies, re-framing understandings of Contemporary Dance from the perspective of dance-makers from global south locations, was published by Palgrave McMillan in November 2020.
Marcus Young 楊墨
Stage Director, Ananya Dance Theater & Artist-in-Residence, Minnesota Department of Transportation
Marcus Young 楊墨 makes art to expand the repertoire of human behavior and the expressivity of social forms, for the stage, museums, mindfulness practices, and the public realm. From 2006 to 2015, he served as City Artist in St. Paul, MN, where he transformed the city’s sidewalk repair program into a publishing entity for poetry, an ongoing project called Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk. Since 2008, he has been creating Don’t You Feel It Too?—a participatory public dance practice and liberation project. He is a recipient of awards from the McKnight, Bush, and Jerome Foundations. Marcus is currently Stage Director with Ananya Dance Theater and artist-in-residence at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. DYFIT.org
Marianne Combs: Welcome to Filling the Well, a podcast created to nourish, provoke and inspire artists and arts leaders, I’m Marianne Combs. More than ever, finding points of connection across differences is key to creating strong support of communities. Arts organizations can play a part in making sure everyone, especially those who’ve been traditionally left out, feel like they belong. On this episode of Filling the Well, we’re going to talk about what it means to be a truly welcoming organization and what steps arts non-profits can make to connect with their communities. My guests for this conversation are two Twin Cities artists whose work is grounded in community and belonging, Ananya Chatterjea is the Founder and Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theater and the Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice. Ananya Dance Theater centers women and non-binary people of color. Its performances are not just artistically powerful, but often serve as healing community rituals, Ananya, welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
Ananya Chatterjea: Hello.
Marianne Combs: We’re also joined by long time Ananya dance collaborator and stage director, Marcus Young. Marcus is a behavioral and social practice artist who creates work for the stage, museums and the public realm. He served as artist in residence for organizations ranging from the City of St Paul, to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Marcus, thank you so much for being with us today.
Marcus Young: Hello and thank you.
Marianne Combs: Marcus, so much of your work is grounded in awareness, whether it was with the St Paul sidewalk poetry project you started years ago where people would suddenly be walking down the streets and come across a poem under their feet, or with your, don’t you feel it too, practice of dancing in public and something that often feels so intimate and awkward, but then doing it out in a public space where nobody else can hear the music but you. When you think about spaces that make you feel welcome, what comes to mind for you in terms of people who are doing this well, and what do you feel or notice when you’re in those spaces?
Marcus Young: Well, I think I first notice that so many spaces are unwelcoming.
Marianne Combs: And what is that experience like for you? What are you noticing when you walk in those spaces?
Marcus Young: Well, it can be so many things that goes to all the sort of foundational principles that has brought this world into the being as it is, whether it is related to identity, how we look at each other, how we treat each other, the time or lack of time that we take to be with each other. So welcoming and feeling belonging is actually a constant practice.
Ananya Chatterjea: I wanted to jump in because one of Marcus’ and my… One really crucial part of our long-term collaboration has been to help audiences, particularly our BIPOC audiences feel seen inside of the work. And it’s been my desire to invite audiences on stage, and we’ve… For a while, we’ve invited people in, and that crafting of that invitation, Marcus and I have really, really gotten deep into figuring out how can we invite people, how. How can they feel safe? What is needed for them to feel seen and safe and see their stories. So you know, when you said in the beginning that so many times belonging is about organizations, predominantly white institutions saying, Okay, how can we create access? I’m interested in how I can dance stories that actually get… Are reflected in the eye, so when I look out into the audiences and offer my dance, we have a mirroring, we have a moment of seeing, Yes, this is your story, and people are saying, This is my story, we’re dancing with each other. So that mutuality, that gaze, that gaze that we call also Darshan, when we see each other, can I see you, you see me. This is very vital for us. But having audiences also on stage at some moments, inviting them to gesture and inviting them into breath as well, has been so much part of Marcus’ and my deep collaboration.
Marianne Combs: What all of these examples got speak to is the need to do the work, that it is not just a matter of, Well if we check off this box and check off this box, then they’ll come. Ananya, when you work on a project, and when you work on a production that involves an issue that maybe affects a community, and you’re a group of people in the community in which you live, your company does a lot of research and invites people in for conversations to learn more and to share learning, and I think that time commitment, that directing of your energy to say, We’re gonna invest ourselves in this so we truly understand this and then share our learnings is something that many arts nonprofits feel like, I don’t have the resources to do that, or that’s such an extra leap for me. If you could speak to the importance of doing the work in terms of creating these relationships and making sure that you are reaching people authentically.
Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, thank you, Marianne, for that question. I feel that the biggest problem I have in the way the current cultural scenario is framed, is with the terms diversity and inclusion, because there is someone who can reach out to include. That’s just not interesting to me at all. I’m interested in how my dance can be in service of, and dancing with. So I think the leap that you are talking about is not in fact a leap at all, it is the only way to devise new work. Because what we do know is that some of the models of choreography are dance-making or meaning-making that have come to us are in fact not working in so many ways because they’re coming from a single point of view, and I find I’m so excited when I bring a particular story that I’m interested in, and.
Ananya Chatterjea:: Artists, other artists in the room will start saying, “Well, this is what I think about. I think about… “ And Marcus will come in and say, “You know, this image was really significant to me when I thought about this.” So the deep locality of each artist, the deep research into their own lives that each artist has taken, in fact is part of that mosaic. In devising the choreography, what I have to remember is in fact they will be contradictory. Some of the stories will contradict each other, and yet they will sit together. And that is the same of rhythm, right? If someone is doing a four-four rhythm and I’m coming in with a three, I’m going to have to listen carefully, so my threes sit in the middle of their fours. In the same time they’re co-existing, we can share space, we can share time, but come in with our differences. That’s a training. That’s a training of listening, and I think the practice of footwork has really taught me that.
Marianne Combs: Marcus?
Marcus Young: When you say, “The work,” Marianne, I immediately go to two places. I think of the work of yourself aligning your internal life so that as you live out your life, that you can inspire and make space for other people. And my second place I go to is this work of fiction that we need to keep creating that inspires us to make reality from fiction. Like if I see places like Ananya Dance Theatre and other organizations are proficient and adept at creating a fictional/real space, yeah, that we… A place that we yearn for and that they’re working to make the space reality. But I want to try to be a little bit more helpful than being at the internal level and at this grand fictional level. And that is a moment in the very beginnings of my collaboration with Ananya in the rehearsal room. As stage director and as I’m trying to understand how this company works, and something about the opening of the show wasn’t quite working for me. I was trying to figure out, “Well, what can I do?” ‘Cause it’s very quite a strange thing to have a both a choreographer and a stage director in the room. But maybe this is a good tip or hint or indication to an organization how it needs to be less linear, okay, already in that example.
Marcus Young: So here I am, I said, “Ananya, I’d like to make some suggestions but my suggestion might upend the opening of this whole scene that you’ve created.” And she just said, “No, go ahead, do… Do what you need to do. Let’s try.” Okay, so that was… That’s indication Number One, the invitation to come and do what you need to do to be yourself, even if we don’t know each other all that well. So I gave a few instructions and in the snap of a finger, the whole scene came to place. The soil, the rich environment, the lack of fear, the complete like, “We’re in it together to create something juicy and beautiful,” that was so palpable to me, it reflected back in that moment. I was like, “What just happened? How did the scene create itself?” It didn’t really create itself, but it was as if it created itself. So in an organization, how do you cultivate that invitation, that possibility, and then how do you activate and catalyze it so that these moments emerge.
Marianne Combs: That speaks so much to how if you have people who are invested and feel ownership of the work, that… It’s amazing what can happen. And because they all feel like… They know what they can bring and that they want to bring it, but… I mean, that just sounds like an ideal kind of working environment you’ve created.
Ananya Chatterjea: It was also possible because we knew we shared this value around justice-based performance. I have learned to say to myself, “Ananya, just don’t be precious about what you’ve created. Let it go.” Because Marcus is seeing it. Marcus is seeing it and he’s saying it’s not working. I’ll be like, “Oh my God, I love this moment!” And I have to let it go. I think in the push and pull between saying, “This is… But Marcus, this is my vision.” And Marcus is saying, “But it is not working.” In that listening to each other, we have created a process that actually moves towards that kind of space where different stories can enter. And this methodology of collaboration, which has emerged organically, it’s so important. It’s bigger than myself. So I think if we, organizationally, taking Marcus’ cue, “I will go to the point of organizationally,” what does it mean to have a bigger vision at work? It’s not about individual glory, “Oh my goodness, I made this… I made all these processes where people could come in,” but rather, what is the goal? The goal is justice. What do we need so that people can see the story better? What needs to happen?
Marianne Combs: I’m thinking about a performance… Is it a performance or is it a ritual? I don’t know what to call it. That you choreographed, led this past summer in the neighborhood where Ananya Dance Theatre is based, and just how powerful that performance and ritual was in terms of creating healing for a community and bringing people of different walks of life together. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what happened this past summer?
Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, it was a dream project for me, [chuckle] and it took everything to make it happen. When we moved into the Shawngram Institute, we were actually broken into several times. So I began to think of what would happen if we could together as a community, have a holding place, a container for the safety of all the young people who I would see constantly walking by.
Marianne Combs: And this is also a neighborhood that saw a lot of damage in arson in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, and the institute also suffered some damage. And I wondered, what if we could create a social justice corridor all along University Avenue where we could actually say to each other, “Hey, there is this person who needs some support in this way. I don’t have the resources but maybe you do. Can they find their way to you?” And this idea of a shared… A network that holds our communities.
Ananya Chatterjea: And then we found so many organizations along that whole line, and we created these leaves that were made from recycled cardboard, we got together, made all these leaves and flowers and created of… But the whole idea was to create a ceremonial procession of people moving together, energetically shifting the landscape. And I was so… I’m going to remain so thankful for that.
Marianne Combs: I actually got to participate in this. People from different areas began these processions throughout the neighborhood, and as they processed, they danced choreographed movement, they repeated certain phrases, envisioning a world of differences celebrating and coming together, sort of weaving together our future.
Ananya Chatterjea: Yes.
Marianne Combs: And then people would see this, going by them and they would join the procession as it walked by and said, Where are these people going? I wanna follow this. And so they start learning the movement and they start saying the chants, and then you stopped at these altars throughout these different locations on University Avenue. And then you all joined together at one location, the three different groups or… I don’t know if it was three or more, but to see this sort of ritual play out in the neighborhood itself, it felt very healing and powerful. And what is considered a very urban area to feel something that was so natural and organic, but also very artistic and beautiful in a very concrete space. And so I think about how you took your organization out into the community to make those connections. And oftentimes organizations are saying, You’re welcome to come here, come on in. You’re always welcome. Why don’t you come in? But what you did was you took yourself to the community in a way that was very palpable.
Ananya Chatterjea: What I loved about that was how different artists took initiative. Some people brought their own instruments while I created the choreography. Some of the procession was also… I invited improvisation on that theme. So there was this young artist, this young man, Dakota man, Cruze Novotny who wore his moccasins and brought stage from his place and danced with us in a very different way. He was part of our summer intensive, but what he brought was a different way of youth leadership, and I just… I was moved to tears because he was so beautiful.
Marianne Combs: Marcus, I wonder… I think of you as being such an expert in ritual and space, and I wonder if you have thoughts on that experience this past summer of that event where people were coming together in the city. The power of an event like that to be transformative but also to be a way of connecting… How we connect with community by showing up in community, by holding space like something like this.
Marcus Young: Yeah, I think for me that what happened this past summer, and I really… I just got to be a participant and someone who could enjoy this. I go back to this idea of what was made was so beautiful that it can… It feels like it can only exist in fiction, but actually it’s right here in front of us, I’m going back to that sort of fiction and reality relationship. And so you get to live in this fiction. Ananya and others made this sort of river of care, this river… There is no river, this is a very concrete-based place, but the love and the movement, and the care made it feel like a rich nourishing river that connected various places and helped heal our relationship to those places.
Marcus Young: So part of that is making space where you can just hang out. And here I wanna tell another little story. I’m hanging out at Shawngram, and because you can just be yourself… There aren’t that many places where you can just be yourself. And because you can just be yourself, you can ask silly questions. And I’m sitting next to uncle Douglas Ewart, and I’m just about ready to start a two-year relationship with… Of all places, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, they’re exploring what it means to have an artist-in-residence within an organization. And let me tell you, I think every organization should have an artist-in-residence, even an arts organization needs to have an artist-in-residence. And so here I am about to start an artist-in-residence gig with MnDOT.
Marcus Young: This is a 5000-person agency, and I said to Douglas, I have no idea what I’m gonna be doing with MnDOT. What do you think I should do? And he said to me… Turned not missing a beat, he said, Turn the highways into rivers. That was his sort of drop of wisdom, and I have held that phrase, Turn the highways into rivers for the last two plus years at MnDOT. And I know he means that figuratively and literally, and spiritually, and emotionally. You receive a phrase like that in all its dimensions, you cannot go to the place of like, Well, we can’t engineering-wise, we can’t turn all the… No, no, that’s… Set it down, back away from your linear thinking, embrace the beauty of this fiction and figure out how the reality emerges from that. So for two years I’ve been there, and I’ll give you one small example. This is about space. So they have many, many uninspiring neglected beige rooms, conference rooms within this agency, and how we got here is another story, another podcast.
Marcus Young: But here we are. And so I asked, and I said, “You know, you have this unbeloved Conference Room 820 on the top floor of the Transportation Building, which is just two buildings down from the capital Capitol. No one loves this room, that’s what I keep hearing, but you use it, because you have to do the work. But you don’t understand that you’re missing out on how we can gather more beautifully. So could I commandeer this Conference Room 820 and change it into the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room, okay? So play on words, not just a conference room, but a confluence room. And here they are in the midst of figuring out, “Well, what is land acknowledgement? What is Land Back?” As a whole, there are many people within MnDOT who understand land acknowledgment, and Land Back, but the culture doesn’t allow land acknowledgement and Land Back to surface. So I wanted to make a space, a placeholder, the purpose of which is to shift culture one degree only, ‘cause it’s just one conference room.
Marianne Combs: And how did you do that? Can you describe the room for me so that people can understand how it’s different?
Marcus Young: Yeah, first of all the room originally was literally beige, and the table and the chairs in the center of the room took up all the space. So that all you could do was sit around it and be at the edge of the room. And then the posters that used to be there were from the ’90s, I think, that said like words like, “Goals,” and then like a winding path, that kinda thing with some leaves. [chuckle] So what we started by doing was just imagining this space as a space of care and a space of nourishment. So we took out the big table, we took out all the bulky chairs. We brought in, yes, yoga mats and meditation cushions.
Marcus Young: There will be fruit and granola bars in the room for people to come in just for that purpose. We turned the water cooler just outside into a place where you can pick up a little blessing card, so you connect to the water. And you’re not just filling up your water bottle, you’re saying, “Hey, take a little prayer card that says, ‘Oh, I am grateful for this water that nourishes me, and I understand the connection that… In this water cooler to the greater water outside of this space.’” So all different strategies to awaken your senses and awaken who you are as a human being and see other human beings, not just workers. But then renaming the room the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room and trying to create a space that does that title justice.
Marcus Young: Which in addition to all of the nourishing things, I was also exposing some of the past injustices. So on the walls are quotes from fellow MnDOT staff that said, “What we did was wrong,” whether that was Rondo or whether that was digging up graves of native burial grounds. So like reminders that what we do, we have to be very careful, we have to be very thoughtful about what we’re doing. And so we’re in the midst of finishing that now. This space allows you to feel like a whole person. People walk in, they’re like, “Oh, yes, the previous space, that beige space that denied my whole being was just treating me as a worker, but here I get to understand my identities and other people’s identities, so I can relax, I can breathe.”
Marcus Young: No time more important in our history… Recent history at least, is the importance of breath and breathing. “So here I can breathe, I can be myself, I can find inspiration within the art on the walls.” I gave a little presentation about this idea to senior leadership. And the Commissioner was there, and the Commissioner said, “We need more of this. Why only one room?” So you see, one room sparks the idea that all places… Yes, all places can be the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room, but other things as well. So we need to transform all these places into places of new fiction, new ideas, the new world. And I think it’s possible, but I can only do one room at a time, so I hope others will join me.
Marianne Combs: That’s so beautiful. And the idea of you are turning this… I cringe a little when you say fiction, because I… It feels like it’s a reality…
Marcus Young: Right, it’s both.
Marianne Combs: That you are continuing to build, and it is so important what you’re doing in terms of transforming space so that people feel more human in those spaces. This is such a perfect example, both of these in terms of the… What happened this summer and then and in this transformation of space. I’m wondering what other advice you would have for people who are seeking to make authentic connections with their community but maybe they’re not as schooled in this as you are, they are in the beginning of this path. So where do you point them? What direction do you point them in? Ananya?
Ananya Chatterjea: I would point them deep into themselves. I understand as a parent what happens with… I understand Black Lives Matter from my… From the perspective of being a parent. If I could not tell my child to go outside and play for a second, the fear, I… My daughter is 25, and I’m… I have to make her text me when she reaches home every night. Because it’s too much for me, I worry about her. So I… What is that? What is… How does the mother of a Black child feel when this level of systemic oppression is constantly out there? So I feel, “That could be my child,” is the first thing we have to go to, or “That could be my brother, that could be my sister.” It’s… I think to understand each other in relationship, this word Marcus keeps bringing up, the relationality, whether we like it or not, to understand that, and to understand how sometimes systems are such that they perpetuate themselves, right? So that we are often involved in creating harm, even if it wasn’t an intentional act. That looking at oneself is actually the first way to begin connecting with each other. I can understand from this place. I’m so sorry.
Ananya Chatterjea: I think that’s a first step, actually. And I really have to say that I have learned learnt so much from my indigenous sisters, Sharon Day and Janice Badmoccasin, who have taught me constantly about relationship, being in relationship. Not just with those we consider human, but also with the world, with the environment, with four-leggeds, and everyone. I think that understanding that is constantly part of this view of understanding life in a different scale than life for the… Lived for the sake of purpose. And it helped me to connect to struggles that I see at home where, you know, in India sometimes, where people… You know, this fight over land. And people are suddenly saying, “Land is something that we purchase.” And no, Land is mother, actually. So this notion of relationality in our views is so crucial. It connects me to… It connects me both to what my mother taught me and to what I’m relearning here.
Marianne Combs: What I think your comment speaks to is primarily that you have built deep relationships with people who are different than you, and have learned from them, and have taken those learnings to your work. Even in that, I think some people have a fear around the idea of like finding some… Reaching out to someone who is different and being like, “I need to learn from you. I want to be in relationship with you. I want my arts group to do a better job of seeing you and welcoming you.” For some people that is still a very scary thing. So how do you go about… I mean, for you it’s second nature now, but how do you go about creating those relationships and those collaborations?
Ananya Chatterjea: You know, I know that nobody likes to be included because they are politically expedient. I know that, and I know how icky that feels. So it’s because I’m genuinely interested in what their stories or their craft, I’m moved by it, so I want to do that. I’m genuinely interested, and I think that is the best recipe. “Wow, so amazing what you did.” So I think if we can really… Maybe if we can move away from the capitalized notion of art and think about being… Actually letting the… I think about, you know…
Ananya Chatterjea: Whether your heart opens in wonder, right? For the heart to open… So for your upper body to open, your rib cage has to remain closed, and your navel to spine has to remain connected. So when I can stay grounded, my heart can open, in other words. So I think that making space in my heart for difference and I’m being amazed by colleagues… You know when Marcus float through the museum, that early, early project many years ago?
Marianne Combs: At the Minneapolis Institute of Art? Yes.
Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, yes, yes. And sort of things like that, it’s just like, “Wow. How did they come up with that? That’s so fascinating.” I think being able… Being available to be amazed by others is actually what creates rich collaboration, because you realize, “Wow, the work can be bigger. Everything can be bigger.” And I love community. I have to say… I have to say that the idea of dancing alone is just boring. I wanna be with my people. I love it. I love people. I’m energized by people. So it just… It energizes me back in return.
Marcus Young: And I wanna point out something that Ananya just said which is the question of, you know, “What can people do if they feel like they don’t know where to start?” And Ananya just helped me and helped us reconnect to our bodies, first of all. Right? Your spine, your heart, your posture, your openness, your strength, your core. So as a species, we do a horrible job of understanding how the body plays a role in everything. We just think of this body as holding up the head, you know, the pedestal for the head. We’ve really gotta get away from that. And so what Ananya just led us doing to connect to our… The navel to spine, and, you know, our sit bones, I’m sitting at the moment. That is a very important part of doing the work.
Marcus Young: And I’ll just add because I frankly don’t have the same skills as Ananya does in terms of creating these relationships. I mean, that’s it’s quite… It’s something quite to marvel at. My own path of how to build relationships and how to build the potential for connection has been to focus on form. And in the form of what? The form of gathering, the form of how to be together whether that’s in a meeting or that’s in a room or that’s in a conversation; the social practice of being together, and what do we do together? Do we dance? Do we eat? Do we live in a museum together? We have to keep creating new forms. The old forms will not serve us, so what new forms of coexistence and co-learning are our art organizations and beyond art organizations, going to be making together? New forms so that we can do all the things that Ananya was just talking about.
Marianne Combs: We’ve talked a lot about welcoming artists into spaces. I wonder if we can talk about welcoming audiences into spaces and how you create a space where everyone feels welcome in the room.
Ananya Chatterjea: I’ve had great friends and… You know, the why… Why I would take some group fitness classes, and there were some of our friends who loved that. They would come and they would say, “I love the work. I don’t understand it. Can you have subtitles?” I was like, “No, no, can’t have subtitles!” But I think what that told me was there are ways of meaning-making that, you know, different ways of meaning-making. And somehow we have managed, through the a corporate notion of art, we’ve managed to push it as being this museumized notion of art, so that there are some people who will understand it and others who won’t.
Ananya Chatterjea: Somehow it’s been separated out, dance or performing arts or arts, as being part of an elite culture only, when we know that artistic practice actually sits in all across the boards. It’s for everyone. So how can we invite in people into our kind of meaning-making, which is not linear, which is more mosaic-based, which is more about interaction. How can we do that? This is why Marcus and I have… One of the questions in our collaboration was that. And I think much of the feedback Marcus gives is from that point of making palpable, without ever saying that we are going to change the modality of storytelling so it becomes one linear story. How can we hold this whole notion of juxtaposition, intersectional storytelling, keeping it abstract, keeping it metaphoric, because that is what we do in dance; how can we still invite in people?
Marcus Young: Okay, so Ananya… It’s a funny moment, right? Ananya says… Her friends, or her workout mates say, “Love the work, don’t get it.” Basically, that’s what they’re saying, “Love the work, don’t get it.” Okay, so, I mean, we need to open that up a little bit. Why don’t you get it? Okay. Yes, there is something that Ananya and I can work on to clarify, to make the work stronger, to excel even more. But recently, I had the opportunity to write something where I said, “Don’t watch the work with your eyes. Not just your eyes, can you watch the work? Can you open yourself up to the work? Can you receive the work with your whole body? Are you capable of doing that?” And I think there is something about how we understand art that makes it very limiting of what an audience is, what an artist is, and what is the transaction at an event between artist and audience. And there is something basically wrong. The paradigm is so limiting, such that when audiences come, they are only viewing the work with such a narrow bandwidth that they can… They will say, “Love it, but don’t get it.”
Marcus Young: So what’s our practice of helping the audience to open up and receive the work as a whole? And Marianne, as you were saying, even the moment of getting up and doing the gestures of preparing ourselves, that we are not these like, “Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Stay in the dark. Watch the thing. Clap at the appropriate moments.” That’s denying so much of ourselves. How can we continue transforming what art can be, so that we get away from these notions of what is proper audience behavior and proper artistic behavior? How can we open up the relationship to art? And I make participatory art. So I’m really trying to figure out like, “Okay, we’re not doing that thing. We’re not doing that thing where you go to a museum, and you stare at the walls, and your back is to every other person in the gallery.” What kind of type of human behavior says that, “We’re gonna spend hours just keeping our backs to each other and not… “ You might be like with hundreds of other people in the museum, but you might not have a moment of connection with another human being. So we have to really rethink what art can be, if we want some of our ideas of diversity and inclusion to transform our world.
Marianne Combs: I would love to hear how you came up with the land acknowledgement that started your most recent show, and how that became a participatory event for the entire audience.
Ananya Chatterjea: The land acknowledgement is actually so… It’s something… It a such that you experience, the land acknowledgement that you experience, is actually a shortened version of what we do in our practice. So in traditional performance, in Indian traditional performance, you begin and end practice or performance with Pranam. Pranam is salutation, and it is really a salutation to the earth. The earth… We are doing footwork on the earth, so we need to ask the blessing of the earth before we do that. However, we are here on indigenous land. So we workshopped a lot with Janice Badmoccasin, and important Dakota leader, and Sharon Day, an important leader in the Anishinaabe communities, and I created our Pranam based on that.
Ananya Chatterjea: So the land acknowledgement is not a statement, or oh we acknowledge that we are on this land, but it is in our body. And I understand 100%, the weight of putting something in your body. Every day, I am going in, and I am holding up “Mnisóta Makhóčhe.” Every day, I am saying, “Zaagi” which is “Love.” I am saying, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which is “We are all connected.” My breath, my body, my voice, are all connected in the articulation of that. I believe that has weight. I believe that shifts me. So we were talking about Hue inviting audiences in. Marcus actually brought in the breath element by saying, “Okay let’s, everyone, watch with your entire being,” and then Hue crafted it from that. Because it is part of the practice in the space.
Marianne Combs: And just as somebody who was is in the audience, and who has witnessed so many land acknowledgements of varying effectiveness, to actually be invited to stand, breathe, and say these words in an indigenous languages with you before a performance, felt so much more grounding and real, and stayed with me in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. And I think, you are not Native American, Marcus is not Native American, but you have created this space where Native American people feel seen and recognized, and their culture is valued.
Ananya Chatterjea: So important. We are here on native land, and that is… That commitment is so important for us, that we are able to invite in, you know, Native communities, yes. I wanna add just one thing about the audience invitation. I also created this audience empowerment workshop that we would do before every performance, just to get people talking about what they see, and because I teach dance and dance history, I know that what we see is sometimes different than what we think we see. And sometimes, the interpretations would will be very different from what I thought I was choreographing. That’s good feedback for me, but I would also invite audiences to say, “Title this piece.” If you were to see this, see this excerpt, you see it once, now, give it a title that you would like, and now let’s see it from your lens, we’ll do it again for you. So just ways in which we remind people, our audiences, our beloved audiences, that they have the a the power of metaphoric, interpretive thinking. Imagination belongs to all of us and we cannot allow this notion of capitalism to cut it out of us. Yeah. Imagination is for all of us.
Marcus Young: I would say that woven throughout our conversation today, we haven’t articulated or we haven’t said it, but it’s ideas and practice of spirit. And why I wanted to say that word once before the end of our conversation is because of all things in my conversations with MnDOT, I heard very clearly someone say we bring technical solutions to crises of the spirit. Meaning, we need to watch ourselves. When are we not practiced enough in understanding each other as spiritual beings going through this human experience? And we cannot just offer technical solution after technical solution after technical solution, we are not logistical technical beings. So my last contribution to this conversation is that woven into all of what we’ve said is how to deepen our understanding of spirit as whole beings and to care for each other that way.
Marianne Combs: Beautiful. Thank you so much to both of you for being here today.
Ananya Chatterjea: Thank you, I love the invitation. Yeah.
Marianne Combs: Yay.
Marcus Young: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Marianne Combs: You’ve been listening to Filling the Well. Our guests for this episode were Ananya Chatterjea, founder and artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre, and behavioral artist, Marcus Young. I’m your host, Marianne Combs.
Marianne Combs: Want to dig deeper into the ideas behind this episode? Visit the Arts Midwest Ideas Hub. It’s a collection of free curated articles and tools to help creative leaders foster growth within their organizations and communities. Go to artsmidewest.org/ideas for more.
Marianne Combs: On the next episode of Filling the Well, we’ll look at how small arts organizations in rural areas are making themselves indispensable by filling in gaps in community resources, and we’ll discuss best practices for authentic collaboration.
Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: I saw from sitting on all these different committees, the millions of dollars and support that are given to artists in the state of Minnesota, but how few are given to artists of color, different rural communities, and part of that is just really of understanding access, how you change those structures.
Ashley Hanson: When you get to brainstorm and daydream with other folks who also have values that are aligned with yours and hopes for your community that are similar, it’s going to be better, it’s going to be better, and it takes time.
Marianne Combs: That’s on the next episode of Filling the Well, I hope you’ll join us.
Marianne Combs: This podcast was produced and edited by Emily Goldberg, and mixed by Eric Romani, with original music by Dameun Strange.
Marianne Combs: The Filling the Well series is made possible with financial support from the Barr Foundation. Based in Boston, the Barr Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural, and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.
Building Belonging in Your Organization and Community
In this companion article to Filling the Well podcast episode “Building Belonging & Creating Welcoming Organizations,” deepen your understanding of belonging and discover how to make your space more welcoming with Welcoming America.
Marianne Combs – Host
Emily Goldberg – Producer
Dameun Strange – Original Music
Eric Romani – Master Mixer