Three choreographers dance political issues

How Peter Carpenter, Ananya Chatterjea and Reggie Wilson are putting social-justice issues onstage.

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Photograph: Paul Virtucio

Ananya Chatterjea

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Photograph: Sarah Ebling

Rituals of Abundance for Lean Times #3: Delicate Extraction

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Photograph: Antoine Temp�

The Good Dance - dakar/brooklyn

In Rituals of Abundance for Lean Times #2: Beyond What Is Possible, Lia Bonfilio and Meghann Wilkinson simultaneously say of the rescue of 33 Chilean miners in October that “it was the absolute best of human effort with the best possible outcome.” Later in the duet, which recently premiered at Hamlin Park Fieldhouse, the two dancers list the names of the 11-year-old, 12-year-old and 19 teenagers killed in Chicago since the start of the current school year. “When the body count gets to 33,” Bonfilio asks, “is that the magic number to start the international rescue effort?” The pair’s movement phrases often halt midstream and start again from the beginning, as if the engine of the dance refuses to turn over. “Tomorrow” is the last word spoken in the piece.

The third installment in choreographer Peter Carpenter’s Rituals series debuts Thursday 24 and Friday 25. I call to ask him whether dance is particularly suited to raising social-justice issues or whether he’s simply broaching a subject he cares about in the language he speaks most fluently. “By any means necessary,” responds the Chicago dance maker, 40. “That’s part of it. [Dance] is what I do and I choose to use it toward things that feel relevant and important. On the flip side, dance inherently invites consideration of the body, right? That lends itself to empathy for difference.”

By phone from Riverside, California, where she’s returning to a collaboration with Malaysian dance maker Zulkifli bin Mohamad, Minneapolis-based Ananya Chatterjea explains that her work began in India as a classical dancer. “But I wanted new ways to imagine my body, and in [contemporary dance] I was able to gain more perspective, actually, a deeper understanding of my cultural roots.” It also allowed her to tackle charged subjects more directly: Unheard Testimonies (1998), for example, honors a working-class woman gang-raped by policemen in Hyderabad two decades earlier.

Chatterjea, 45, believes she would be deeply embroiled in the cultural and gender issues at the heart of her choreography even if she were still performing straight-up Odissi, the oldest form of Indian dance. Classicists of any kind are mistaken, she says, if they think they skirt politics by focusing on formalism.

Dance artists do have agency, though, over the degree to which their choreographies announce their politics, and while some prefer the direct approach, others create scenes that aren’t so easily decoded.

“I think it’s really groovy when an audience member thinks, Did I just see what I think I just saw? Or is that just where I’m coming from?” Reggie Wilson says by phone from his Brooklyn office. Cochoreographer with Congo-born, Senegal-based Andréya Ouamba of The Good Dance – dakar/brooklyn, making its Chicago premiere at the end of this month, Wilson, 43, calls himself a “lay anthropologist” who doesn’t set out to make political work. “But I don’t strip out the politics, either,” he clarifies, explaining that he considers his body, where it’s located and what it’s doing, as the forward-moving carrier of a series of decisions going back to—and beyond—his grandfather, a Mississippi Delta sharecropper.

“The personal is political,” Wilson says. “But at the same time, the dance doesn’t have to be about all that. [The Good Dance] is about Andréya and Reggie coming together to relate together.” To wit, a central parallel—the role the Congo and Mississippi rivers, and their histories, played in each man’s life—is abstracted in dakar/brooklyn: More than 300 plastic water bottles cover the stage.

“It’s just my manner, really, and my family’s manner,” the Milwaukee native adds. “What’s the saying? You can catch more flies with honey.” 

Peter Carpenter’s Rituals series continues at Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater Thursday 24 and Friday 25. Ananya Chatterjea offers classes and lectures through a residency at praxis place Saturday 26 through Monday 28. Ouamba and Wilson lead a DanceMasters class at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tuesday 29, and catch Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group’s The Good Dance – dakar/brooklyn in its Chicago debut March 31 through April 2 at the Dance Center of Columbia College.

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