Review: ‘Neel’ is the stuff of dreams and nightmares

CHICAGO — The fascinating thing about dreams is how vivid they are when they’re happening, and how quickly they fade from memory. Almost as soon as you wake up, the details blur and the dream becomes a wash of feelings and experiences. Such was the case for Neel: Blutopias of Radical Dreaming,  Minneapolis-based Ananya Dance Theatre’s evening length work making its Chicago premiere last weekend at Links Hall. Almost as soon as I left, I couldn’t quite remember what happened (perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to produce this little review).

The work might best be described as a psychological thriller, devoid of any and all restraint. Ideas floated in and out of focus, with references to giving birth to a grotesque pile of fabric entrails, demon possession and exorcism, war and assassination, and even a girl-on-girl orgy. Maybe this sort of wild abandon through layered serial narratives speaks to the theme of Neel: exploring how “women from indigenous communities and global communities of color work through their dreams as a way of knowing the world and revealing [their] possibilities” (from the press release). Perhaps I’m just dense, but what I expected to be enchanting stories of empowerment was anything but that. In truth, the only thing dreamy about Neel is its pastel-washed costumes and lovely company of dancers.

This was the stuff of nightmares. And, at times, it was really difficult to watch.

If I consider the varied experiences and challenges women of color face, it makes a lot of sense to me that Neel‘s investigation of their dreams would manifest as an abrasive and uncomfortable work. Indeed, the piece exemplified a balance of passion and pain, further reinforced by a large, diverse cast of women and hints of folklore from a potpourri of cultures. And yet, the dance was choreographed through a rather specific lens of contemporary Indian dance. Ananya’s namesake, Artistic Director Dr. Ananya Chatterjea, created intriguing movement that somehow remains true to her roots in classical Indian dance, and her solo performance mid-way through the first hour was a force to be reckoned with.

In fact, all of the dancing in Neel, which oscillates between delicate slow motion and boisterous foot stomping characteristic of Indian dance… all of it was really good. It was just so cluttered by heavy themes and an ear shattering sound score that the not-so-gradual descent into a joyful dance party with the audience was quite unsettling. Maybe I just didn’t get it…. then again, maybe that was the point.

Header photo: Ananya Dance Theatre | Photo by Paul Virtucio

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance dance critic, contributing to the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine. She is senior editor of See Chicago Dance. Lauren covers dance across the Midwest and writes regularly for Dance Magazine and Pointe with additional bylines in Milwaukee Magazine, St. Louis Magazine and Dance Teacher. Forthcoming publications include essays on ballet training in Chicago (University of Illinois Press) and Shirley Mordine (University of Akron Press). In 2020, Lauren published an opinion piece on the impact of COVID-19 on the arts in the South African journal Agenda. Lauren holds degrees in dance and kinesiology and has presented research on dance training practices at the National Dance Education Organization and the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. She has co-facilitated critical dance writing intensives in Chicago and Durban, South Africa, and participated in writing residencies at the National Center for Choreography, Bates Dance Festival and JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. Lauren teaches dance history and kinesiology for dancers, with part-time appointments at Loyola University Chicago and Illinois Wesleyan University.