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 reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.