ADT’s Performance of Feminist Food Politics

Ananya Dance Theatre Performance of Roktim

Carolyn Sachs and Anouk Patel-Campillo’s expansive and encompassing essay “Feminist Food Justice: Crafting a New Vision” suggests that there are three major approaches to food politics: food security, food sovereignty, and food justice (396). The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identifies food security through four priorities and needs: availability (addressing the issue of hunger through assessing the availability of food); access (ensuring that there are sufficient resources to produce food through aid, financing, etc.); stability (emphasizing that food supplies meet food demands through markets); and utilization (weighing the nutritional and dietary needs of populations) (Food and Agriculture Organization). For Sachs and Patel-Campillo, the food-security model is a top-down global approach to food and hunger vis a vis questions of population, economy, and policy. Food sovereignty, by contrast, is “the right of peoples and governments to choose the way food is produced and consumed in order to respect our livelihoods, as well as the policies that support this choice” (La Via Campesina 57). Food sovereignty emphasizes local control of food systems as the mechanism for forging sustainability and equity. Similarly, for Valentine Cadieux and Rachel Slocum, food justice advocacy varies in its commitment to addressing structural inequities that cause and impact hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity. They broaden the meaning of food justice to consider transformative change at four key points of intervention: trauma/inequity, exchange, land, and labor.

Ananya Dance Theater’s interdisciplinary artistic inquiry fuses food sovereignty and food justice politics in its performance of Roktim. Furthermore, the performance stages border-crossing choreographies that reimagine geopolitical terrains. Simply put, ADT breaks rigid boundaries between global north and south as well as borders between food justice and food sovereignty. Crossing global north and south, Roktim provides a border-crossing understanding of feminist food politics through the practices and struggles of transnational women of color. Providing a resounding critique of the concept of food security and reality of structural inequalities, and locating race, class, gender, sexuality, migration, nation, caste, and indigeneity squarely in food, Roktim forwards and imagines the need for seed sovereignty (related to, but distinct from food sovereignty) and food justice. To understand local struggles for the production of food and meaning means to locate them within transnational struggles of memory, history, and practices.

Roktim opens with a critique of food security vis a vis the production of food and seeds (including genetically modified organisms) within industrial production by transnational corporations. The performance begins by luring the audience in through an active participation in a staged tour of an imaginary multinational corporation. Concurrent tours of the facilities of Pronto FeedzAll Corporation make the audience actively participate in the production of their own subjectification as consumers. The tours themselves provide a dominant narrative while the performance undermines and contradicts the narrative that is provided as bodies vomit, crack, and break down. Critical of techno-food science that offers bigger, brighter, more, Roktim satirizes the promises of these techno-corporate futurities, demonstrating their potential impact on racialized, colonized, and gendered bodies. Transnational capital’s research across the global south and north through its promise to feed the world better as an achievement of food securitization is exposed as locating control within corporate and capital institutions. Moreover, Roktim demonstrates the neoliberalism of food security grounded in notions of individuality, consumption, and choice that guide much of liberal food politics within the US. Food security, Roktim suggests, sees food only as an object to be consumed, and thereby produces subjects only as consumers.

But the damage of food securitization in the form of technocapitalist production is not simply to produce subjects as consumers, but to worsen the structural violence enacted in the dispossession necessary for this form of production to occur. “The work done under the auspices of food security has often reproduced the socially inequitable conditions and relations it nominally seeks to address” (Cadieux and Slocum 4). Food as a global commodity (its position within food security) relies on the exploited labor of vulnerable workers and subjects, centralization of resources, and the separation of land, knowledge, and people. Roktim questions not only the biopolitical imperative, but also deadly forces within issues of seeds and food; as the program notes comment Roktim is “about the farmer suicide epidemic in India ultimately traced back to the introduction of GMO seeds, about the death of workers from a late-detected gas leak in Texas, the harvesting of wombs from the global south, murders masquerading as suicides.” Roktim emphasizes the impact on the global south and north especially the laboring subjects of peasants, subsistence farmers, women of color, children, indigenous, and the landless whose increasing alienation, despondency, and death is felt in the field and the factory. Roktim imaginatively links these various spaces – home, lab, factory, and field – as interrelated sites of contestation, trauma and dispossession. In particular, Roktim raises the question for us of when and where life and being are located.

 To choreograph feminist food justice, Roktim physically displaces performances from the venerated performance auditorium and opens outside in a grassy plaza through which guides lead audience members in small groups. First feeling open and expansive, it quickly becomes clear that the paths appear as choice, but are carefully managed, encouraging the participant to reflect on their own experience of food consumption as choice. The first act increasingly perturbs audience participants who move from section to section and are exposed to the violent, sickening, and alienating impacts of Pronto FeedzAll Corporation food. Forced to move, gaze upon, and confront increasingly suffering people and bodies, this first act, while disturbing, is also pedagogical in that participants learn to read for the unruliness and discomfort of their own and others bodies. Unsettled and ready to probe dominant narratives of food production and consumption, the audience is settled into their seats as the second act unfolds in a Fordist-like repetitive and mechanical food production site.

Expectations of group performance within mainstream dance are frequently the synchronized indistinguishable movements of line dancers such as the Rockettes. With incredibly precise, linear, and machine-like motions, the synchronized movements of the performers appear rigid, mechanical, and as if emerging from the lines of long straight limbs. Audiences are again confronted by their expectations for ensemble dance as dancer Magnolia Yang Sao Yia starts to break down, and diverges from the linear and mechanistic choreography. Her asynchronicity and lack of synergy mean that she is out of alignment with the group.

As Magnolia Yang Sao Yia’s character unravels, so does the angular, tracked, and mechanical ensemble. Forced to recognize each other rather than operate next to each other, the next two acts slowly shift from the long lines of Fordist production to the curved and rounded movements of a moving breathing collective. Slowly, the ensemble builds an intersubjective and collective interdependence as they synchronize their breaths and find a shared rhythm grounded in their integrated differences. They move as individuals, dyads, and small groups across the stage, recreating new geopolitical and spatial possibilities spatially and corporeally. The juxtaposed narratives of the different scenes create paths of movement that trace topographies across the stage linking new spaces, stories, and subjects. These arise from diligent and exhaustive rehearsing and from what is perhaps most required for collective performance– shared rhythm and breath. A breath is collectively vocalized, heard, resonant, and repeating, like echolocation guiding each dancer to position herself within tightly coordinated and close spaces and movement. Put simply, the choreography of feminist food politics is a border-crossing feminist practice linking bodies in synchronized breathing.

As the group comes to consciousness and transforms from mechanistic ensemble to intersubjective collective, Roktim cracks open and nurtures the seeds of food sovereignty and food justice. In Roktim, food sovereignty is about self and collective determination, but then integrally tied to broader questions of knowledge, subjectivity, and sovereignty. From their connection to Dream the Wild Farm, ADT understands indigenous rights advocates’ argument that food sovereignty is inextricably interwoven with community healing and care. The farm not only grows food and collects seeds, but also provides space for Native peoples to come, stay, heal, and connect with the earth and ancestors (Peta Wakan Tipi).

Roktim imagines decolonizing food practices through seed sovereignty as that which is connected to land sovereignty, to corporeal sovereignty, and to political sovereignty. For many, in the U.S. and around the world, food sovereignty has resonated closely with their claims to land and with their struggles for self-determination through the fundamental components of land and seed. But in imagining food sovereignty specifically as a feminine form of seed sovereignty Roktim reclaims seeds and biodiversity as common and public forms. In doing so it undoes the category of food as that which already has become, into the seed that which is becoming.

Self and collective determination is choreographed through curvature and roundedness. As the relationships between the dancers intensify, they interact with each through arcs of movement and intertwinings. Individually, the body shape shifts from the straight limb movements of the factory to taller, feet to spine-based movements that open up the rib cage, gather energy and height from the power of jumps, and feature sweeping and bending arcs. The dancing bodies become en-fleshed.

“Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystalize our actualities […] And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms” (Wynter 35).

For ADT, research, participation, collaboration, and performance are worked through particular cultural formations that translate materialities, intimacies, and violences of everyday and social movements into narrated and performed abstracted choreographies. Indeed their abstractions create, to use Audre Lorde’s terms, “biomythography”, where the story of the self intersects with myth. These stories of women’s lives and work are refracted and interwoven through embodied practices, where the body becomes the site of weaving together research, memory, and imagination to invoke and create new collective memories and stories. If the biomythographies are the life of stories written and performed, where bios, myth, and logos come together, they evoke a bios that intentionally moves against the biopolitics of Pronto FeedzAll. ADT identifies indigenous and transnational feminist struggles of collective resistance as a form of mythmaking: stories of the Hawaiian queen Lili’uokalani, who called to her people to plant the garden as resistance; of Palestinian women claiming the land and its vegetation as their resistance; of the gifting and stewardship of seeds and leaves. Roktim literally and figuratively jumps scale in its feminist geographies.

It is in this section that Roktim breaks from its previous style and mode, shifting from realism, angularity, and rhythm. Gone are the factory floor and its unbending inflexible strength. Instead, Roktim offers arcs and bends, curving spines distributed in semi-circles across the stage. The aesthetics and poetics of choreography merge poetry, soft flows, shadows, and collectivity in which the line is broken and the body reaches towards sky and earth becoming more fluid, elongated, and grounded. The body and word bridge air and earth as the groundedness arches into the back and the torso reaches up and over. Each component of the spine’s articulation is explored in the bending in different directions. The dancers anchored by their heels reach and extend through their spines to their wrist-palms and eyes.

Roktim offers not nostalgia, but a vision and biomthyography as Heidi Erdrich narrates Sky Woman giving seeds, not within economies of agricultural corporate capitalism, but within ecologies of giving. This gift is not transactional, but mythical, beyond transactions of compensation and exchange. The biomythography conjures a prophecy for all – both performers and audience. This bios is one in which the human and the seed, the subject and object, myth and biography, become blurred in their making and unmaking. In the conjuring of stories of seed and struggle, ADT enfleshes, reddens, kills, and makes meat of, and returns to seed. The seed is, in the words of Kim Q. Hall “the transformative potential of openness to the not yet” (188).

Jigna Desai is Professor in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota.  She has written extensively on issues of race, gender, and sexuality in media as well as issues of racial and gender disparities and social justice. Desai’s current research is on the social meaning of autism and the impact of neuroscience on our society. She has long been an advocate for underrepresented students and students of color within higher education.

Works Cited

Cadieux, Kirsten Valentine, and Rachel Slocum. “What Does It Mean to Do Food Justice?” Journal of Political Ecology 22 (2015): 1-26. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Chatterjea, Ananya. “Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine.” Ananya Dance Theatre. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016. <>.

—.       “Creating a New, Contemporary American Dance.” Web. 10, Oct. 2015.

Dream of Wild Health. “Peta Wakan Tipi.” Dream of Wild Health | Peta Wakan Tipi. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <>.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, -. An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security. Rep. N.p., 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <>.

Hall, Kim Q. “Toward a Queer Crip Feminist Politics of Food.” PhiloSOPHIA: A Journal in Continental Feminism 14.2 (2014): 203-25. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

La Via Campesina. Food Sovereignty For Africa: A Challenge At Fingertips. Publication. Declaration of Nyeleni, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Lorde, Audre. Zami, a New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography. Freedom, CA: Crossing, 1996. Print.

Sachs, Carolyn, and Anouk Campillo-Patel. “Feminist Food Justice: Crafting a New Vision Source.” Feminist Studies 40.2 (2014): 396-410. Web. <>.

Wynter, Sylvia. “The Pope Must Have Been Drunk, the King of Castile a Madman: Culture as Actuality and the Caribbean Rethinking of Modernity.” Reordering of Culture: Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada in the ’Hood. Ed. Alvina Ruprecht and Cecilia Taiana. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1995. 17-41. Print.

Beginnings: Why Food . . .

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for “Thinking Food.” We are very excited to create this space for creative and rigorous thinking around food. We hope this space becomes a community of interlocutors—people who can turn to each other to better understand the significance, and the meaning, of food in new ways. The goal is for everyone to leave having learned something they can use in their thinking, teaching, and their movements through the world.

I come to food studies out of my interest in power relations—structural and also ideological, in the past as well as the present. And so I thought I’d get us going here by sharing how teaching and research has persuaded me that food is a good vehicle for addressing power. “Why food?” I find myself asking? Is it just a vehicle for studying larger questions of authority? Is it an object worth attending to in and of itself?

Teaching, and my students, helped me think about these questions.

As I do every year, I asked students in my food history class to post observations from their Thanksgiving celebrations (or lack thereof). Their thoughts ran the gamut, as they do every year. Some talked about the food, others about cooking, and still others about the company in which they’d eaten.

But this year, perhaps because of the election, they worried particularly about what it meant to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving. Many used the language of tradition to describe the menu of turkey, stuffing, and potatoes (and some dishes that are untraditional outside of Minnesota, like lefse). Others explained their meal was “non-traditional” (pho? pumpkin soup?) and wondered if others had done likewise. Some asked if eating non-traditional foods threatened the “value” of Thanksgiving, and others wondered why their families worked so hard for traditions that, in many cases, were not their own. Several noted the particular responsibilities borne by their mothers and aunts for Thanksgiving dinner. And still others asked if new traditions would ever outpace current ones (eg, fried turkey? Men and women cooking together?)

The most moving post came from an older student who is also a new American, spending her first Thanksgiving in this country. She shared rich descriptions of her family’s (purchased) Thanksgiving foods (flaky pie crusts, the wonderful discovery of mashed potatoes, and the distinctive tastes–“sweet and salty together,” she said). She also included an addendum that explained everything she had learned about gratitude, and her plan to have these foods every year, together with her children, as they began their “fight for our American dream.”

There was a lot to digest. Their comments pointed to the tensions between the promise of immigration and the white supremacist understanding of “American” that is increasingly powerful in this country. They also confronted the gender and racial systems on which nations and nationalism are built. Many noted the centrality of gendered labor to the experience of daily life and the seeming intransigence of inequality.

Strikingly, all expressed anxiety about the future, and yet many also shared the persistence of hope. They imagined that they would celebrate other Thanksgivings and that they could find ways to make the holiday their own. They realized the ways that holidays are both prescribed but also sites of excess that cannot be fully controlled or governed—places where resistance can happen.

Together we spent the next few weeks working on these themes in discussions of the twentieth- and twenty-first century politics of hunger, the topic I’d planned to cover.

But thinking about their posts also addressed a topic that I hadn’t planned to cover: Is food important in and of itself?

In a material way, the answer is clearly “yes.” Food continues to loom large in people’s lives. There are painful material reasons for this. New threats emerge every day to already-precarious food security. My own campus is piloting a food shelf; many others have already opened these. I discovered at the end of the semester that some of my students were among those who struggled to get enough to eat every day. To be blunt, food matters because so many people in so many spaces struggle to get it.

But I also think that food matters also because so many people have thought and acted as if it mattered. Very few material objects have been the focus of so much political energy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Debates about interior decorating, or clothing, or cars or housing certainly occurred. But these objects and the debates simply didn’t range across institutions in the way that food did.

Food figured heavily in the regulatory state that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but also in foreign policy—in terms of the direct aid the US supplied as well as the advice that surrounded that aid—cohering under the “green revolution.” Food was a prominent feature of the racially charged confrontations: it was the object used violently at lunch-counter sit-ins, and the object seized during urban insurrections of the 1960s and 1970s. And of course food emerged as a compelling hobby: it was something object that people could learn to make endlessly and laboriously in their own homes. Julia Child’s recipes were not designed simply to help her readers cook better. They were designed to help open up the world to them. Food appeared in more and more places, the more I looked and the more I taught.

In the mid and late twentieth centuries, food suddenly seemed the answer to a range of questions. People working in very different venues and often not even in conversation with each other turned to food as the key tool. Many had capacious visions of change; They often didn’t think of themselves as working primarily on food. But I am struck by how they are.

These raise the same question with which I begin. How could such hard work be worth it? Why do we keep thinking food will fix so much? Why is it worth all this effort? Why do my students generate such prose about it? It is because, I want to say, of the particular historical moment in which we find ourselves. Food, in modern US history, emerged as a charged object. It became a particularly important vehicle for power.

This remains true in the present. In a world in which large systems seem increasingly to guide everyday events, food seems still under people’s control. And in important ways, it remains under their control. However broad or narrow the choices, however dire or hopeful the circumstances, food draws out the skills and emotions of its eaters and those who would control those eaters. Food festivals as a site to craft “tolerance, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, efforts to restrict school lunches or their standards—it’s no accident that these fights over racial power, economies, and health often focus on food. In talking about food in the past and in the present, we reveal the ways these systems gained power.

Movements around food often overpromise what food can accomplish. (For instance, eating another’s food clearly doesn’t make for better immigration policy.) But they also make clear that food has a lot of work to do in the world. So do we.

Tracey Deutsch is Associate Professor of History and Imagine Chair in Art, Design and Humanities at the University of Minnesota. This post draws loosely from an earlier entry on food and teaching done for the Organization of American Historians and visible here: