PICTURE A BUDDHIST. What comes to mind? A red-robed monk or nun sitting patiently on a cushion, lips gently smiling, eyes closed, legs crossed in Lotus Pose?
Or perhaps you picture Tina Turner, or Richard Gere, or another famous pop culture Buddhist?
For most of us, it’s definitely not an athletic, barefoot, nude-leotard-clad dancer bounding elegantly across the floor on a brightly-lit stage.
San Francisco-based choreographer and dance filmmaker Claudia Anata Hubiak’s contemporary dance company, The Anata Project, suggests an unconventional new Buddhist prototype. Since 2011, inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist concept of anata (“egolessness,” or the notion that there is no such thing as a permanent, unchanging self), The Anata Project has produced dances and dance films that take a genuine and unflinching look into the unguarded mind and heart. Its interdisciplinary conceptual foundation stands at the cutting edge of the meditative melding of body and spirit, seeking to break new ground in the worlds of modern dance, mindful embodiment, and Buddhist art.
Hubiak’s relationship with mindfulness began as a child. Raised in a Shambhala Buddhist household in Boulder, Colorado, meditation was a central part of her life. Her parents “were always talking about allowing things to be as they were. They encouraged me to watch and witness my emotions from an early age, not try to get rid of them.”
Growing up, Hubiak struggled with anxiety, and her parents enrolled her in gymnastics in part to channel her anxious energy. When she was 8, having witnessed her parents meditating, she decided that she wanted to learn how to meditate herself. At 16, Hubiak took refuge (the first step in claiming a Buddhist spiritual path, a public act of “taking refuge” in the protection and guidance of the Buddha, his Dharma, or teachings, and the collective Sangha, or community) with beloved Shambhala Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, making her lifetime commitment to her practice official.
Two years later, Hubiak turned her attention to modern dance, after a decade in competitive gymnastics, including a stint as Colorado State Champion. She studied dance in the conservatory program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she earned her BFA.
Hubiak fell in love with modern dance for many of the same reasons she’d found comfort and inspiration in Buddhism. “I was drawn to the way that it encompasses the whole rich story of what it means to be human: the good, the bad, the ugly, as embodied by so much motional pathway, sensation, and release.” Modern dance provided a new forum for Hubiak to be in her body in an alternative, expansive way. It illuminated the value of being wholly in the present moment and emphasized the importance of process over product.
In 2011, Hubiak completed her MFA in Dance Performance and Choreography at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. It was there under the tutelage of Phyllis Lamhut that she channeled her creative zeal into choreography. That same year, she founded The Anata Project as a bi-coastal dance company, with performances in San Francisco and New York City.
The company’s name is inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist word anata, loosely meaning “selflessness” or “impermanent, everchanging self.” Anata is also Hubiak’s middle name, given to her at birth by renowned Shambhala Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
“The word anata itself is a real challenge,” says Hubiak. “Its direct translation is egolessness. In the Western tradition, we think of ego as being cocky, and in the Eastern tradition it’s a little more ambiguous. Egolessness, or selflessness, represents the lack of permanent identity, the fluid nature of our lives. It mirrors the fact that everything is always changing; that nothing ever stays. Dance is a wonderful experience of that fluidity, getting comfortable with impermanence and practicing it fearlessly every day.” The choreography itself becomes a moving meditation on impermanence, an opportunity to step out of the unconscious smart-phone-wielding world and get lost in the breath, the moment, the aches and swells of a particular body on a particular day in a particular life, knowing they will always pass.
So how does Hubiak translate this concept into the day-to-day operations of The Anata Project? At the beginning of every rehearsal, she leads a brief meditation. She offers a “Shambhala Buddhist 101”-type training at the onset of the season, and company members are encouraged to incorporate any kind of meditation that works for them. Hubiak says, “I talk a lot about embodiment, and breath, and coming back to the present moment, and having that be a consistent practice in daily life as well as in rehearsal and on stage. The practice, the dance itself, starts with the cushion, with watching the breath. From there, we incorporate that awareness into movement and performance and storytelling and connection with the audience.”
Hubiak admits that as a person inclined towards movement, sitting on the cushion to meditate is not always easy. She finds that when her anxiety is the worst, that’s when the practice helps the most, “really being able to sit down and say, ‘I’m going to feel this in my body.’” It lends a grounded spaciousness to her life that supports her throughout the course of her day, whether rehearsing, choreographing, or mothering her toddler son.
Hubiak’s new work, HomeBody, addresses how the biological rhythms and systems of the physical body ultimately provide a home for the mind. HomeBody is an evening-length work that explores the nuances of comfort and support of being “at home” within the physical self, set to an original score by Kyle Olson. Arising from Hubiak’s recent experience of becoming a mother, HomeBody also examines the spiritual and biological body and its ability to house a human being.
Hubiak describes how the audience will be seated in an enormous “glorified living room” of found sofas, tables, lamps, and rugs intended to create a comfortable, womb-like viewing space. Hubiak’s vision for the set is aptly gestational: the five dancers of The Anata Project swirl within architect and set designer Nicole VanMalder’s “bone installation,” a large ribcage suspended from the ceiling. Michael Michalsky’s lighting design crafts a luminous, cavernous quality much like peering inside the belly of a whale.
HomeBody was creatively birthed out of Hubiak’s own experience of gestating and welcoming her son in 2014. Motherhood has brought her deeply into her body in a whole new way. “It makes you live in your skin like you’ve never had to. My heart is huger than I thought it could be; it reaches to the edges of my skin.”
For Hubiak, parenthood has meant daily lessons in the reality of selflessness. Mothering is a constant reminder that, in the midst of devoted caretaking, “as much as we might have the means and the resources for selfcare, we don’t necessarily have the time or the space for it anymore.” Her new identity as a mother is now and ever deeply interwoven with her son’s, a classic example of the anata nature of self-hood.
A fundamental tenet of Buddhism is the concept of interrelationality, the idea that all of our lives are connected in an intricate web of co-dependent arising. In other words, our identities are not fixed; in one moment you are a daughter; in another you are a grandmother. In another you are a student; in another, a teacher. We only exist relative to one another.
Hubiak has found this interconnectedness at the heart of her experience as artistic director. One of the greatest lessons she’s learned in the five years since founding The Anata Project has been the importance of community. She remains in touch with every dancer with whom she’s worked.
Hubiak says, “The community is essential: the collaborators, the family members, the musicians, the audience members. The true community that surrounds the work has just been incredible. More importantly, the community of the dancers themselves, in their exquisite hard work, creating a space for people to fall apart and put themselves together and make art and perform art. It’s a family that spans traditions.”