Dance the Yard - Nocturne Preview

Original Article

As is often the case in work rooted in diverse and often ancient cultures, the traditions and innovations within artistic practices – in this case, the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam – root and evolve within artist families across generations.  Such is the case of Ragamala, one of the most important South Asian dance companies in the world (now in their second visit to The Yard), a gentle but rigorous artistic matriarchy led by Ranee Ramaswamy (mother and co-Artistic Director),  Aparna Ramaswamy (daughter, sister and co-Artistic Director), and Nocturne’s choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy (daughter and sister).  Everywhere they tour, audiences are astonished by the beauty and technique of the company’s craft, its adherence to the values embedded in the form, and its bold contemporary view of women’s representation in performance.


MinnPost - Ragamala’s ambitious 25th year

Ragamala’s ambitious 25th year
Pamela Espeland, MinnPost
May 19, 2017
Original Article

In 1978, Ranee Ramaswamy emigrated from Chandanagore, India, to Burnsville, Minnesota, with her then husband, Raj, and their 3-year-old daughter, Aparna. Last night at the A-Mill Artist Lofts, Ranee, Aparna and Aparna’s sister, Ashwini, announced their plans for the 25th year of Ragamala Dance Company.

Founded in 1992 as Ragamala Music and Dance Theater, the company – which practices a complex, rigorous, highly structured dance language called Bharatanatyam, a South Indian form that dates back 2,000 years – has made a home in Minneapolis, of all places. From here, it has become nationally and internationally known for bringing Bharatanatyam forward to today, staying true to its roots and traditions while making it meaningful to modern audiences.

Ragamala’s history of imaginative and sometimes daring collaborations includes works with poets, painters, contemporary composers and jazz musicians. Thinking big and planning ahead, this surprisingly small company – five dancers, a tiny staff – is about to have its busiest, most expansive year ever.

A creative residency in June at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy will be followed in July by a student performance in St. Paul and a party at the Cedar with New York-based “Basement Bhangra” DJ Rekha. From August through December, the company will perform somewhere every month: in Scotland, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Detroit Lakes, Northfield, Worthington). They will draw from their extensive repertory of original works; “Nocturne,” “Sacred Earth,” “They Rose at Dawn” and “Written in Water” are all on the schedule.

After taking “Written in Water” to Abu Dhabi, they’ll return to Minneapolis for their 25th Anniversary gala and the world premiere of a new work, “Body, the Shrine,” described as “an exploration of the mythography of the intimate and the infinite.”

This fall, Ragamala will host its third annual “Ode to Navarathri” community event, a festival of art sharing. Other events include a September performance and artist talk by master dancer, choreographer and company guru Alarmél Valli, a screening of a film about Valli and a screening of a new documentary about Ragamala.

Minneapolis dates for your calendar: Sept. 15-16, Alarmél Valli at the Cowles. April 26-28, 2018: “Body, the Shrine,” also at the Cowles. 


Portland Press Herald - Ranee Ramaswamy teaches cooking class

Classical Indian dancer Ranee Ramaswamy adept both onstage and in the kitchen
Ramaswamy, who will perform Thursday in Westbrook, teaches a cooking class in conjunction with her company's tour.
Peggy Grodinsky, Portland Press Herald
April 12, 2017
Original Article

Classical Indian dancer Ranee Ramaswamy and her Minnesota-based Ragamala Dance Company will perform in Westbrook on Thursday. The 25-year-old company has performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Bali Arts Festival in Indonesia, to name just a very few of its venues. The New York Times has praised the company for demonstrating “how Indian forms can provide some of the most transcendent experiences that dance has to offer.” And a video excerpt of “Sacred Earth,” the dance to be performed in Maine, on the website of Maine sponsor Portland Ovations, is transfixing.

So we’re a little embarrassed to admit that what really caught our eye here in the food section is the Indian vegetarian cooking class that Ramaswamy will teach this evening in Portland (the class, at O’Maine Studios, is sold out). Offhand, we couldn’t recall hearing of another famous dancer teaching a cooking class in conjunction with a tour. Curious, we called up Ramaswamy to ask about it. She didn’t remember how this particular class got on the schedule, but told us that she’s often taught cooking in conjunction with dance, and that every year she cooks for hundreds for an annual fundraiser for her company.

Ranee Ramaswamy will be dancing and teaching a cooking class on her visit to Portland. “I am not a chef,” says Ramaswamy. Experience, she adds, is what makes a good cook.

We also learned that she began dancing Bharatanatyam, a genre of Indian classical dance, as a girl in India, moved to the States as a young adult with her then-husband and eventually co-founded the dance company here with her daughter. Ramaswamy mentioned that her sacred name is Annapoorna, who is the Indian goddess of food (“In India, everything is given a form. Food is imagined as a beautiful woman”); that she thinks Americans need to tone it down with our current craze for turmeric (“We use a pinch of turmeric. If you use a tablespoon of turmeric, you can’t put it in your mouth, it’s so strong”); and that when she was growing up, her grandparents would clean the stove, then make designs in rice flour next to it “to thank that stove for helping us cook.”

The Indian practice of making beautiful, sometimes elaborate rice flour patterns outside of homes and businesses – the designs are intended to invite in prosperity – in part inspires the dance “Sacred Earth.”

This interview, conducted over two telephone conversations, has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: We were surprised to hear that a famous dancer on tour in Maine is teaching a cooking class. How’d that happen?

A: When I first came (to America), I did a lot of work in schools all over Minnesota. They had a residency program where you teach Indian culture through dance. Many schools where I did these residencies asked me if I would cook and if the chefs in the lunchroom could make one simple thing for the kids to eat for India Residency Week. This is how I started to understand that food was a way to socialize and to get an entryway to the culture of India to Americans.

I started cooking when I was 20. I got married at 20 and had to set up my own household and had to cook, and I wasn’t very good at it. Slowly and surely, I improved. For 45 years I have cooked. I am used to doing fast, quick, easy, tasty food. So it comes from experience, not because I am a professional. I am not a chef. We have an expression – that person has a good hand smell. It means they are a good cook. Somehow I am a really good cook, and I love to cook.

Ranee Ramaswamy (kneeling) and her daughter Aparna (center) are the founders of the Ragamala Dance Company, which will perform Thursday in Westbrook. Ramaswamy will also teach an Indian vegetarian cooking class.

Q: American dancers, at least ballet dancers, are infamous for a tortured relationship with food, many suffering from anorexia and other eating disorders. Is the same true of classical Indian dancers?

A: No. If you go to India, you find dancers of all sizes. Women are voluptuous. Women are curvy. (Indians) like women who are not just stick-like. In general, in India, looking curvaceous is a little connected to wealth. You are well off, and you look good.

The expectation of being very skinny is not there.

Because (Bharatanatyam classical) dance is a solo dance, you don’t have a body type, eight people or 12 people don’t have to look the same. The dancer is an individual who embodies the spirit of the music, the song. In all Asian dance, the strength comes from within. It is not about having long, tall bodies. It’s more about having an extremely emotive face, and a body that goes with that face. Even in my own company, we have five dancers. There is one very tall dancer. I am the shortest. There is all in between. They are all beautifully shaped but nobody is stick-thin. (The difficulty with food) happens when everybody has to look the same.

That doesn’t mean you can let your body go. We keep healthy in every which way. We are careful with what we eat. We exercise so that we keep in shape. We avoid eating sweets and ice cream. It’s not easy to dance when you are overweight. I am 65, and I still dance full time with the company, and I maintain my body. Sometimes, I say, ‘Why am I doing this? Maybe I can eat all I want and just relax.’ But I don’t really feel like I am missing anything. Because what I get out of performing is so satisfying. Just practicing this art form is so satisfying. It doesn’t seem like a sacrifice.

Q: How do you eat before a performance?

A: Traveling, it’s actually a little difficult to keep your food routine. We live such disciplined lives. We need rest. We need food.

And you have to constantly keep fit. Dance takes a lot of energy.

We eat breakfast in the morning, like oatmeal or toast or yogurt. We usually eat our lunch at 2 p.m. Yesterday, we were performing in Winona (Minnesota). For lunch, we had soup, vegetarian soup, rice, some bread – our carbohydrates. We had cheese. None of us are vegan. A lot of us are vegetarians. Some of us have a little salad or munch on a bagel. And after 2, we don’t eat anything.

Then we eat after the performance. The presenters give us dinner. We usually give a list of what we won’t eat. Last night we had a pizza. It’s often easiest for presenters to order a pizza. They can get it vegetarian, and it’s easy for us to carry to our hotels.

When we are traveling, I carry a rice cooker. We always try to find a co-op, where we can buy some yogurt. Once you have toured a lot, you figure out what works. I always carry these things in case there is food that is not…. Sometimes the presenter will provide meat sandwiches, which I don’t eat. It used to be very difficult when I first came to this country as a vegetarian, but now things have changed so much. It’s so much easier.

Q: Dance is, of course, an art form. Do you think cooking is also an art form?

A: There are two words in Indian classical dance: Bhava means expression. Rasa means flavor. So the bhava is the emotion that the dancer puts in their body. They emote as they dance. And the rasa is the feeling the audience gets watching the dancers. It is like the chef. The chef puts in ingredients, the spices you put in your food, that’s bhava. And rasa is the flavor that the person who eats it gets. If the perfect ingredients don’t go in, the taste is not going to happen. But it’s not about measuring 1/2 cup, 1/4 cup, 1 cup. It is about knowing how much to boil, how much to blend, how much to stir fry. That comes with practice.

A Plus - Ragamala Dance Company

Family Run: The Dance Company Promoting Cultural Diversity Through Unfamiliar Performances
The Ragamala Dance Company sheds "light on the cultural diversity that is the backbone of current human life."
Claire Peltier, A Plus
March 20, 2017
Original Article

Family Run is an original A Plus Lifestyle series: Every month, we profile amazing families who work together in some capacity. From starting businesses, inventing products, collaborating artistically, and beyond, these family members are making positive contributions to the world together, and strengthening their family bonds in the process.

This month, we spoke with the Ramaswamy family, a mother-and-daughter trio running a dance company that promotes cultural diversity through choreography and performance. Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughters, Aparna and Ashwini, aim to connect viewers with the unfamiliar and, thus, create an experience that will move audiences everywhere. 

In 1978, Ranee moved from India to the United States. In 1992, she founded the Ragamala Dance Company and has been running it alongside Aparna and Ashwini for the last 25 years. In addition to their roles as co-artistic directors and PR and marketing director, respectively, they are all performers, too. 

When Ranee founded Ragamala, she and Aparna were "singularly focused on introducing and educating audiences unfamiliar to Indian dance, and showing them how dynamic, complex, yet universal Bharatanatyam could be," Aswini tells A Plus in an email. Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance with its origins in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu.

"Over the past 25 years, the company has become known for thoughtful yet unexpected artistic partnerships that shed light on the cultural diversity that is the backbone of current human life."

The family believes that their performances can help people of different communities and cultures connect and understand one another. In fact, experiencing this unfamiliarity is a necessity. 

"If a person allows themselves to encounter the unfamiliar, to seek out new experiences, they will contribute to a more tolerant and, ultimately, evolved society. We believe that art is a vital, non-threatening way for people to understand other cultures and perhaps gain empathy for immigrants," Ashwini says. 

"I believe that a lot of the problems that exist in the world stem from being uninformed — from an inability to communicate across boundaries of culture and geography ... Attending performances is a way to stand up against ignorance and intolerance, especially if the performer(s) are from another country or culture. History teaches us how important it is to listen to our artists because they are the ones who put a mirror to society. The art within a civilization is often what lives on."

Aparna adds that their company's work aims to make people feel empowered, and it takes years of thought, research, and reflection to put together one of their projects.  

Through their collaborative efforts and various generational experiences, the family has built a longstanding company — celebrating its 25th anniversary this September — and a unique family bond. 

Of course, working with your family can create disagreements, but such personal issues don't stop these women from accomplishing their goals, Aparna explains. In fact, their different personalities benefit their work. 

"We continue to learn and figure out how to balance our work lives and personal lives, and it all comes down to the fact that we are doing what we love with people we love. That is very special," she adds.

When asked what they admire about each other's work ethic, it's clear that they're all inspired by the tireless commitment and intense passion they share for their art. 

"We learned from our guru [the legendary dancer-choreographer Smt. Alarmél Valli, in Chennai, India] that the art is bigger than us, and we need to respect the lineage we come from," Aparna says. "Practice doesn't just mean doing the same thing day in and day out — it means exploring the depth of poetry, philosophy, musicality, theatricality that is the bedrock Bharatanatyam. There is an ocean of knowledge and we are humbled to only stand at its shores."

As for he future of Ragamala, Ranee believes that if you set your goals, and believe in them, you will get to where you want to be. And she's living proof — her company has performed in top venues throughout America, touring at places like the American Dance Festival, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, among others. Ranee says she hopes to expand into Europe and South America in the coming years. 

As an added bonus, she can say that she gets to take her children with her to work every day. 

"There is not much more I would wish for, though," she says. "If you told me 25 years ago that I would be where I am today, I would be thrilled!"

Star Tribune Review - Written in Water

Ragamala Dance evokes solidarity with banned immigrants
Sheila Regan, Star Tribune
January 29, 2017
Original Article

"Written in Water," by Ragamala Dance Company, is not intended to be a political work, but the latest actions by our new president make it political. In the piece, which was performed at the Cowles Center this weekend, ancient Hindu and Persian traditions were woven into a fabric that illuminated their similarities and brought out the beauty of each, with music blending Indian and Iraqi sounds with hints of jazz.

In light of President Donald Trump's executive order (which was immediately stayed) banning even those with green cards and valid visas from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States, Ragamala's gesture of collaborative art-making with Middle Eastern aesthetics evoked a meaningful gesture of solidarity with those communities.

A projection of the board game "Snakes and Ladders" grounded the work, literally. Projected onto the floor, cleverly designed by Nathan Christopher, the board game provided a structure on which the dance unfolded. As the piece began, the five dancers appeared to be like live board game pieces, journeying along the board squares, all the while executing the intricate movements of the Bharatanatyam dance form.

Later, the "Snakes and Ladders" board changed into its earlier iteration, the ancient Hindu game of Paramapadam, which, unlike the modern version, is black and white. Meanwhile dancers carried out the emotional journeys that resulted from their moral choices symbolized in the game.

The impassioned moments were contained within the dance's overall precision, even at their most heightened demonstration. A gesture of despair, a body fallen to the ground and hands clenching the face in grief, were all done with absolute control.

Woven into the journey of the board game was imagery drawn from the ancient Sufi poem "The Conference of the Birds," through the choreography as well as a series of colorful paintings by the Chennai-based artist, Keshav. The movement, created by mother and daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, along with choreographic associate Ashwini Ramaswamy (Aparna's sister), conjured the flight of birds through the flourishing movements of the dancers' arms, hands and fingers. The way that the Ramaswamys were able to intertwine the abstraction of the fluttering wings within the tight architecture of the Bharatanatyam form was truly magical.

Big Dance Town Review - Written in Water

Ragamala Dance Company
Caroline Palmer, Big Dance Town
January 29, 2017
Original Article

“Chutes and Ladders” is a familiar childhood game but few who grew up in the west are familiar with its origins. Originally called “Paramapadam,” among other names, the Hindu morality game was first played centuries ago in India, then re-conceptualized as “Snakes and Ladders” during British colonization, and finally given its less evocative title by board game maker Milton Bradley in 1943.

Ragamala Dance Company chose this story as inspiration for their latest full-evening Bharatanatyam work, “Written in Water,” performed this weekend at the Cowles Center. The troupe, led by the mother-daughter team of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, perform what may be the artistic directors’ most artistically daring creations in its 25-year existence.

The dancing takes place amidst projections onto the stage floor depicting the board game, showing different versions from the ancient to the more abstract. There are also beautifully detailed visual images on the backdrop, created by Keshav and Nathan Christopher. The dancers include Ranee and Aparna, plus Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala.

The work came into being as the performers played the game repeatedly, internalizing its messages and exploring possible life metaphors. The Sufi epic “The Conference of Birds” provides a narrative framework. Snakes and ladders can represent everything from fear to transcendence, earth to heaven. The Sufi guidance points the way to life’s balance between good and evil, a tenuous and rarely achieved, yet aspirational, state of being.

Ragamala creations sparkle with crisp, exacting energy and “Written in Water” is no exception. There are unique elements to the movement – a serpentine set to the arms and backs, a rubbing of hands like throwing dice in a game, a sense of sliding and gliding, as if traveling along the back of a snake or a slippery chute.

Ashwini and Aparna represent different aspects of animalistic nature within the work – fierce and vulnerable, wary and carefree. Ranee’s movement offers a sense of steady ethos, she is not easily seduced by the game but she sees the effects of its unpredictability on others. Nadel and Fiala are strong presences as well, steadfast and focused in their precise movement, navigating their way along an uncertain path.

“Written in Water” is built upon a particularly strong partnership of music and movement. A live ensemble led by Iraqi-American jazz performer Amir ElSaffar, and including Preethy Mahesh (vocals), Rohan Krishnamurthy (mridangam – percussion), Anjna Swaminathan (Carnatic violin) and Kai Aysola (nattuvangam – cymbals), fills the space with a kaleidoscopic sound, made particularly vibrant by ElSaffar’s soulful command of the trumpet and santur (Iranian hammered dulcimer). ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy’s composition is evocative and particularly poignant for the existential subject matter of the performance.

This creation is yet another fine example of Ragamala’s ever-evolving artistry. As the troupe continues to gain national and international exposure, I am reminded how fortunate we are to have this accomplished company in our midst.

CBS Minnesota - Written in Water

Ragamala Dance Company's Newest Piece has limited run at Cowles Center
Katie Fraser, CBS Minnesota
January 26, 2017
Original Article

For one weekend only, audiences in the Twin Cities can see Ragamala Dance Company’s latest work, “Written in Water” at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in downtown Minneapolis.

An allegory of human’s constant search for higher meaning, “Written in Water” takes inspiration from the Indian board game Paramapadam, an early version of Snakes and Ladders, and the 12th century Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds.”

Both the game and the poem explore what it means to be on a journey seeking higher meaning.

The shows development, which took over four years, includes a myriad of artist elements – including projections of paintings by Chennai-based artist Keshav and Minneapolis artist Nathan Christopher.

The performance also features an original score by Iraqi musician Amir ElSaffar. ElSaffar blends jazz trumpet with traditional Iraqi Maqam to create a sound unique to the show.

“Each art form and artist was specifically chosen to enhance the work and strengthen the performance as a whole,” Ashwini Ramaswamy, director of marketing and publicity for Ragamala Dance Company, said in a recent press release.

“Written in Water” opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27. There will be an 8 p.m. performance on Saturday, Jan. 28 and a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, Jan. 29.

Tickets cost $29.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the Cowles Center online.

Twin Cities Daily Planet - Written in Water

Ragamala Dance Company brings "Written in Water" to the Cowles Center
Twin Cities Daily Planet
January 27, 2017
Original Article

MINNEAPOLIS – Following a successful debut in Tallahassee, Ragamala Dance Company is bringing its newest work, “Written in Water,” to The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts.

Developed over nearly four years, “Written in Water” is an exploration of the Indian board game “Paramapadam” – an early version of “Snakes and Ladders” – and the 12th century Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds” – which details a journey through the seven valleys (or states of being) necessary to attain Enlightenment. Both the board game and the text reflect an intricate allegory of the way in which a universal paradigm – that of the seeker on a journey to overcome human failings and find ultimate truth – is experienced within these spiritual traditions.

“Paramapadam was originally invented to impart the consequences of human actions and reveal that some aspects of life are within our control and some are unpredictable,” explained Ashwini Ramaswamy, Director of Marketing and Publicity for Ragamala Dance Company.

Large-scale projections of original paintings by Keshav – a Chennai-based visual artist – and Minneapolis artist Nathan Christopher on the stage and behind the dancers are woven throughout the choreography, as the dancers navigate the game and experience its emotional and philosophical consequences.

“Written in Water” is further punctuated with an original score by Amir ElSaffar – an Iraqi musician known for blending contemporary jazz trumpet and traditional Iraqi Maqam – and Prema Ramamurthy – an Indian composer specializing in traditional Carnatic compositions.

Ramaswamy added, “Each art form and artist was specifically chosen to enhance the work and strengthen the performance as a whole.”

Of “Written in Water,” The Tallahassee Democrat wrote, “The work’s power and the company’s artistry created a lexicon of sound, vision, and movement that allowed each audience member to project their own story onto the stage.”

About Ragamala Dance Company

Under the direction of Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, Ragamala’s work explores the dynamic tension between the ancestral and the personal. As choreographers and performers, Ranee and Aparna create dance landscapes that dwell in opposition – secular and spiritual life, inner and outer worlds, human and natural concerns, rhythm and stillness – to find the transcendence that lies in between. As mother and daughter, each brings her generational experience to the work—the rich traditions, deep philosophical roots and ancestral wisdom of India meeting and merging with the curiosity, openness and creative freedom fostered in the United States.

Now in its 24th season, Ragamala has been hailed by The New York Times as, “soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious,” “[Ragamala] showed how Indian forms can provide some of the most transcendent experiences that dance has to offer.” The company has been featured at the American Dance Festival (North Carolina), Lincoln Center (New York), Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), Music Center of Los Angeles (California), Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (Illinois), International Festival of Arts & Ideas (Connecticut), University Musical Society (Michigan), Just Festival (Edinburgh, United Kingdom), Bali Arts Festival (Indonesia), Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (Chennai, India), and National Centre for Performing Arts (Mumbai, India).

About The Cowles Center

The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts serves as the Twin Cities’ flagship for dance, presenting 20+ productions each season in its historic Shubert Theatre in the heart of Downtown Minneapolis. Furthermore, the Center’s campus includes three performance spaces, education studios, and administrative offices for more than 20 arts and nonprofit organizations – making it a dynamic and vibrant hub for the Twin Cities’ performing arts community and a place where dance can grow and thrive.

At a Glance

WHAT: “Written in Water” presented by Ragamala Dance Company and The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts

WHERE: The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, Goodale Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55403

PRICE: $29



January 27 at 8 p.m. – Performance will be followed by a Q&A with the performers

January 28 at 8 p.m. – Ragamala’s 24th anniversary gala begins at 5:30 p.m.

January 29 at 2 p.m. – Pre-performance family activities will take place in lobby


Star Tribune Preview - Written in Water

Ancient Indian board game inspires Ragamala Dance Company's "Written in Water"
Sheila Regan, Star Tribune
January 27, 2017
Original Article


Ever play Chutes and Ladders as a kid? You probably didn’t know the board game has roots in ancient India. Originally called Paramapadam, this Hindu game of morality was brought to England in the 19th century and renamed Snakes and Ladders. Ragamala Dance Company marries the game’s 2nd-century version with 12th-century Sufi poetry in a new show called “Written in Water.” An exploration of people’s search for truth — and their desperate attempts to avoid human failings — the show unfolds amid a giant game of Paramapadam and large-scale art projections. Also featured is an original commissioned score by Iraqi-American jazz artist Amir ElSaffar. (8 p.m. Fri. & Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., 528 Hennepin Av. S., $29, the Cowles Center, 612-206-3600,


Minn Post Preview - Written in Water

Ragamala's ambitious 'Written in Water' at the Cowles
Pamela Espeland, CBS Minnesota
January 26, 2017
Original Article

Ragamala Dance Company’s new work, “Written in Water,” is its most ambitious yet and potentially most moving and satisfying. Which is saying a lot for a company whose path has been always upward, and whose henna-tipped toes have stepped surely since Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughter Aparna co-founded the company in 1992.

Four years in the making, “Written in Water” combines an ancient Indian board game, a 12th-century Sufi poem, a Hindu myth, an original score melding traditional Iraqi Maqam and Indian Carnatic music, and large-scale projections with the intricate movements and gestural storytelling of Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance form the company practices.

It’s a journey through life to enlightenment, told through movement, music and paintings. A reviewer who saw “Written in Water” in Tallahassee, where it had its world premiere, called it “mesmerizing” and raved that the evening “unfolded like a dream.”

“Written in Water” comes to the Cowles this weekend for three performances. We asked Ranee Ramaswamy to walk us through it.

“We have three movements,” she said in conversation earlier this week. “In the first, we explore human life, with love and struggle, through the board game.” The board game is “Paramapadam,” a precursor to “Snakes and Ladders” (itself a precursor to our own “Chutes and Ladders”). In the dance, it’s a metaphor for life’s ups and downs. “The second movement is the story of the churning, dynamic tension between good and evil,” Ranee continued. Its inspiration was the Hindu myth “Ksheerabthi Madanam,” which tells of the churning of the seven seas. It’s a metaphor for a world in chaos. “The final movement is the union with the Divine, toward transcendence,” Ranee said. The epic Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” which frames the entire dance, tells of birds who travel through seven valleys to achieve immortality. Not all of them make it, but some of them do.

Choreographed by Ranee and Aparna, “Written in Water” is danced to live music, an original score commissioned from Iraqi American trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar and Indian composer Prema Ramamurthy. ElSaffar, whose performance last year at the Walker was joyous and electrifying, draws on Iraqi Maqam, a vocal tradition included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. ElSaffar went to Baghdad to study it from the few remaining living masters. Ramamurthy is one of India’s greatest living composers of Carnatic (South Indian classical) music. Ranee believes this is the first time Maqam and Carnatic have joined in a single work.

The projections – of the board game and other imagery – are original paintings by Keshav Venkatraghavan, an artist based in Chennai, India, also commissioned by Ragamala. The images will be projected on the floor and on a screen. “They take your eyes up, like you’re in a church, cathedral or temple,” Ranee said. She compared them to stained glass windows.

Something else from Ranee to ponder, if you go: “When you write in water, it’s not concrete. It’s something that is constantly changing.”

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon in the Goodale Theater at the Cowles CenterFMI and tickets ($29). Here’s a video excerpt.

'Nocturne' included in Big Dance Town's best of 2016

by Caroline Palmer
Original Article

Ashwini Ramaswamy: A member of the renowned Ragamala Dance Company, Ramaswamy revealed her own choreography in the magical “Nocturne” at Red Eye Theater. Inspired by the dream-like mysteries of nighttime, the work drew upon poetry and a hint of entomology to transport audiences into a suspended realm where transcendent Bharatanatyam dance served as the vehicle for heart-filling enchantment.

Why I Dance: Aparna Ramaswamy - Dance Magazine

Why I Dance
Aparna Ramaswamy; Dance Magazine
November 30, 2016
Original Article

Co-artistic director and dancer with Ragamala Dance Company

Dance connects me to my ancestry. Raised both in India and the U.S., I relish finding a balance between two cultures and feeling the irresistible pull of both countries. I see parallels between the evolution I have undergone as a dancer and choreographer, and the personal transitions I have experienced as a product of the diaspora. 

For me, dance and family are inextricably linked. For the last three decades, I have worked in a collaborative partnership with my mother, Ranee Ramaswamy. It began in 1984, when we both started training with my guru—the legendary dancer/choreographer Alarmél Valli, in Chennai, India. When I first saw her perform, I was forever changed. I never knew that one person could embody a myriad of emotions with such grace and brilliance. I was a quiet, introspective child who felt much more at home conversing with adults than playing with children my own age. Bharatanatyam was my outlet to focus my energy and express my emotions.

Ranee and I—although from different generations—underwent intensive training side by side, living and breathing this timeless, poetic art form. We practiced together, challenging and supporting one another. Today, when we create a new work, our conversations are rapid-fire, fluid and undisguised. My younger sister, Ashwini, is a beautiful dancer in her own right and a key member of my company. I feel so proud that the three of us have recently begun to create work together.

Bharatanatyam holds a significant place in Indian culture, as it is a multi-dimensional art form, integrating elements of music, movement, theater, philosophy and psychology. I am committed to circumventing notions that culture-based forms are impenetrable. My form transcends classification to tap into an inner spirituality that is universal.

As a co-artistic director, choreographer and principal dancer with Ragamala Dance Company—and the mother of twin 7-year old boys—my life has always been rigorous. The balance of family, performing, running an organization and creating new works is joyful, exhausting and truly rewarding.

Dance has never been a job, nor a hobby, but is intrinsically linked to who I am. My guru, a voracious reader, has taught me to look for inspiration in great works of literature. One of her favorite quotes, by William Butler Yeats, perfectly expresses how I feel: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?”


Dance company makes a connection with ‘Sacred Earth’ and classic Indian form Bharatanatyam

Daisy Blake, The Salt Lake Tribune
November 10, 2016
Original Article

The classical dance form Bharatanatyam from India will be in the spotlight at the University of Utah this weekend as movement, music, visual art and poetry combine to celebrate connections between humans and nature.

Minnesota-based Ragamala Dance Company, formed by mother-daughter duo Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, will present "Sacred Earth" on Saturday at Kingsbury Hall as part of the new UtahPresents season.

Their work explores the dynamism of Bharatanatyam, from its ancient roots to its contemporary possibilities.

"Sacred Earth" aims to explore the interconnectedness between human emotions and the environments that shape them, says Aparna Ramaswamy, the daughter of the duo. " 'Sacred Earth' honors and celebrates the natural world and the interconnectedness of man and nature," she said. "At a time when the environment is front and center — climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution and a host of other issues are front-page news — this piece was not created as a pointed social statement. But rather, we created the piece to underscore the enduring relationship between man and nature in ancient cultures. The interdependence between the two has existed since time immemorial, and is reflected through daily ritual, artistic practice and social thought."

Bharatanatyam, she said, has a history that goes back two millennia and is one of the six classical dance forms from India. "Each of these forms reflects the rich diversity, of history, language, music, etc., of the different regions of India. Being a classical form, Bharatanatyam has a codified language of technique. This language is just that — a foundation or physical vocabulary upon which a dancer or choreographer may build. But the essence of the form lives within its practitioners and lineage she/he carries, making the form a dynamic, living tradition. What makes the form most intriguing, complex, and a beautiful reflection of life itself is its multidimensionality, integrating music, movement, theater, philosophy, psychology and spirituality."

Aparna grew up in the U.S. and India and says dance connects her to her ancestry.

"I relish finding a balance between two cultures and feeling the irresistible pull of both countries," she said.

"During our time in India, we were fortunate to spend each day studying with the legendary dancer/choreographer Smt. Alarmel Valli. During our time in the United States, there was a great pressure to maintain the lessons learned in India and to be ready to return the following year. However, during this time we were also able gain valuable experience in performance and cultivate those skills. This also meant our presentation of Bharatanatyam to Western audiences began very early and laid the groundwork for an educated and appreciative audience in the years to come."

She said that in her world, dance and family are inextricably linked, as for the past three decades, she has worked in a collaborative partnership with her mother. "It began in 1984, when we both started training with our guru, Valli. As Valli's only two private students, we spent countless hours practicing in our guru's home studio, filling notebook after notebook so that every step, gesture and emotion fulfilled the promise of this rich form.

Her younger sister, Ashwini, also "is a beautiful dancer in her own right and a key member of our company. I feel so proud that the three of us have recently begun to create work together."

The evening of dance will begin with a showcase of Salt Lake's own Bharatanatyam dancers, including ChitraKaavya Dance, founded by Srilatha Singh and Jyothsna Sainath's Nitya Nritya Dance Company.

Sainath also started practicing Bharatanatyam as a child.

"I was born and raised in Bengaluru, India, and Bengaluru is one of the south Indian centers for Bharatanatyam," she said. "I started learning it just as little kids start to learn ballet here. Over time, however, I developed a love for the sophistication of its technique and narrative vocabulary."

Sainath said her family moved to Utah about two years ago from Lincoln, Neb., for professional reasons. "On moving here, and starting Nitya Nritya Dance Company, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Salt Lake Valley has a rich and long history of supporting the arts in general," Sainath said. "This combined with a fast-changing demographic has contributed to building an appetite for a wide variety of artistic experiences in the valley."

ChitraKaavya Dance founder Srilatha Singh said her husband's job originally brought the family to Salt Lake City from Atlanta, and the Bay Area before that. "I started ChitraKaavya Dance in 2012 to explore my passion for this ancient art form that I learned in my youth," she said. "ChitraKaavya translates to 'visual poetry,' and we at Chitrakaavya dance visualize movement as visual poetry. We are interested in performing our traditional repertoire as well as collaborating to create new and interesting dance items that can be relevant, accessible and add to the rich tapestry of dance in the Salt Lake Valley."


Review: Downtown Performing Arts Series get South Indian flavor with Ragamala Dance Company

Original Article

Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company, brought her mesmerizing evening-length solo work, "They Rose at Dawn" to the Miller Center for the Arts Friday evening as part of Reading Area Community College's Downtown Performing Arts Series.

Ramaswamy uses the vocabulary of the ancient and highly refined South Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam - which originated in Hindu temples - to explore contemporary issues, both sacred and secular.

Performed without an intermission, "They Rose at Dawn" explores various aspects of being a woman in four sections. Using ancient and modern poetic texts and original musical compositions, the piece is a perfect confluence of past and present, music and dance.

For the musical portion, Ramaswamy brought four musicians: C.K. Vasudevan, the nattuvanar, who plays the small cymbals and keeps everyone together with the dancer; vocalist Preethy Mahesh; Sakthivel Muruganantham on the mridangam (double-headed drum); and Carnatic violinist Anjna Swaminathan.

In their instrumental prelude to the first section, "Om Kara Karini," which focused on the various attributes of the goddess Devi, the musicians (the first three from India) proved to be consummate artists. Mahesh, particularly, used her warm, generous voice to pour out streams of intricately ornamented lines and a variety of timbres.

Swaminathan, in her solos, produced yearning, insinuating tones, always expressive and as fluent as Ramaswamy's arms.

Pulled onto the stage by the violin, Ramaswamy, in an exquisite violet traditional costume, projected images of Devi, the creator and destroyer, who maintains equilibrium in the world. The dancer's precise, clear rhythms and fluid arms, her radiant presence and energy, gave thrilling life to the ultimate female.

She is a strong, fierce dancer, whose feet never stopped moving, and whose every body part stayed fully engaged with the music, down to the last finger and toe. The final image of this section was the child's pose, utterly tranquil.

The music for this part was composed by the renowned South Indian vocalist and composer M. Balamuralikrishna, now 86.

In "Varnam," the longest piece on the program, with choreography by Alarmel Valli, her dance guru, Ramaswamy delved far into the longing of a woman for her lover, and of a devotee for the spiritual. In this work, Vasudevan added impressive percussive vocals. The work was set to a composition by the Tanjavur Quartet, a 19th-century ensemble of brothers.

A beautiful violin and mridangam duet provided a brief interlude, and then Ramaswamy danced "Two Scenes from the Mullai Tinai," based on ancient Tamil poems, full of kneeling postures and images of walking through a forest. Ragamala commissioned the music from vocalist/composer Prema Ramamurthy.

She finished with "Nalinakanthi," a happy, vigorous dance, performed with incredible energy after everything that went on previously. The music was another commission from Ramamurthy, with collaboration from Ramaswamy, Vinod Krishnan and Swaminathan.

It was a thrilling evening for anyone who loves South Indian music and dance, and a wonderful introduction for first-timers.

McCarter Theatre Center Preview - They Rose at Dawn

From Bill's Desk: The Big Berlind Week
William W. Lockwood, Jr. , McCarter Theatre Special Programming Director
October 11, 2016
Original Article


Finally, our “Big Berlind Week” winds up on Sunday afternoon with another McCarter debut—our first ever presentation of Bharatanatyam, the classic dance of South India. In her acclaimed soloThey Rose at DawnAparna Ramaswamy (the “Baryshnikov” of this form of world dance), will reveal how the dancer’s body becomes an interlocking puzzle of pieces to create other worldly grace in which women are depicted as carriers of ritual. And to add to the sense of occasion, she will be accompanied by a live five-piece Carnatic music ensemble.


Mesmerizing Indian dance launches musical weekend
Kati Schardl, Tallahassee Democrat
October 6, 2015
Original Article

Grounded in the ancient Indian texts called the vedas, the classical South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam was once the exclusive province of the gods, particularly Shiva, the Lord of the Dance. Thousands of years ago, it came down to earth and was gifted to humankind when the sage Bharata wrote his great treatise on Indian music, drama and dance.

Bharatanatyam is considered the embodiment of the eternal cosmic dance, and dancers who devote themselves to the art approach performance with an attitude of reverence and ritual.

The universal became personal when Ragamala Dance Company performed the world premiere of “Written in Water,” a work co-commissioned by Opening Nights Performing Arts, Wednesday night at the Nancy Smith Fichter Dance Theatre.

One didn’t need to know the specific narrative arc of the story being told onstage to get swept up in its drama. The work’s power and the company’s artistry created a lexicon of sound, vision and movement that allowed each audience member to project their own story onto the stage.

The piece is based on the ancient Indian board game of Snakes and Ladders, which served as a metaphor for the tension between earthly longing and divine ecstasy. The five dancers of the company — troupe founder Ranee Ramaswamy and daughters Aparna and Ashwini, with Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala — performed on a stage ornamented by projections of original paintings by the Chennai-based artist Keshav, to music composed by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy. ElSaffar also led the superb musical ensemble on santur, trumpet and vocals.

A minor lighting glitch at the beginning halted the performance but once it was sorted and the dance began in earnest, “Written in Water” unfolded like a dream — a feast for the eyes, ears and heart. Tightly choreographed ensemble passages flowed into improvisational movements that gave each dancer a chance to add her personal vocabulary of gesture and motion to the overall narrative.

In an ensemble performing a form as defined as Bharatanatyam, the individual blends into the whole with synchronized movements and beautifully expressive gestures. But Aparna Ramaswamy in particular riveted the eye and stirred the heart with steps and gestures that were by turn assertive and exquisitely delicate. With sinuous waves of her hands, she embodied the naga, or serpent, of the game, or summoned the motion of water; with lovely fluttering fingers, open arms and a radiantly expressive face, she was the essence of jubilance and gratitude.

The musical ensemble’s seamless mind meld with the dancers sealed the spell cast by “Written in Water.” ElSaffar’s vocals wove in and around those of singer Preethy Mahesh, whose warm, emotive voice was mesmerizing — she anchored the sound with her pure, limber alto tone.

It was coincidence that this wonderful new work was performed in the middle of the nine-day celebration of Navaratri, one of the most significant festivals on the Hindu devotional calendar. It honors the divine feminine in the form of the goddess Durga and her avatars. As Ranee Ramaswamy said in a Q&A session following the performance, when you practice an art such as Bharatanatyam, every day is Navaratri — a spiritual celebration illuminating a secular world.

Star Tribune Review - Nocturne

Dance review: 'Nocturne' an enchanting journey from dusk to dawn
Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune
REVIEW: Ashwini Ramaswamy holds the stage with confidence in ensemble piece "Nocturne." 
June 4, 2016
Original Article

It's no secret that the Ramaswamy family is full of talent. Matriarch Ranee and daughter Aparna, the co-artistic directors of Ragamala Dance Company, have led the Minneapolis-based troupe to acclaim around the world.

Daughter Ashwini is always a dependably striking presence as a soloist in Ragamala works but this weekend at the Red Eye Theater she owns the stage with her powerful Bharatanatyam creation, "Nocturne."

Inspired by her late grandfather, a renowned entomologist, Ashwini's vision of the mysterious moonlit realm, as witnessed on Thursday evening, begins with delicate hand gestures that evoke fluttering insects. But these are not the only creatures of the night she summons up. At times Ashwini's fingers become talons or claws. In more romantic moments she is waiting for a different kind of being, a lover, to emerge from the shadows.

Ragamala members Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala, as well as Ranee Ramaswamy, join her for the work which also features a dramatically rich musical composition by Shubhendra Rao (sitar), Saskia Rao-de Haas (cello) and Rajna Swaminathan (percussion).

While Ashwini is the featured performer she skillfully integrates the other seasoned dancers, especially her mother, who summons a mystical energy through her deliberate ritualized movements.

Ashwini drew upon the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Jorge Luis Borges, the Tamil Sangam poets and the Vedas (sacred texts) to build the three movements of "Nocturne." The first, "Luna/Chandra," depicts the emergence of wildlife after sundown. "Rapture/Pramodya" shifts into the deepest hours of night and "Invocation/Yaman" nods to the early morning hours, believed to be the best time to connect with the divine.

It's easy to imagine the sections as a journey from twilight to dawn. Ashwini's choreography is grounded — she has a strong presence and the other dancers reflect her emphasis on graceful yet decisive strength in their own movement. So as "Nocturne" gives us a glimpse into a secretive world, the work also confirms that confident inhabitants rule it.

"Magic realism" is a technique often used in literature but through "Nocturne" Ashwini imports the concept into the dance world. On stage we see unfold the rational thought behind her carefully considered movement, yet the overall effect is one of utter enchantment. For one hour we are transported into an exquisite dream state, one that exists deep in the heart of night.


Indian dance performance conveys beauty through mastery of technique
Sheila Regan, Star Tribune
February 21, 2016
Original article

Aparna Ramaswamy has spent a lifetime devoted to the perfection of Bharatanatyam, an ancient South Indian dance form. Tapped at a young age to become the protégé of master choreographer and soloist Alarmél Valli, Ramaswamy has split her time between Minneapolis and India, deepening her knowledge of Bharatanatyam while nurturing her own voice as a dancemaker and performer.

With "They Rose at Dawn," an evening-length solo performance presented over the weekend by Ragamala Dance Company at the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts in Minneapolis, Ramaswamy soared as a soloist in her prime of life, channeling her deep understanding of technique in a captivating performance.

Even in the tiniest movement, Ramaswamy's whole body was engaged. A flick of her finger corresponded completely with what happened with her neck, her stomach or toe, and this was true for every single moment of the evening. Never did Ramaswamy lose her complete focus and control.

At the same time, she showed a mastery of shifting rhythms. With her feet acting as a percussion, Ramaswamy used her body as an instrument in harmony with the four musicians on stage. One moment she'd be articulating her wrists in quick small swirls and then suddenly she'd break out into large, sweeping gestures in a kind of attack.

While she was the sole dancer on stage, Ramaswamy was not alone.

Performing with her were four musicians, including Ranee Ramaswamy, the soloist's mother, with whom she co-founded Ragamala. Playing the nattuvangam, a percussive instrument, Ranee Ramaswamy occasionally did vocals, showcasing her deep, articulate voice, which sounded a bit like scatting in the jazz tradition, fast and urgent. Vinod Krishnan, the main vocalist, propelled the complicated score forward, along with Rajna Swaminathan on the mridangam (another percussive instrument) and Anjna Swaminathan on the violin.

"They Rose at Dawn" drew on spiritual themes, with a particular focus on the feminine as a vessel through which to reach the divine.

Stylistically, the feminine was presentational, meticulously sculpted and shaped. Emotions, too, were curated, refined and demonstrated.

Ramaswamy's work moved not away but toward tradition, allowing the technique to stir the audience. Breathing new life into a centuries-old form, "They Rose at Dawn" evoked a spirituality and emotion that comes through rhythm, shape and precision, which ultimately transfixed the audience.


Twin Cities dancer Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala steps into a new 'Dawn' as solo artist
Rohan Preston, Star Tribune
February 18, 2016
Original article

On a recent bright, cold morning, dancer Aparna Ramaswamy stepped into her company’s airy studio on Lake Street in south Minneapolis. As she rehearsed “They Rose at Dawn,” her most important solo show to date, she filled the room with power and energy.

Her face had the serenity of Mona Lisa, while her feet, decked with ankle bells, laid down a volley of stomps. Her mother, accompanying her on percussion, struggled to keep up. “Aparna keeps going faster and faster,” Ranee Ramaswamy said.

Chalk it up to confidence and passion, traits that have won Aparna Ramaswamy admirers across the country.

Minnesota fans finally will get to see “Dawn” on Friday and Saturday at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis. The show made audiences and critics swoon when it premiered in New York City in October, with the New York Times gushing over her “impeccable technique and incandescent beauty.”

For most of her life, Aparna Ramaswamy, 40, and her mother have been artistic partners. They are co-artistic directors of Ragamala Dance Company, which has become the nation’s leading purveyor of Bharatanatyam dance, the millennia-old Indian style that has the same roots as yoga.

But with “Dawn,” her first full-length solo show in three years, Ramaswamy is stepping out and owning the spotlight.

“This is part of my evolution as an artist,” she said. “Every step to me is a challenge and a responsibility. And as someone who takes everything very seriously, this is a major step.”

“They Rose at Dawn” is anchored in Bharatanatyam’s ancient themes of humans seeking to connect with the divine.

The dance form arose in ancient Tamil temples and was often paired with poetry and music to celebrate beauty and fire. Over the centuries it developed a set of gestures and a movement vocabulary that Ramaswamy and her family — including younger sister Ashwini — express with lyrical authority onstage.

“Dawn” celebrates female energy and force, said Aparna Ramaswamy, who did most of the choreography. “I was interested in exploring ideas of cultural transmission, and how women carry our rituals and culture.”

The opening section pays homage to the feminine in a divine state. Ramaswamy depicts Devi, the beautiful, fearsome and benevolent Hindu goddess who takes many forms. “She embodies the intimate and the infinite.”

That is followed by a “Varnam,” a type of Bharatanatyam dance done in tribute to Ramaswamy’s teacher, Alarmel Valli, who choreographed the piece. Ramaswamy has been studying with her since she was 8.

Next up is “Two Scenes From the Mullai Tinai,” a nature-set piece with poetry that includes themes of motherhood. “Dawn” ends with a joyous finale.

Ramaswamy, known for her technique, precision and commanding rhythm, said that whatever praise accrues to her belongs to the dance itself, which can transform a person’s mood.

“Really, Bharatanatyam is form that gives joy, that gives you release,” she said as sweat dripped through her makeup following a rehearsal. “I might be having a bad day, but as soon as I start [dancing], it transforms my moods, my feeling.

“People don’t have to know what any of the gestures mean as long as they can feel what we’re feeling,” she said. “Sure, they can read about it in the program, but that’s not necessary for them to understand a mother’s joy.”

The mother of twin boys (age 6), Ramaswamy has done full-length solo shows before, including “Sannidhi (Sacred Space),” which she took to New York in 2013. What’s new about “Dawn” is that it gives her more of a chance to interpret the form in a contemporary way.

In essence, “Dawn,” which she will take on a 12-city national tour after the Twin Cities (and to Hawaii next winter), extends the Ramaswamy brand.

A different vision

When Ranee Ramaswamy started Ragamala 23 years ago, she saw it as a way to root herself in a tradition with a storied history and to give her daughters a sense of cultural connection. Neither the dance company, nor much of her life, fit with what was expected of her.

“My father was a medical doctor, but he visited a seer who saw different things for my future — a different profession, a son and a daughter instead of my two beautiful girls,” she said. “Oh, well.”

She raised her daughters differently, giving them the space to explore and to become what they wished.

Aparna took to Bharatanatyam immediately. Ashwini branched out on her own, including working as a publicist in New York for five years. But she’s returned to the fold, and fiercely, winning critical praise of her own. (She will have her own solo show this year.)

One aspect of Ranee Ramaswamy’s upbringing that has stayed with her is a tireless work ethic that has reaped rewards. Ragamala, which recently performed in India and Dubai, has become the nation’s foremost Bharatanatyam company. She was appointed by the president to sit on the National Council on the Arts.

Her example has influenced her children. Aparna Ramaswamy is known to rehearse as early as 7 a.m. (“They Rose at Dawn,” for real.)

Being global means the company isn’t home much. Yet “everything we do springs from here,” Aparna Ramaswamy said. “We feel lucky to be able to bring things to this place where we have all our support systems, where we have been able to grow, develop and expand.”

In other words, the show is a metaphor for the company’s new day.


Ragamala will be dancing to a new beat in NYU Abu Dhabi performance

Rob Garratt, The National (UAE)
October 13, 2015
Original article

Last week, Ragamala Dance, a United States-based traditional Indian ensemble, debuted a new work, They Rose at Dawn, over three nights at New York’s Joyce Theatre. Tonight, they will perform the piece at NYU Abu Dhabi.

When the campus arts centre launched its inaugural programme last month, it promised to shake-up the emirate’s cultural scene – and Ragamala’s appearance so soon after the premiere is perhaps the most concrete proof yet of how quickly it has succeeded.

They Rose at Dawn is a solo work performed and choreographed by Aparna Ramaswamy – Ragamala’s co-artistic director alongside her mother, Ranee – which attracted a glowing write-up in The New York Times.

“I’m happy that this show has a continued life here in Abu Dhabi,” says Ramaswamy, who arrived in the UAE on Sunday morning.

“Over the three performances I was able to change things each night, and it feels like it’s going to be the same here. With five performances in a row, there’s so much room for improvisation.”

The result of six months of development, They Rose at Dawn is a 70-minute suite of four pieces set to a specially commissioned musical score.

This music, performed by a traditional four-piece Carnatic ensemble, made up of violin, mridangam (two-sided hand drum), nattuvangam (cymbals) and vocals, offers the building blocks for Ramaswamy’s hypnotic, virtuoso performance.

Ragamala is among the best-known proponents of the classical Bharatanatyam style, a South Indian dance form which dates back 2,000 years, revived in last century, but the company’s work is equally influenced by Ramaswamy’s diaspora experience of growing up in India and the US.

“The dance form we use is a language, it has a technique and aesthetic. It’s beautiful and we stay true to that,” she says. “But when you create with original ideas, this is where the contemporary comes in. The dance is contemporary because we are all living practitioners.”

Ramaswamy’s choreography sees her inhabit different female characters, offering a meditation on the role of women as “carriers of ritual and culture” and “the primordial source of all creation”.

The opening piece is a homage to the goddess Devi, in both “her ferocious form as a destroyer of evil” and as “a divine mother”. The second is a “metaphor for human love and living”, and the interim of “sacred and sensual”. Another piece probes at “the harmony that exists between humanity and nature.”

But despite all these ideals and inspirations, Ramaswamy is keen for her work to appeal beyond the academic and cerebral.

“It’s very important that the audience doesn’t see this as a museum piece or something ancient,” she says.

“It’s a holistic experience, it’s the whole body. It’s not just an art form, it’s something we can all feel. It’s important for people to lose themselves in it.

“In this age people want to make sense of everything. But dance is something that can be deep and spiritual, you don’t have to understand every movement to appreciate it.”

The 11 members of Ragamala Dance will be in Abu Dhabi for two weeks.

In addition to the two public performances, the company’s schedule includes panel discussions, masterclasses and community dinners. Ramaswamy will also use the residence as an opportunity to continue development on of ambitious new conceptual work, of which NYUAD is the lead commissioner. Written in Water is based on Mokshapat, the ancient Indian board game from which Snakes and Ladders was derived.

In this original form – widely dated to the 13th century – instead of reptiles and rungs, it is vices and virtues that decide a player’s ascent or descent on the board. Ramaswamy’s concept is to represent this sense of causality and luck in a semi-improvised dance performance, which would see performers traverse a life-size game onstage, with different musical and dance routines associated with each square of the board.

“The dancers become the players,” she says. “The whole thing is about chance. About realising the different stages in your life.”

The company has brought 100 of the boardgames to Abu Dhabi, and NYUAD students are encouraged to contribute to the creative process by playing and offering inspiration and insight.

By the end of their two-week stay, the team hopes to have finished a 15-minute segment of Written in Water, which will have its premiere in New York in January. A finished 70-minute piece will be developed next year. Given the project’s lengthy gestation period in Abu Dhabi, we can expect to see Ragamala return to these shores with the new show in the near future.