MN Monthly - Family Dynasties

October 2017

Andrew Stark & Erik Tormoen, MN Monthly

Dancer and choreographer Ranee Ramaswamy created a space for classical Indian performance in Minnesota after she moved here from India with her three-year-old daughter, Aparna, in 1978. In the mid ‘80s, one of India’s premier dancers visited the Twin Cities and took Ranee and Aparna under her tutelage. Around 1992, the year she founded Minneapolis’ Ragamala Dance Company, Ranee started adapting her centuries-old art for mainstream audiences. Since then, as co-artistic director and artistic associate, Aparna and her younger sister, Ashwini, respectively, have worked alongside their mother to maintain Indian cultural integrity while achieving global accessibility.

“It’s hard for people to get their minds around the fact that we do create work together. I think especially when it’s me and my mother, people often think: Ranee started it, now Aparna’s throwing it on. But it’s only when they hear our story that they understand how we are partners. She is not grooming the next generation. We’ve always been one generation. And I’ve been observing this my whole life, so it feels natural to slip into the mix. And now Ashwini’s joining us. It’s a mother, one daughter, and then another daughter...The fact that we have this perspective that comes from different ages and different experiences and different immigrant stories is really valuable to our work.”
- Aparna Ramaswamy

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Detroit Lakes Online - Sacred Earth Preview

A feast for the senses: Ragamala Dance Company brings sights, sounds – and tastes – of India to Detroit Lakes
Vicki Gerdes, DL Online
October 2, 2017
Original Article

Dance, music, art, poetry... the Ragamala Dance Company's upcoming performance of "Sacred Earth" at the Historic Holmes Theatre combines all of these elements into an unforgettable theatrical experience.

"'Sacred Earth' is a signature piece," said dancer Tamara Nadel in a presentation to Lake Park-Audubon High School instructor Christopher Ward's art class Tuesday afternoon. "It's one of our favorites.

"'Sacred Earth' was created about six years ago by our artistic directors (Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy), who are also mother and daughter."

Nadel explained that the program, which will be presented at the Holmes Theatre this Thursday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m., incorporates a classical form of dance from southern Indian known as the "Bharatanatyam."

Using the traditional poses of Bharatanatyam, different generations may create their own version of the dance, but "the lineage remains the same," Nadel explained.

"It's the basic language we use to write 'dance poetry,'" she added.

'Sacred Earth' also incorporates elements of two traditional forms of Indian folk art, Nadel explained: The Kolam and the wall designs of the Warli people.

It is this art form that Nadel hopes to teach the students of Ward's class over the next few days, as part of Ragamala's week-long artist residency at the Holmes.

On Tuesday, she began the first session at LP-A by showing examples of both Kolam and Warli designs, then had the students create some basic Kolam patterns using an elaborate form of "connect the dots."

First, she gave the students each a sheet of paper with different dot patterns on it, then showed them how to connect those dots to make the lines that formed the basis of increasingly intricate Kolam designs.

Finally, Nadel explained how 'Sacred Earth' also incorporates elements of Tamil Sangam poetry.

This is how the connection between art, dance and poetry is described in the study guide that Nadel distributed as part of the course at LP-A: "Each morning, women in southeastern India perform the silent ritual of kolam, making rice flour designs on the ground as conscious offerings to Mother Earth. This daily ritual creates a sacred space and becomes a link between the intimate home and the vastness of the outside world. The indigenous Warli people of western India revere the land and live in perfect coexistence with nature. Using their everyday lives as inspiration, their dynamic wall paintings find the spiritual in the everyday. For the Tamil Sangam poets of South India, the Earth was sacred. Recognizing that human activities are interwoven with all of creation, they drew parallels between inner and outer landscape and used the natural world as a metaphor to examine the intricacies of human emotion."

Nadel and fellow dancer Jessica Fiala also spent some time performing for patients and staff at Essentia Health-St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes on Tuesday morning. First in the clinic lobby, then the hospital cafeteria, the duo showcased some of Ragamala's more simple dances for an ever-changing audience, as clinic patients and cafeteria customers filed in and out of each venue. Cafeteria customers were also treated to small samples of some traditional Indian dishes.

That evening, the Ragamala dancers went to Northern Lights Dance Studio in Frazee for a master dance class with the studio's high school-age students.

Other stops on their four-day artist residency included a beginner dance class this morning (Wednesday) at the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center, as well as a 30-minute performance for residents of Ecumen-Emmanuel Nursing Home this afternoon.

Thursday night's main stage performance at the Holmes Theatre, featuring the full dance company, will be followed by additional Friday appearances in the community by some of the dancers, including a short performance for residents of Lincoln Park Senior Apartments in Detroit Lakes, followed by tea and a traditional form of Indian dessert to be served to those in attendance. The Ragamala dancers will conclude their residency in the community with a final performance for LP-A High School art and photography students in Lake Park on Friday afternoon.

Nadel noted that their outreach activities in the community this week are funded, in part, by the Minnesota State Arts Board, via the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.

MPR News - Alarmél Valli Artist Talk & Performance

Guru of a 2,000-year-old Indian dance tradition returns to Mpls.
Marianne Combs, MPR News
September 14, 2017
Original Article - Listen to Audio Story Here

Without Alarmél Valli, renowned Twin Cities-based Ragamala Dance Company probably would not exist.

Valli is a preeminent choreographer and performer of Bharatanatyam, the 2,000-year-old classical dance of southeast India that began in Hindu temples as a form of worship. Even though the dance is now performed on stage, it is still a deeply spiritual practice.

In Hinduism there is an adage: "Mother, Father, Guru, God."

"Guru is the one that shows you the realization of the final understanding of life — so the teacher is even higher than your mother and father," said Ranee Ramaswamy, who co-founded Ragamal Dance Company in Minneapolis with her daughter Aparna. Another daughter, Ashwini, dances with the company.

For Ramaswamy and her daughters, Alarmél Valli is their guru.

Aparna Ramaswamy said Valli's performances are the product of her vast knowledge of poetry, literature, music and philosophy. "She will describe a longing for union with your lover. But that is an allegory for the soul's yearning to unite with the divine. That idea of the sacred and the sensual — she portrays that with so much depth and richness but also a universality that everybody can understand," Aparna Ramaswamy said.

Valli rejects the title of "guru." She prefers teacher. But in describing the gurus who taught her the art form, she may well be describing herself.

"The true guru in our tradition was one who imparts the knowledge, who opens up your mind, who illuminates, but then allows you to take wings and fly," Valli said. "And I think the best metaphor of all is that of the banyan tree. The tree is the tradition and the branches are the gurus, and each one lets down roots. Each root becomes a tree and then the tree spreads and grows and becomes a thing of beauty."

To understand how the tree took root in Minneapolis, you need to go back to the 1980s. Ranee Ramaswamy was living there when a University of Minnesota professor invited Valli to teach and perform over the course of two weeks.

"The very first day I watched her on stage, the first minute, I knew I had never in my life seen something that has moved me so much," Ramaswamy said. "It was unbelievable the power she had."

That next year, Ramaswamy and her then 9-year-old daughter Aparna spent four months in India, studying with Valli. Ranee had studied dance previously but she started over, learning alongside her daughter.

And they kept coming back, year after year, for months at a time.

Inspired by what they were learning, the Ramaswamy family founded Ragamala Dance Company. Now in its 25th year, Ragamala earns regular rave reviews from national press and numerous awards for its excellence. But Ranee Ramaswamy said there's only one person they're really working to please.

"When we create work for Ragamala we have a standard and the standard is, 'will Valli like it?'"

To Valli, the Ramaswamys are her students and she sees them as her children:

"To think that they have built up this company which has made its mark in the mainstream in America — it makes me very proud, like a proud parent."

Valli performs Saturday night at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis.

Star Tribune - Alarmél Valli Artist Talk & Performance

Ragamala Dance Company hosts rare U.S. performance by Indian dance guru
September 13, 2017
Sheila Regan, Star Tribune
Original Article

Ragamala Dance Company kicks off its 25th season by honoring the woman who taught them everything they know. When Ragamala artistic director Aparna Ramaswamy was just 8 years old, she was selected by guru Alarmél Valli for training in Bharatanatyam, an ancient form of classical Indian dance. Aparna's mother and Ragamala co-artistic director Ranee Ramaswamy also studied under Valli. For more than 30 years, the Ramaswamy family — including now Aparna's sister, Ashwini — have traveled regularly to work with Valli in India. Now the Ramaswamys have brought their teacher to Minneapolis for a rare U.S. performance by the Bharatanatyam master.

7 p.m. Thu., 7:30 p.m. Sat., Cowles Center, Mpls., $15-$29, 612-206-3636 or

Star Tribune - Preview - Alarmél Valli Artist Talk & Performance

Best of the week: Ragamala Dance Company, Spoon, X, James Ehnes, Roger McGuinn
September 9, 2017
Rohan Preston, Star Tribune
Original Article

It’s fitting for Ragamala Dance Company to launch its 25th season with Bharatanatyam icon Alarmél Valli. She’s an acclaimed performer and master teacher whose pupils include company founder Ranee Ramaswamy. Known for her poetic movements, Valli puts her distinctive stamp on the classical form, using its grammar and vocabulary to express her own lyric inventiveness.ROHAN PRESTON

7:30 p.m. Sat. $15-29, Cowles Center, Mpls.


Minn Post - Alarmél Valli Artist Talk & Performance

The best things in Twin Cities arts in the next two weeks, Part 2
Saturday, Sept. 16: Alarmél Valli: An Evening of Bharatanatyam
Pamela Espeland, MinnPost
September 6, 2017
Original Article

Mother and daughter Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy are the artistic directors of Ragamala Dance, the Minneapolis-based Bharatanyatam dance company with an international reputation. Dancer/choreographer Valli, of Chennai, India, has been their guru since 1984, guiding and informing their aesthetic and their work. Valli will dance on Saturday; on the Thursday before, she’ll give an artist talk, “The Moving Temple: Dance and the Divine.” These events begin Ragamala’s 25th home season.

Alarmél Valli will dance on Saturday, Sept. 16 at the Cowles.
When, where & how much? 7:30 p.m. at the Cowles for the performance, $29; 7 p.m. for the artist talk, $15. Or $40 for both. FMI.

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.