Written in Water: A Moving Tribute to India's Bhakti & Sufi Movements

Jennifer Gnana looks back on her journey loving and learning Bharatanatyam, a Tamil classical dance form
Jennifer Gnana, The National
March 23, 2018
Original Article

Watching Written in Water, choreographed by the Minnesota-based Raagmala dance troupe at New York University - Abu Dhabi’s Arts Centre last night took me back in time. Bharatanatyam - a classical Tamil dance and the subcontinent’s oldest has been my long-abiding love and the performance reminded me of my own journey of re-discovering this most graceful art form.

I tied my first salangai (anklets) - worn by Indian classical dancers to perform intricate footwork to match a vocalist’s beats - at the age of four. I was always the quirky one on stage. Short and skinny, with hair like a little boy, I cut an odd figure. Backstage, makeup artists struggled to attach the jadai (braided hair extensions) to my sparse hair and eventually settled to pinning a strand of jasmine to the crown of my head. Unlike the elegant dancers, draped in silk, making them appear like apsaras (godly nymph-like dancers of Hindu mythology), with their bodies set to hour-glass perfection according to the sensibilities of centuries of Indian aesthetic, I had an ungainly gait, with no amount of padded fabric helping me achieve celestial perfection. However, despite my lack of stage glamour, I gave myself over to dance and for all my visible flaws, remained a dedicated student.

However, our move to Bahrain at the age of eight put a slow end to my learning. My mother and I worried about finding a good teacher and though I performed on stage for a couple of years, I gave it up for lack of training. The salangai remained in my room and there were days I would open the box, kiss the anklets and put them back with a sigh. I grew out of my silk dancer’s clothes and they remained in the cupboard, a relic of my childhood.

However, my move to Dubai last year renewed my search for a good teacher and I started lessons again, only to give up when my work as a journalist took up much of my time.

This is why sat in the audience last night, watching the mother-daughter duo perform with their troupe made me realise it was never too late to learn.

Ranee Ramaswamy, 65, founded the dance academy when she was 40 having earlier given up the dance form when she to moved to the US, as she was expected to focus on her family.

Trained under the iconic dancer Alarmel Valli in Chennai, Ranee and her daughter Aparna, 41, now manage a team that performs across the US, UK, the UAE as well as India. Both Ranee and Aparna are not just background managers but actually perform in all their shows. Watching them last night, moving to a beautiful meld of Iraqi, jazz and Carnatic (southern Indian) music by composer Amir El Saffar was an absolute treat.

The Carnatic musician's rendition perfectly yielded to Amir’s trumpet, and soft, moving vocals in Arabic. It warmed me to see the audience clap in between various segments, which was unusual for me as back in Tamil Nadu (India’s southern-most state), a Bharatanatyam performance is a sober event, performed as a prayer dance and treated very reverentially by the audience. Tamils, by nature remain conservative when it comes to safeguarding their culture and as a result Bharatanatyam remains one of the most guarded dance forms, very rarely, if ever allowing innovations on stage. What Ranee and Aparna have done is keep form at its purest, while allowing the Sufi music to lend to one of our greatest dances a truly global connect.

My most moving moment of the night came towards the end when the Carnatic vocalist ended the performance by singing in Tamil, “Anaithum neeye, anaithin porulum neeye”, which translated means “Everything is you, the meaning of everything and matter is you.” A line, straight out of the Bhakti and Sufi movements that characterised 15th century subcontinent, making sweeping changes to the dogmatic nature of religion and marking the emergence of India as one of the most spiritual places on earth.

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Tamil-speaking regions saw a slow movement towards devotional worship on the essence of God. Brushing aside centuries of puritanical Hinduism, the devotees of what is now called the Bhakti (devotion) movement immersed themselves in song and poetry, often sung in local languages in contrast to worship that used largely Sanskrit - a language incomprehensible to the common man and used only by Hindu clergy. The Bhakti devotees took their ideas northward only to meet, with the arrival of Islam in the subcontinent, the Sufi mystics of the northern plains. The amalgamation of their ideas gave birth some of the most beautiful poetry in Urdu - a language that grew from the mixing of khariboli, the lingua franca of northern India and Persian, the language of the Mughal courts. It also led to the birth of Sikhism, a religion that embraces aspects of the subcontinent’s diverse Hindu faiths with Islamic tenets.

Until the 19th century, performance of Bharatanatyam remained restricted to temples. Written in Water. Courtesy New York University Abu Dhabi

Yesterday’s performance was a beautiful synthesis of the Bhakti and Sufi movements and made me realise how much we could leverage art, even those guarded by purists by allowing it to match the rhythm of our times.

Last week, after watching an eighties Tamil film Sindhu Bhairavi about a fallen Carnatic musician, who finds his groove, I messaged my Bharatanatyam teacher saying I was thinking of coming back to class. In the film, the reformed musician finds himself back on stage and sings an invocation to Kalaivani, the Tamil word for Goddess Lakshmi, the patron of arts (kalai) in Hindu tradition. “I want dance to this, I want to come back,” I had texted her.

On my way out of the NYU arts centre auditorium, with anaithum neeye ringing in my ears, I decided it was time to wear my salangai again. I was going back.

Steeped in Tradition

“Written in Water” by Ragamala Dance Company at the Terrace Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

Arielle Ostry, danceviewtimes
Nov 3, 2018
Original Article

In “Written in Water,” a menagerie of talented dancers, musicians, and visual artworks joined together and intermingled to perform a sonically extravagant and visually alluring show. Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, the mother-daughter duo responsible for Ragamala Dance Company’s artistic direction, were informed by tradition and compelled by innovation to create a masterpiece respecting the sanctity of the present, exploring the boundaries of their culture, and celebrating beauty the in their journey. This show’s DC premiere last weekend at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre was intimate and charming, presenting a variety of dynamic movements and melodies.

“Written in Water” focuses mainly on the individual journey of each dancer to achieve union with the divine. This theme is portrayed by a human-sized version of the traditional Indian board game Paramapadam, which Americans may more easily recognize as Snakes and Ladders. Each of the five dancers performed separate movement to start, making the beginning of the show a lot to take in with an array of different colors, rhythms, and movement phrases. All of the dancers employed a wide range of performance qualities from teasing and playful to serious and mournful. These emotions were most clearly exemplified by the clarity and decisiveness prevalent in their facial expressions.

Under the direction of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, Ragamala Dance Company practices the South Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam, which was originally performed as a solo dance, and has since evolved. Mother and daughter diverge from the customary to bring Bharatanatyam to the stage in a dramatic group format. A highlight of “Written in Water” is the company’s incredible unison execution. Each dancer’s body retains consistent alignment, from the tip of each figure to the diagonal, perched placement of each heel, their rhythmic stomping and stilted jumps ideally synched, showing their confidence and exactness with every step.

Very few are able to perform Bharatanatyam quite like Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy. Both mother and daughter were taught the classic dance form by legendary dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli in Chennai, India. Their refined ability and control over the dance style were clearly shown throughout the performance during bouts of gestural storytelling, utilizing intricate hand gestures and distinct expressions to convey the story. They moved their hands in a variety of different ways, with shimmying shakes, energetic, rigid lotus positions, and waving ripples, which made their hands look more like reflections in water than real solid flesh.

The performance was broken up into three sections to frame a story inspired by “The Conference of the Birds,” a Sufi epic poem that details an expedition traveling through various human states of being, the ultimate goal being a unity with the divine. Segments of the show were punctuated by moments where the dancers left the stage completely, continuing on their journey while the musicians alone entertained the crowd with complex beats interlaced with hints of jazzy improvisation and impressive traditional vocals rolling effortlessly off of Preethy Mahesh's trained tongue. The composition itself was developed by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy, specifically for “Written in Water,” in collaboration with Ranee Ramaswamy and the rest of the musical ensemble. Additionally, artwork depicting various human and animal forms as well as abstract, spiraling shapes were incorporated into the show through projections on the floor and on a skrim backdrop. They were created by V. Keshav, a Chennai-based painter, and Nathan Christopher.

“Written in Water” was as dynamic as it was refined, and as bold as it was enlightening. Each dancer performed with such surety and ease, making the show a beautiful, engaging spectacle full of warmth and light, celebrating both the cultural philosophy from which this work took shape as well as the dance itself.

The Washington Post - Ragamala Elevates Snakes and Ladders

Dance Company Ragamala Elevates Snakes and Ladders to Spiritual Heights

Celia Wren, The Washington Post
Nov 1, 2018
Original Article

Hear the phrase “board-game-inspired movement” and you might think of a flourish with a chess piece, or a jubilant reach to place a Scrabble tile on a triple-word-score square. But the Ragamala Dance Company had more substantial physicality in mind for “Written in Water”: The sensory-rich, idea-steeped work, which will be performed at the Kennedy Center this weekend, reflects, in part, a historical Indian version of the game Snakes and Ladders.

“Written in Water,” choreographed by co-artistic directors (and mother and daughter) Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, riffs on the conceptual and philosophical framework of Paramapadam, an Indian game whose players risk serpentine plunges while trying to ascend to a board’s winning squares. Ranee and Aparna will be among the five dancers in the roughly hour-long work, which showcases the classical Indian dance style Bharatanatyam.

During “Written in Water,” illustrated-grid projections on the stage sometimes make the dancers appear to be pieces on a Paramapadam board. The illusion is infused with meaning, because the Indian snakes-and-ladders game — of which Paramapadam is one version — incorporates a morality-tale dynamic: The board’s upper squares symbolize spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine, while the lower squares correspond to vices and spiritual degradation. Ascending ladders and downward-propelling snakes provide shortcuts.

The Indian game has existed in various religious and regional variants over the centuries. The pastime traveled to England during the British Raj, eventually evolving to become the secular entertainment (a.k.a. Chutes and Ladders) many of us played as youngsters. (Before each “Written in Water” performance, you can play Paramapadam in the Kennedy Center atrium.)

Ranee Ramaswamy, who grew up in Chennai, in southern India, learned to play Paramapadam as a child. Raised in the Hindu tradition, she knew the game as a particularly popular diversion during religious festivals, with children and adults playing together. One version of the game board referenced the god Vishnu; another, the god Shiva. “Playing the game, we also learned about our own mythological stories,” Ranee said by phone from Minneapolis, where the dance company is based.

Aparna said that when she and her mother began mulling a dance based on Paramapadam, the idea seemed accessible and “rich with possibilities.” The game’s spiritual-journey framework made them think of other cultural lenses on mystical experience, such as a Hindu story about the churning of the cosmic ocean and the 12th-century Persian Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” about an avian search for an elusive monarch. Both narratives became additional thematic springboards for “Written in Water,” which exemplifies the Ragamala Dance practice of treating Bharatanatyam, in Aparna’s words, as an art form that is “alive and contemporary and growing.”

The resonance of “Conference of the Birds” prompted the Ramaswamys to contact Iraqi American jazz artist Amir ElSaffar, who, in addition to playing the trumpet and santur (a hammered dulcimer), is adept in Maqam, a classical vocal tradition that draws on musical traditions from Iraq’s neighbors, as well as traditions within Iraq. He wrote parts of the “Written in Water” score, and he leads an ensemble providing live accompaniment for “Written in Water” performances. (India-based composer Prema Ramamurthy composed other sections, consisting of southern Indian music.)

Folding Maqam and Persian literature into “Written in Water” might seem a bold move in an era leery of cultural appropriation. But Ranee Ramaswamy says the company took pains to make the work’s multicultural strands knowledgeable, respectful and “correct.”

Besides, she says, “cultures have some commonality. And if we hold on to that, we can make magic.”

Broadway World Review - Ragamala Dance Company's Written in Water

Ragamala Dance Company's WRITTEN IN WATER at the Kennedy Center

Sam Abney, Broadway World
Nov 3, 2018
Original Article

Just because a work is new doesn't mean that it isn't able to honor the classic sources that paved the way for its creation. This idea is underscored in the Ragamala Dance Company's elegant and well-executed performance of Written in Water, which relies on the ancient Indian board game Paramapadam (a precursor to Snakes and Ladders) and Hindu mythology to craft the performance's three movements. Even though the performance could benefit from more dynamic shifts in tonality, the overall effect is gorgeous and precise.

Written in Water is a dance show in three movements. The first (and my personal favorite) explores our journey through life through the game Paramapadam. A giant game board is projected under the dancers which helps to underscore the constant climbing of ladders and succumbing to snakes through the movement. In the second movement, the dancers explore the human quest for the divine while underscoring the chaos that surrounds. Finally, we reach the journey toward transcendence in the third movement. The movements can often blend together tonally but thankfully the first and third movements are stronger than the middle movement, allowing the show to begin and end on truly high notes.

With a five-person company, the production often feels like there are many more than that on stage at any given time. All five dancers, led by Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, work well with one another-complimenting each other's moves throughout the performance. Even while executing similar moves, all five ladies flow through their actions in distinct ways which helps provide an additional layer of depth to the performance. Toward the beginning of the first movement and at the top of the second, the action drags a little as movements appear to become more repetitive. Thankfully, the show breaks this cycle before it is bogged down for too long-allowing for the avoidance of some missteps.

Some of the evening's success can surely be attributed to the skillful musicians who accompany the dancers throughout. Preethy Mahesh anchors the majority of the vocals for the performance, and she does so beautifully. Every note she sings is filled with beautiful emotion and helps to craft a more cohesive narrative for the performance. Similarly, Amir ElSaffar lends his own stunning vocals for the evening, often emulating a sound that seems to land somewhere between classic Arabic music and jazz tunes.

The rest of the instrumentalists are quite impressive as well. Arun Ramamurthy is a dutiful violinist who serves as the backbone for the small music ensemble on stage. On the mridangam (a percussion instrument), Rohan Krishnamurthy does excellent work with providing intensity to the performance. All of the instruments are anchored by two stellar standouts. Kasi Aysola lends his skills for rhythmic recitation (nattuvangam) to the evening-leading to one of the performative highlights during a particularly fast-paced and frantic section at the end of the second movement. Amir ElSaffar also demonstrates his ability to steal the show through an impressive trumpet solo at the first movement's conclusion.

Overall, the production's designs are executed well. The visual art displayed throughout the night, provided by V. Keshav and Nathan Christopher, help to illustrate the action being performed. Many elements are projected on the floor to give the dancers more graphic areas to move on (such as an actual game board) which provides an interesting element. Unfortunately, it seems like more harsh lighting is then used to avoid having the projections displayed upon the dancers themselves, which often washes out the dancers and their costumes during the evening. All in all, Jeff Bartlett has skillfully designed the lighting. But many of the brighter sections lose some of the beauty of the show's other aspects.

Written in Water isn't the kind of show that requires extensive knowledge or appreciation of dance to grasp. Much of the performance's effectiveness rests on the ability for the audience to understand the emotions being portrayed on stage. This show doesn't ask for you to understand every movement on stage-but instead to feel the emotions from the performance wash over you. And, sometimes, that's the most powerful kind of production.

Incredibly Emotionally Evocative

‘Written in Water’ looks at spirituality, mythology and more

Lara Jo Hightower, Democrat-Gazette
October 7, 2018
Original Article

The Ragalama Dance Company, says co-artistic director Aparna Ramaswamy, uses the ancient Indian form of dance called Bharatanatyam "as a language to explore universal themes." The company is bringing its production of "Written in Water," performed with live music, to the Walton Arts Center Stage on Oct. 14.

The wildly creative and expressive production that evolves from the company was called "a soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious collaboration ... startlingly seamless and marvelously danceable" in The New York Times.

The 26-year-old company, based in Minneapolis, is a family affair: It was founded by Ramaswamy's mother, first-generation Indian-American artist Ranee Ramaswamy, who now serves as co-artistic director. The company also includes Ramaswamy's sister, Ashwini.

Ramaswamy says adhering to the 2,000-year-old Bharatanatyam tradition takes thorough understanding and research.

"Our works are very evolved and extensive in their scope," says Ramaswamy. "We work to find all the original lyrics. We work with different composers from different cities, different countries. We fund-raise to create the music. It doesn't happen in one year -- it's a multi-year endeavor. We're working on several pieces at one time at this moment and touring three other works."

"Written in Water" is based on the ancient Indian game Paramapadan, which, over the centuries, evolved into the popular children's game Americans know as "Chutes and Ladders."

"Indian families would stay up all night and fast and play this game in order to teach their children about negative and positive energies of humans," says Ramaswamy. "It's a very multidisciplinary approach to discussing spirituality and mythology and religion. The idea of this game was fascinating to us in terms of all of the potential for this content, the underpinnings of the history and the psychology of the idea of humans traveling towards something and experiencing different aspects of life as they did so.

The show also pulls inspiration from the 12th century Sufi text "The Conference of the Birds" and the Hindu story "Ksheerabthi Madanam."

"As the dancers -- or players -- move through the board ... the nuances of the motions that go along with each situation are explored. The last piece is that we explore an Indian myth about the churning of the ocean."

The performance clearly offers a heaping helping of history, literature and mythology, but Ramaswamy says potential audience members should not fear the challenge; she promises audiences will find the show accessible.

"I do think dance is intimidating for a lot of audiences," she acknowledges. "I think people feel like they can intellectually grasp the narrative of theater or the accessibility of music. I think with dance, people feel they need to understand more of the technicality of dance, so I think [that perception] is a challenge.

"The thing is, dance can be enjoyed in the same ways as the other art forms. It can be incredibly emotionally evocative. You're seeing wonderful physical expressions ... these emotions of longing or love or sadness, and all of these shades and hues are related to the words and music. Together, it forms this really beautiful, genuine communication with the audience."

Star Tribune Review - Body, the Shrine

Ramaswamy family brings nuance, mood to Ragamala Dance Company's 25th anniversary show
Review: Ragamala Dance Company celebrated its golden anniversary with a new piece honoring Indian poets. 

Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune
April 27, 2018
Original Article

Ranee Ramaswamy once had a simple goal — to share the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam with Minnesota audiences.

Twenty-five years later, her Ragamala Dance Company, which she directs in partnership with daughter Aparna Ramaswamy, has far surpassed its modest beginnings and now enjoys international acclaim. On Thursday night Ragamala celebrated the world premiere of “Body, the Shrine” at the Cowles Center by demonstrating yet again why the troupe is so vital to the Twin Cities dance scene.

“Body, the Shrine” represents a first in Ragamala’s history. Senior company dancer Ashwini Ramaswamy joined her mother and sister in choreographing the evening-length work, which features sections created and taught to them by their guru, Alarmél Valli. They were inspired by the Bhakti Movement, a transformational religious and literary era in India, with roots dating back to the 6th century.

“Bhakti” is a Sanskrit term defined as both “devotion” and “participation.” Ragamala’s homage reveres the male and female poets whose soaring words contrasted with times of protest, conflict and violence. The Ramaswamys, as well as company members Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala, wear vibrant red, orange, blue and green traditional costumes, and this colorful energy carries over to the evocative vocals and music (drums and violin) performed live by Preethy Mahesh, C.K. Vasudevan, Sakthivel Muruganantham and Ramanathan Kalaiarasan.

The Ramaswamys each bring different moods to the work, as evidenced in solos and duets. Ranee’s “Vazhi Maraittirukkude” (choreographed by Valli) is about persistence, referencing not only an untouchable’s desire to glimpse a deity but also 19th-century hopes for independence from Britain. Ranee illustrates her challenging quest through flowing hand gestures and gently entreating stances.

With “Call Him to Me,” Aparna embodies the symbiotic relationship between nature and the divine, owning the stage with her exquisite precision and attention to the tiniest detail of expression. When she and Ashwini perform “Shankara Sri Giri” (choreographed by Valli with staging by the sisters) as an ode to cosmic rhythms, they not only present breathtaking synchronized movement but also the sort of unspoken communication so unique to family.

The program quotes Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, a 19th-century king of the southern Indian state of Kerala who also was a composer. “If you dance and sing, then it is indeed Heaven,” he said. And if so, then there’s a slice of heaven to be found in “Body, the Shrine.”


CBS Minnesota - Mother, Daughters Celebrate 25 Years Of Ragamala Dance Company

Mother, Daughters Celebrate 25 Years Of Ragamala Dance Company
Ali Lucia, CBS Minnesota
April 24, 2018
Original Article

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company is set to celebrate its 25th anniversary season with the world premiere of “Body, the Shrine.”

In this milestone year, Ashwini Ramaswamy joins her mother, Ranee Ramaswamy, and sister, Aparna Ramaswamy, in an intergenerational partnership to create a one of a kind work.

“It’s an art form. It has rhythm, it has body movements, it has facial expressions. It’s almost like being an actor,” Ranee said, describing the dance. “It’s almost like being an actor but also dancing with it.”

Ranee is the co-artist director along with her daughter Aparna.

“I always say I go to work with my children. I think every parent wants to have their children with them for a long time and I am blessed every single day,” Ranee said.

It’s an art form she has been practicing since she was 7 years old in India. Then her daughter Aparna expressed that same passion at the same age. Together the two traveled back and forth to India, visiting family and staying dedicated to dance, learning from one of the best teachers in the world: Alarmel Valli.

The company’s work explores the tension between the ancestral and the personal.  For the first time Ranee will create a piece not just with her daughter Aparna, but with Ashwini as well.  The three have been practicing for hours as they prepare for the world premiere of “Body, the Shrine.”

“It eliminates the idea that the divine lives within us. If we choose to dedicate ourselves to someone or something, and not within a particular structure, and idea it does exist with ourselves,” Apara said.

“It’s a very intricate style of dance that you have to learn for a lifetime, and you’ll still never be an expert,” Ashwini said, adding this particular performance is special as it really allows her to reflect on her heritage. “Even though I was born in the United States I travel to India often, these kinds of experiences and learning about history is more of what I’m looking for with this work.”

The commitment to their craft as taken them all over the world and their mother says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m tremendously happy and I think I want to keep doing this forever, because if my kids were not there I probably wouldn’t have that,” Ranee said.

If you are interested in attending the performance this weekend, tickets are $25.  There are performances this upcoming Thursday and Friday.  All performances at the Cowles Center are accompanied by a musical ensemble from South India.

Brainerd Dispatch - Preview - Sacred Earth

A Blend of Exotic and Familiar: Ragamala Dance Company presents 'Sacred Earth'
Brainerd Dispatch
January 18, 2018
Original Article

Combining ancient dance form with familiar ideas about the earth and the stewardship of it, the world renowned Ragamala Dance Company will present "Sacred Earth" at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 in the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

The performance is part of the Central Lakes Community Performing Arts Center's Cultural Arts Series.

"We're very pleased to be able to present this company," CLC series producer Patrick Spradlin stated in a news release. "They are a fabulously talented group, and their work is of such high artistic merit."

Ragamala Dance Company was founded in Minneapolis in 1992 by Ranee Ramaswamy. Now under the direction of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (mother and daughter), the company is in its 25th season of creating intercultural, collaborative performance works that forge together ancestry and continuity. In this milestone year, long-time Ragamala soloist Ashwini Ramaswamy has joined her mother and sister in their intergenerational creative partnership.

The company has been recognized with awards from numerous grants organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Japan Foundation/New York, USArtists International, New Music/USA, MAP Fund, American Composers Forum and two Joyce Awards from the Joyce Foundation.

Ragamala tours extensively, highlighted by the American Dance Festival, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Music Center of Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, the Just Festival in Edinburgh, U.K., the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai and the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai, among others.

Ragamala explores the myth and spirituality of the members' Indian heritage to engage with what they see as the dynamic tension between the historical, the ancestral and the personal, the release stated. They approach the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam as a living, breathing language with which to speak about the contemporary human experience.

"'Sacred Earth' aims to explore the interconnectedness between human emotions and the environments that shape them," Aparna Ramaswamy stated. "The piece honors and celebrates the natural world and the interconnectedness of man and nature.

"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."

Tickets are available from the CLC Theatre Box Office at 218-855-8199 or online at


"Sacred Earth" is sponsored by Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes. The CLC Performing Arts Center season is made possible in part by an operating grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Review of Written in Water at Cal Performances

Ragamala Dance Company: Written in Water
Jo Tomalin, For All Events
December 6, 2017
Original Article

Ragamala Dance Company presented Written in Water December 2 – 3, 2017 at Zellerbach Playhouse, produced by Cal Performances, in Berkeley, CA.

Choreographed by Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, artistic directors (and mother and daughter) of Ragamala Dance Company, Written in Water explores themes from the ancient Sufi text The Conference of the Birds, the Hindu mythology story Ksheerabthi Madanam, and the second-century board game Paramapadam – an early form of Snakes & Ladders.

In three movement sections the ensemble of five dancers (Aparna Ramaswamy, Renee Ramaswamy, Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nader, Jessica Fiala), dances a fusion of traditional and creative movement with contemporary motifs and physical storytelling. The Epic story expresses a journey through seven valleys representing states of being starting with experiencing human life, love, and struggle in the first movement, human quest for the divine in the second movement, and finally, union with the divine.

The entire stage is used throughout the sixty-five minute performance, with the floor covered in large colorful projected images and art work from the snakes and ladders game by Nathan Christopher. All five dancers are placed in different squares and angles so they seem like parts of the game as they dance in their traditional elaborate costumes of red, gold and orange, with ankle bells. The space is particularly imaginatively used choreographically as the dancers moved across, up and down the board game with precision, visceral textures and rhythm. Musicians are also onstage throughout the performance on the left side of the space.

The foundation of this intricate style of dance integrates extended arms and legs, low sustained movement with deep knee bends, feet flexed to heel or flat, arms high and arched, extended gracefully, or at waist level folded at wrists with hands and curved fingers in lotus style variations. In between the ensemble dances Aparna Ramaswamy and Ranee Ramaswamy perform physical storytelling sequences about the spiritual journey with expressive mime gestures – always elegant and poetic – and a joy to watch.

Five outstanding musicians are led by Amir ElSaffar (trumpet, santur and vocal), who also performs an excellent jazzy trumpet solo. Preethy Mahesh performs most of the vocals telling the epic story, while Rohan Krishnamurthy, Arun Ramamurthy and Kasi Aysola play traditional instruments. A fascinating dance is when one of the musicians calls out directions very quickly in dialect singing in a type of chant as the dancers follow, changing pace and flow brilliantly, as if in a rapid fire conversation with the singer. The musical composition is created by ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy and the musical score is developed by ElSaffar, Aparna Ramaswamy, and Ranee Ramaswamy, with the musical ensemble.

A highlight and inspired concept is the stunning twenty to thirty foot high images of traditional and abstract motifs by artist, Keshav, projected on the back wall, slowly changing as the story progresses. Dramatic lighting design by Jeff Bartlett tightly focused on the dancers adds so much to the mood of this piece.

This production is a true delight! The piece builds to a dynamic and beautiful ending. Visually it’s gorgeous, dramatic, rich and warm – a feast of color, with fascinating dance and choreography, complemented by wonderful music.

Michigan Daily - Written in Water - Review

Ragamala Dance Company evokes a journey of self-discovery at the Power Center
Isabelle Hasslund, Michigan Daily
Monday, October 23, 2017
Original Article

The energy of the audience was bouncing off the walls at the Power Center for Performing Arts last Friday as audience members eagerly waited for the acclaimed Ragamala Dance Company. The curtain lifted and revealed an array of art forms, each coming together in a unique artistic masterpiece. The fanfare of visual arts, dance and music stunned the audience into an utter silence and focus. The entrancing beat of the mridangam, a type of Indian classical rhythmic instrument, combined with the soothing, earthy sounds of vocalists Preethy Mahesh and Amir ElSaff swept over the audience, soliciting a deep focus from every member.

The dancers glowed in their extravagant, traditional Indian costumes and jewelry. The images of the snakes-and-ladders board game projected on the stage transformed the dancers into plastic figures on a game board. The dynamic between playful upbeat projections and the serious grief of the performance, as portrayed through theatrics, allowed the audience to make the dance their own. Bharatanatyam, the South Indian dance performed by the company, is traditionally performed as a solo and a communication between the dancer and a deity.

Even though the ensemble performed as a group, their distinct inner dialogues and thoughts were projected onto the audience, and­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ each dancer was unique in their own journey of self-discovery. In one instance the mother and daughter duo, Aparna Ramaswamy and Ranee Ramaswamy, choreographed a memorable duet where the experience and heart wrenching grief of their movements were sharply contrasted with control and grace. Every subtle movement was purposeful, allowing the audience to find their own purpose through the the dancers.

The brilliant musical score, written by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy, was inflected with syncopated jazz rhythms that excited the mind and facilitated a deep journey into the inner depths of thought. Transitions between dance movements provided a time of reflection and meditation, as the vocal line submerged listeners with its drone-like, humming tones. Live music facilitated a dialogue between the musicians and the dancers that was incredible to behold. Every beat on the mridangam and every vocal line seemed to express the grief or ecstasy of the dancers, and the live music gave the choreography a human quality, especially in the highly rhythmic portions of the piece. The invigorating and crisp rhythmic vocalizations paired with the clear-cut movements of the dancers were intoxicating.  

One’s eye could never stay in one place for a long time. In addition to the snakes-and-ladders projections, a small screen hovered above the stage that projected the artwork of Keshav, who portrayed gods and goddesses of Hinduism through a modern lens. 

It was as much a journey of self-discovery for the artists as it was for the audience. Ashwini Ramaswamy, choreographic associate and dancer, said, “We move through different emotional states and states of being, and the audience will be on that emotional journey with us, as well.” 

The audience was right there with them. 


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 thecowlescenter.org.

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. Cowlescenter.org


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.