Mesmerizing Indian dance launches musical weekend
Kati Schardl, Tallahassee Democrat
October 6, 2015
Grounded in the ancient Indian texts called the vedas, the classical South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam was once the exclusive province of the gods, particularly Shiva, the Lord of the Dance. Thousands of years ago, it came down to earth and was gifted to humankind when the sage Bharata wrote his great treatise on Indian music, drama and dance.
Bharatanatyam is considered the embodiment of the eternal cosmic dance, and dancers who devote themselves to the art approach performance with an attitude of reverence and ritual.
The universal became personal when Ragamala Dance Company performed the world premiere of “Written in Water,” a work co-commissioned by Opening Nights Performing Arts, Wednesday night at the Nancy Smith Fichter Dance Theatre.
One didn’t need to know the specific narrative arc of the story being told onstage to get swept up in its drama. The work’s power and the company’s artistry created a lexicon of sound, vision and movement that allowed each audience member to project their own story onto the stage.
The piece is based on the ancient Indian board game of Snakes and Ladders, which served as a metaphor for the tension between earthly longing and divine ecstasy. The five dancers of the company — troupe founder Ranee Ramaswamy and daughters Aparna and Ashwini, with Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala — performed on a stage ornamented by projections of original paintings by the Chennai-based artist Keshav, to music composed by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy. ElSaffar also led the superb musical ensemble on santur, trumpet and vocals.
A minor lighting glitch at the beginning halted the performance but once it was sorted and the dance began in earnest, “Written in Water” unfolded like a dream — a feast for the eyes, ears and heart. Tightly choreographed ensemble passages flowed into improvisational movements that gave each dancer a chance to add her personal vocabulary of gesture and motion to the overall narrative.
In an ensemble performing a form as defined as Bharatanatyam, the individual blends into the whole with synchronized movements and beautifully expressive gestures. But Aparna Ramaswamy in particular riveted the eye and stirred the heart with steps and gestures that were by turn assertive and exquisitely delicate. With sinuous waves of her hands, she embodied the naga, or serpent, of the game, or summoned the motion of water; with lovely fluttering fingers, open arms and a radiantly expressive face, she was the essence of jubilance and gratitude.
The musical ensemble’s seamless mind meld with the dancers sealed the spell cast by “Written in Water.” ElSaffar’s vocals wove in and around those of singer Preethy Mahesh, whose warm, emotive voice was mesmerizing — she anchored the sound with her pure, limber alto tone.
It was coincidence that this wonderful new work was performed in the middle of the nine-day celebration of Navaratri, one of the most significant festivals on the Hindu devotional calendar. It honors the divine feminine in the form of the goddess Durga and her avatars. As Ranee Ramaswamy said in a Q&A session following the performance, when you practice an art such as Bharatanatyam, every day is Navaratri — a spiritual celebration illuminating a secular world.