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."