For All Events - 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.