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.