Ragamala Dance Company's WRITTEN IN WATER at the Kennedy Center
Sam Abney, Broadway World
Nov 3, 2018
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.