Song of the Jasmine


Mother and daughter pair jazz with Indian dance
Laura Molzahn, The Chicago Tribune
April 7, 2015
Original article

"We are partners in everything," says Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company with her mother, Ranee Ramaswamy. "We each have our own strengths, but everything we do comes from a dialogue."

Their collaboration began officially in 1992, when Ranee founded Ragamala, an innovative Minneapolis-based Indian dance company, and made her teenage daughter co-artistic director.

But they were working and studying together much earlier, says daughter Aparna, who believes their different personalities balance each other out: "My mother is high-energy, full of ideas, a broad thinker. I'm more deliberate: I like to go deep, so I'm more cautious. If we were in rehearsal and had an argument, she would storm out, and I'd be the one to ask her to come back, even at 8 or 10."

Over the years, Ragamala has leveraged that talent for collaboration in pieces that featured a flamenco dancer and opera music, for example. In 2013, with award-winning jazz composer-saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, the company began to create "Song of the Jasmine" (2014), which will have its Chicago debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art with five dancers, including Ranee, Aparna and younger daughter Ashwini.

Mahanthappa joins them onstage on sax, along with four other musicians playing electric guitar and Indian flute, percussion and violin.

Mahanthappa has studied traditional Indian Carnatic music, he says, but not in depth. The "Jasmine" score is jazz — with "big chunks" of improvisation built in. The choreographers have done the same, expanding the usual improvisations of Bharatanatyam.

Both Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music are rooted in Hindu religious poetry and take decades to master; both are revered, and carefully preserved, in Indian culture.

And what Ragamala performs is traditional Bharatanatyam, period. But collaborators have taken the company far afield in other ways. In 1991, Ranee set a piece to Robert Bly's translations of 16th-century Indian poet Mirabai.

"I was very scared," she says. "At that time, no one danced Indian dance to poems in English." So she added an Indian singer to the mix, "to justify what I was doing, so I was dancing to Indian words too."

Though Ranee studied Bharatanatyam from an early age, "I was only trained to be married," she says, "so I'd have an added qualification with Indian dance."

She stopped dancing when she wed, at 17, then took it up again after a lapse of several years. "I'm not a very assertive person," she says. "But I wanted to do that so badly that I choreographed myself from whatever I could remember."

Ranee started studying again, then taught, then began choreographing and performing. When Aparna was 8, mother and daughter took workshops at the University of Minnesota taught by renowned Indian dancer Alarmel Valli, venerated for her mastery of Pandanallur, one of three schools of Bharatanatyam.

"When we took that class," Ranee says, "Aparna was the one who absorbed everything. Valli said, 'You're like a computer!'" She became their guru, inviting Aparna and Ranee to train with her in India.

"From then on," Aparna says, "we went to India four months a year." Back home in Minnesota, the two toiled together to absorb Valli's teachings, knowing that she wouldn't take them back if they returned and had regressed.

"We would work tirelessly, every day," says Aparna. "We were correcting each other, working together. Then, when we went back (to India), it was a very vigorous study, 10 hours a day, every day."

In "Jasmine," Aparna wanted to collaborate with Mahanthappa on a thematic level.

"My mother and I wanted to work with the idea of the sacred and the sensual, something that's very clear to me in jazz and Indian music," says Aparna. "There's no separation between the two."

As their text, they chose "Sacred Sayings of the Goddess," a poem of 143 verses by 10th-century female mystic Andal, whose longing to unite with Lord Vishnu has struck some conservative Hindus as overly erotic.

But no verses are heard or embodied in "Jasmine." Instead, mother and daughter chose just a few lines of poetry to "inspire the work," Aparna says. "There's no spoken text, no sung lyric. The ideas are brought out, in five sections, in the music and dance."

Mahanthappa says the challenge was to "conjure this emotion and imagery with wordless melody and choreography." That's "a big deal, a big stretch," he adds, in the universe of Indian music and dance.


Song of the Jasmine divinely blends movements with South Indian melodies
Celia Wren, The Washington Post
January 30, 2015
Original article

Like a lover yearning for her beloved, the human soul longs to unite with the divine. That idea comes into play in “Song of the Jasmine,” the bharatanatyam dance work scheduled to visit the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Feb. 7.

Choreographed by Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy of the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company, in collaboration with saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, the piece takes inspiration from the writings of the Tamil mystic poet Andal, known for her devotion to the god Krishna.

“In Andal’s poetry, and in bharatanatyam — and on a much deeper level as part of the Indian psyche — the sensual and the sacred are one. There doesn’t have to be a disconnect between those two concepts,” Aparna Ramaswamy said, speaking by phone from Minneapolis.

Aparna and her mother, Ranee, are co-artistic directors of Ragamala Dance, which Ranee founded in 1992. Both women were born in India; both have trained with Alarmél Valli, a celebrated performer and choreographer in the Indian classical dance form of bharatanatyam.

Mother and daughter are among the five dancers who interpret “Song of the Jasmine,” a roughly hour-long work set to music inflected with jazz and South Indian music. (Ashwini Ramaswamy, Aparna’s sister, is also among the dancers.) In a version of the piece performed at New York’s Lincoln Center last year, the dancers drew on bharatanatyam’s physical vocabulary in ways that seemed now seductive, now jaunty, now rapt.

One side of the stage featured the five-person band, including composer Mahanthappa on alto saxophone. Other instrumentalists played the guitar, the mridangam (a two-sided hand drum), the Carnatic (or southern Indian) flute and violin. (The band will also perform live at the Feb. 7 performance.)

“Song of the Jasmine” began to bloom after the Ramaswamys attended a concert by Mahanthappa, who is known for fusing elements of South Indian music with jazz. Aparna Ramaswamy says she immediately connected with the musician’s sound.

She resolved to come up with a project that would involve the composer-saxophonist. Discussions about such a collaboration intensified in 2011, when Ragamala Dance performers and Mahanthappa were among the artists participating in the Kennedy Center’s Maximum India festival.

Eventually, the Ramaswamys proposed building a joint venture around the poetry of Andal, who lived in the 8th century or thereabouts. In India, Andal is “a household name,” Ranee said.

Ranee was raised in India. Aparna grew up primarily in the United States, but she spent a few months in India every year, and was familiar with Andal’s legacy. Mahanthappa, raised in Colorado, didn’t know Andal’s writing, but he found the source material fruitful. The Ramaswamys “would send me pages and pages of poetry and their thoughts about the direction of the piece,” he recalled, speaking by phone from his base in Montclair, N.J. Often, he “would latch on to two or three lines [of verse], and that would be the big inspiration for the musical narrative.”

Early on, the collaborators agreed on the instruments that would supply the accompaniment. Subsequently, the music and choreography fell into place roughly simultaneously: The Ramaswamys and Mahanthappa typically drafted sketches on their own, but then, in regular joint workshopping sessions, they significantly revised those drafts.

Mahanthappa, who had never collaborated with dancers previously, found the process exciting. “Dancers hear music differently,” he observes. The dancers’ needs, and the specifics of the ensemble, led him to an approach in which “it’s melody and rhythm that are the guiding forces, and not necessarily Western ideas of harmony and chord progression.”

Eventually the piece grew to encompass several sections based on different ragas (a raga is an Indian musical concept somewhat akin to a scale) and rhythmic structures.

As South Indian dancers, “it’s important that we have a raga-based music. It pushes the spirituality of the work,” says Ranee, whose credits include being appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Arts.

Both score and choreography would ultimately include sections of improvisation, including sequences where the musicians and dancers are essentially reacting to each other.

“That was one of the intentions when we created the piece, to have that freedom on the stage between music and dance, and to really underscore that relationship,” says Aparna.

Co-commissioned by the Clarice Smith and other entities, “Song of the Jasmine” premiered last year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The collaboration with Mahanthappa was a new line of inquiry for Ragamala Dance, but the mystical motifs that surface in “Song of the Jasmine” speak to the company’s broader interests, Aparna Ramaswamy says.

“Dance and music evoke the feeling of transcendence and spirituality,” she says. “I’m very interested in weaving that thread through any work that we do."


Sacred Music and Movement, With an Infectious Beat
Siobhan Burke, The New York Times
August 8, 2014
Original article


You don’t generally go to a performance of Bharatanatyam, the classical South Indian dance style, expecting to want to get up and dance. The form inspires a more removed kind of reverence, as something to be admired from afar, like a sacred object.

But on Thursday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Ragamala Dance, a Bharatanatyam company from Minneapolis, upended that expectation with the New York premiere of “Song of the Jasmine,” a soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious collaboration with the superb jazz composer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. It was the main event on an otherwise tepid program shared with the Chinese American Arts Council and Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, a group based in Philadelphia.

Mr. Mahanthappa and the artistic directors of Ragamala, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy — they are mother and daughter, as well as the troupe’s principal dancers — approach their art forms with a similar eye (or ear) toward blending old and new. Mr. Mahanthappa’s composition, played live, oscillated between warbling, wailing improvisations and tightly structured rhythmic cycles for alto sax, guitar, mridangam (two-sided hand drum) and Carnatic flute and violin.

The meeting of jazz and South Indian Carnatic traditions was startlingly seamless and marvelously danceable in the hands of the Ramaswamys, who choreographed “Song of the Jasmine” for themselves and three other dancers, Ashwini Ramaswamy (Aparna’s sister), Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala.

A program note elaborated on their inspiration: the eighth-century musings of the Tamil poet Andal, known for her expressions of “deep longing” and “the desire to merge the soul with the Supreme Consciousness.” Vague though that may be, it captures the emotional landscape of “Jasmine,” where every gesture radiates joy or generosity or a sense of striving toward some higher form of being.

Those gestures ranged from bold, daggerlike strokes of the arms, shooting out from the chest, to a fragile, quivering lexicon of the hands that suggested stitching, caressing, planting, gathering and other tender actions. At one point, resolving from appealingly asymmetrical arrangements into a more cohesive group, the five women performed a kind of sewing motion to all four corners of the stage, as if mending the space in front of them.

Though the sightlines at the Damrosch Park Bandshell often masked their pattering feet and bell-clad ankles — a persistent shortcoming of that stage — the specificity of their painted hands, particularly Aparna Ramaswamy’s, was breathtaking.


Ragamala Dance gets jazzed in new dance collaboration
Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune
May 16, 2014
Original article

Ragamala Dance, led by the mother-daughter team of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, never has shied away from exploring new ways to perform the ancient Indian dance form of bharatanatyam. “Song of the Jasmine,” which premiered Thursday night at Walker Art Center, may be their most audacious experiment to date.

Created in collaboration with composer Rudresh Mahan­thappa, an alto saxophone player who combines progressive jazz with South Indian classical music, the work challenges us to re-imagine the role of tradition in the 21st century. It’s disorienting when the stately dancers first encounter the lively circular rhythms generated by Mahanthappa and his ensemble. The internal pulses of each form seem incompatible.

But this initial uncertainty makes sense — sometimes we need a moment to adjust expectations away from the familiar to something groundbreaking. That’s when the magic of “Song of the Jasmine” reveals itself — the relationship between the music and dance in this work is not only meant to be, it exemplifies what happens when artistic boundaries (real or artificial) are radically tested, if not knocked down all together.

“Song of the Jasmine” draws inspiration from the writings of eighth-century Tamil poet Andal. Her words of longing for the god Vishnu are intimate and sensual, and those are the feelings Mahanthappa summons in his composition. Joined onstage by Rez Abbasi (guitar), Raman Kalyan (Carnatic flute), Anjna Swaminathan (Carnatic violin) and Rajna Swaminathan (drum), Maranthappa leads his tight ensemble on a musical journey of joy, bliss and contemplation.

The dancers respond in kind by staying true to the storytelling gestures of bharatanatyam while simultaneously adjusting their technique to reflect a different sort of spiritual longing.

Aparna Ramaswamy is particularly effective in this role, her vibrant movements lingering just a bit longer than usual, her fluid arms arcing through space as if playing an invisible instrument. In one section, Aparna, Ranee and Ashwini Ramaswamy slowly shift from one pose to another, their facial expressions transitioning between emotions with languid ease.

The set features dozens of hanging bells, but they are rarely rung. When one is struck, the clarity of its tone serves as a reminder of how deeply human beings respond to rhythms, both old and new. “Song of the Jasmine” pays homage to this universal truth.


Classical Indian dance meets jazz in Ragamala's 'Song of the Jasmine'
Pamela Espeland, Star Tribune
May 13, 2014
Original article


The ancient, codified forms of Indian classical dance. The in-the-moment, unpredictable sounds of modern jazz. What could they possibly say to each other?

So much that “Song of the Jasmine,” a new collaboration between Minneapolis’ Ragamala Dance and New York-based jazz saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, could be one of the year’s must-see performing arts events.

Co-commissioned by four arts organizations including Walker Art Center, “Song of the Jasmine” has been booked for an 11-city national tour starting in August, without anyone having seen it all the way through. We’ll be first when the evening-length work has its world premiere in the Walker’s McGuire Theater, Thursday through Sunday.

The seeds were sown in 2007, when the Walker presented Mahanthappa’s world jazz group Kinsmen. Ragamala’s Aparna Rama­swamy was in the audience and liked what she heard, and the way Mahanthappa brought Indian ragas and instrumentation into his music. Both are second-generation Indian-Americans, and she thought it would be interesting to work with him.

Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither offered to help. He was a fan of Mahan­thappa and had history with Ragamala.

“Many years of working with Ragamala on various projects, all of which involved some kind of collaboration, gave me utter faith they would find their way on this one,” Bither said. He was clear about the relationship between the two creative sides: “They’re equals and were commissioned as equals.”

Right there is one reason this collaboration could have been a mess. Dancers perform to music, but the music is there to support the dance. Both Ragamala — Aparna and her mother, Ranee, co-artistic directors and choreographers — and Mahanthappa wanted to move their own art forward, not simply get along.

“What we didn’t want was a shallow cross-cultural collaboration,” Aparna explained. “We are all artists who have created a lot of work with great depth. We didn’t want to meet on easy ground.”

Early on, they had to confront the question of which would come first, the music or the dance. “We wanted both to happen simultaneously,” Mahanthappa said. “It doesn’t usually work that way. It’s one or the other.”

He had never composed for choreographers; Ragamala had never danced to jazz, which includes an element foreign to most dancers: improvisation.

“Dances are generally not improvised,” Mahanthappa said. “This project is a big push in that direction for Ragamala, something they wanted to explore.”

Aparna and Ranee began working on the choreography, Mahanthappa on the music. Both sides sent MIDI files, videos and e-mails back and forth, and there were many late-night texts and conversations. Starting last December, everyone convened for three intense periods of multiple rehearsals at Ragamala’s south Minneapolis studio. Final rehearsals started last week at the Walker.

The musicians — Mahanthappa and jazz guitarist Rez Abassi, Raman Kalyan on South Indian flute, violinist Anjna Swaminathan and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam (South Indian drum) — all live on the East Coast and have flown in from New York, Baltimore, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

At an early rehearsal in December, some of the music had been composed and parts of the dance choreographed. Things were loose and tentative, with frequent stops and starts as the musicians and dancers negotiated tempos and transitions. The dancers’ bare feet slapped the floor and Mahanthappa’s alto saxophone soared in a fiery, instantly memorable melody.

“It’s going to be different every time,” Ranee explained during a break. “We’re getting to know each other.”

In fact, each performance will be different from night to night, and from venue to venue as Ragamala and Mahanthappa go on tour, because improvisation is part of the dance as well as the music. At a rehearsal in mid-April, there were long passages of crisply choreographed and executed group movements, and parts where the dancers moved independently while staying aware of and responsive to one another. That’s improvisation.

“Song of the Jasmine” is guided by the poems of sixth-century Tamil Bhakti poet Andal, a woman who wrote about desire so strong that illusion seems real, and the agony and ecstasy of longing to unite with the divine.

“Those emotions are what we are painting on the stage,” Aparna said.

Jazz is music that communicates and evokes emotions, and Mahanthappa wanted joy to be first. “It’s not in the dance tradition to start with a bang,” he said. “Usually it starts slowly and amps up. In my music, my sensibility, 99.9 percent of the time my set starts with a bang. I wanted to bring that element in. They [Ragamala] were game for it.” And so “Song of the Jasmine” begins in a blaze of joy, shimmering blue silk and 80 suspended bronze bells.

Aparna describes the collaboration as “a wonderful process. … You never know until you jump in. What I found is that we can stay true to so many of the elements of our form, our aesthetic, and the creative process that satisfies our souls, but also employ all of these new strategies for creativity.”

For Mahanthappa, “this whole project has been really inspiring. It has cracked open my sense of how music is placed in the world. It has changed the way I see how music can be used, conveyed and interpreted.

“What [Ragamala] is doing rhythmically as choreographers is astounding. Their sense of rhythm with their feet is as good as any drummer. It makes me think of Max Roach and Jack DeJohnette. … It makes me want to play.”