They Rose at Dawn


Review: Downtown Performing Arts Series get South Indian flavor with Ragamala Dance Company

Original Article

Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company, brought her mesmerizing evening-length solo work, "They Rose at Dawn" to the Miller Center for the Arts Friday evening as part of Reading Area Community College's Downtown Performing Arts Series.

Ramaswamy uses the vocabulary of the ancient and highly refined South Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam - which originated in Hindu temples - to explore contemporary issues, both sacred and secular.

Performed without an intermission, "They Rose at Dawn" explores various aspects of being a woman in four sections. Using ancient and modern poetic texts and original musical compositions, the piece is a perfect confluence of past and present, music and dance.

For the musical portion, Ramaswamy brought four musicians: C.K. Vasudevan, the nattuvanar, who plays the small cymbals and keeps everyone together with the dancer; vocalist Preethy Mahesh; Sakthivel Muruganantham on the mridangam (double-headed drum); and Carnatic violinist Anjna Swaminathan.

In their instrumental prelude to the first section, "Om Kara Karini," which focused on the various attributes of the goddess Devi, the musicians (the first three from India) proved to be consummate artists. Mahesh, particularly, used her warm, generous voice to pour out streams of intricately ornamented lines and a variety of timbres.

Swaminathan, in her solos, produced yearning, insinuating tones, always expressive and as fluent as Ramaswamy's arms.

Pulled onto the stage by the violin, Ramaswamy, in an exquisite violet traditional costume, projected images of Devi, the creator and destroyer, who maintains equilibrium in the world. The dancer's precise, clear rhythms and fluid arms, her radiant presence and energy, gave thrilling life to the ultimate female.

She is a strong, fierce dancer, whose feet never stopped moving, and whose every body part stayed fully engaged with the music, down to the last finger and toe. The final image of this section was the child's pose, utterly tranquil.

The music for this part was composed by the renowned South Indian vocalist and composer M. Balamuralikrishna, now 86.

In "Varnam," the longest piece on the program, with choreography by Alarmel Valli, her dance guru, Ramaswamy delved far into the longing of a woman for her lover, and of a devotee for the spiritual. In this work, Vasudevan added impressive percussive vocals. The work was set to a composition by the Tanjavur Quartet, a 19th-century ensemble of brothers.

A beautiful violin and mridangam duet provided a brief interlude, and then Ramaswamy danced "Two Scenes from the Mullai Tinai," based on ancient Tamil poems, full of kneeling postures and images of walking through a forest. Ragamala commissioned the music from vocalist/composer Prema Ramamurthy.

She finished with "Nalinakanthi," a happy, vigorous dance, performed with incredible energy after everything that went on previously. The music was another commission from Ramamurthy, with collaboration from Ramaswamy, Vinod Krishnan and Swaminathan.

It was a thrilling evening for anyone who loves South Indian music and dance, and a wonderful introduction for first-timers.


Indian dance performance conveys beauty through mastery of technique
Sheila Regan, Star Tribune
February 21, 2016
Original article

Aparna Ramaswamy has spent a lifetime devoted to the perfection of Bharatanatyam, an ancient South Indian dance form. Tapped at a young age to become the protégé of master choreographer and soloist Alarmél Valli, Ramaswamy has split her time between Minneapolis and India, deepening her knowledge of Bharatanatyam while nurturing her own voice as a dancemaker and performer.

With "They Rose at Dawn," an evening-length solo performance presented over the weekend by Ragamala Dance Company at the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts in Minneapolis, Ramaswamy soared as a soloist in her prime of life, channeling her deep understanding of technique in a captivating performance.

Even in the tiniest movement, Ramaswamy's whole body was engaged. A flick of her finger corresponded completely with what happened with her neck, her stomach or toe, and this was true for every single moment of the evening. Never did Ramaswamy lose her complete focus and control.

At the same time, she showed a mastery of shifting rhythms. With her feet acting as a percussion, Ramaswamy used her body as an instrument in harmony with the four musicians on stage. One moment she'd be articulating her wrists in quick small swirls and then suddenly she'd break out into large, sweeping gestures in a kind of attack.

While she was the sole dancer on stage, Ramaswamy was not alone.

Performing with her were four musicians, including Ranee Ramaswamy, the soloist's mother, with whom she co-founded Ragamala. Playing the nattuvangam, a percussive instrument, Ranee Ramaswamy occasionally did vocals, showcasing her deep, articulate voice, which sounded a bit like scatting in the jazz tradition, fast and urgent. Vinod Krishnan, the main vocalist, propelled the complicated score forward, along with Rajna Swaminathan on the mridangam (another percussive instrument) and Anjna Swaminathan on the violin.

"They Rose at Dawn" drew on spiritual themes, with a particular focus on the feminine as a vessel through which to reach the divine.

Stylistically, the feminine was presentational, meticulously sculpted and shaped. Emotions, too, were curated, refined and demonstrated.

Ramaswamy's work moved not away but toward tradition, allowing the technique to stir the audience. Breathing new life into a centuries-old form, "They Rose at Dawn" evoked a spirituality and emotion that comes through rhythm, shape and precision, which ultimately transfixed the audience.


Twin Cities dancer Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala steps into a new 'Dawn' as solo artist
Rohan Preston, Star Tribune
February 18, 2016
Original article

On a recent bright, cold morning, dancer Aparna Ramaswamy stepped into her company’s airy studio on Lake Street in south Minneapolis. As she rehearsed “They Rose at Dawn,” her most important solo show to date, she filled the room with power and energy.

Her face had the serenity of Mona Lisa, while her feet, decked with ankle bells, laid down a volley of stomps. Her mother, accompanying her on percussion, struggled to keep up. “Aparna keeps going faster and faster,” Ranee Ramaswamy said.

Chalk it up to confidence and passion, traits that have won Aparna Ramaswamy admirers across the country.

Minnesota fans finally will get to see “Dawn” on Friday and Saturday at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis. The show made audiences and critics swoon when it premiered in New York City in October, with the New York Times gushing over her “impeccable technique and incandescent beauty.”

For most of her life, Aparna Ramaswamy, 40, and her mother have been artistic partners. They are co-artistic directors of Ragamala Dance Company, which has become the nation’s leading purveyor of Bharatanatyam dance, the millennia-old Indian style that has the same roots as yoga.

But with “Dawn,” her first full-length solo show in three years, Ramaswamy is stepping out and owning the spotlight.

“This is part of my evolution as an artist,” she said. “Every step to me is a challenge and a responsibility. And as someone who takes everything very seriously, this is a major step.”

“They Rose at Dawn” is anchored in Bharatanatyam’s ancient themes of humans seeking to connect with the divine.

The dance form arose in ancient Tamil temples and was often paired with poetry and music to celebrate beauty and fire. Over the centuries it developed a set of gestures and a movement vocabulary that Ramaswamy and her family — including younger sister Ashwini — express with lyrical authority onstage.

“Dawn” celebrates female energy and force, said Aparna Ramaswamy, who did most of the choreography. “I was interested in exploring ideas of cultural transmission, and how women carry our rituals and culture.”

The opening section pays homage to the feminine in a divine state. Ramaswamy depicts Devi, the beautiful, fearsome and benevolent Hindu goddess who takes many forms. “She embodies the intimate and the infinite.”

That is followed by a “Varnam,” a type of Bharatanatyam dance done in tribute to Ramaswamy’s teacher, Alarmel Valli, who choreographed the piece. Ramaswamy has been studying with her since she was 8.

Next up is “Two Scenes From the Mullai Tinai,” a nature-set piece with poetry that includes themes of motherhood. “Dawn” ends with a joyous finale.

Ramaswamy, known for her technique, precision and commanding rhythm, said that whatever praise accrues to her belongs to the dance itself, which can transform a person’s mood.

“Really, Bharatanatyam is form that gives joy, that gives you release,” she said as sweat dripped through her makeup following a rehearsal. “I might be having a bad day, but as soon as I start [dancing], it transforms my moods, my feeling.

“People don’t have to know what any of the gestures mean as long as they can feel what we’re feeling,” she said. “Sure, they can read about it in the program, but that’s not necessary for them to understand a mother’s joy.”

The mother of twin boys (age 6), Ramaswamy has done full-length solo shows before, including “Sannidhi (Sacred Space),” which she took to New York in 2013. What’s new about “Dawn” is that it gives her more of a chance to interpret the form in a contemporary way.

In essence, “Dawn,” which she will take on a 12-city national tour after the Twin Cities (and to Hawaii next winter), extends the Ramaswamy brand.

A different vision

When Ranee Ramaswamy started Ragamala 23 years ago, she saw it as a way to root herself in a tradition with a storied history and to give her daughters a sense of cultural connection. Neither the dance company, nor much of her life, fit with what was expected of her.

“My father was a medical doctor, but he visited a seer who saw different things for my future — a different profession, a son and a daughter instead of my two beautiful girls,” she said. “Oh, well.”

She raised her daughters differently, giving them the space to explore and to become what they wished.

Aparna took to Bharatanatyam immediately. Ashwini branched out on her own, including working as a publicist in New York for five years. But she’s returned to the fold, and fiercely, winning critical praise of her own. (She will have her own solo show this year.)

One aspect of Ranee Ramaswamy’s upbringing that has stayed with her is a tireless work ethic that has reaped rewards. Ragamala, which recently performed in India and Dubai, has become the nation’s foremost Bharatanatyam company. She was appointed by the president to sit on the National Council on the Arts.

Her example has influenced her children. Aparna Ramaswamy is known to rehearse as early as 7 a.m. (“They Rose at Dawn,” for real.)

Being global means the company isn’t home much. Yet “everything we do springs from here,” Aparna Ramaswamy said. “We feel lucky to be able to bring things to this place where we have all our support systems, where we have been able to grow, develop and expand.”

In other words, the show is a metaphor for the company’s new day.


Ragamala will be dancing to a new beat in NYU Abu Dhabi performance

Rob Garratt, The National (UAE)
October 13, 2015
Original article

Last week, Ragamala Dance, a United States-based traditional Indian ensemble, debuted a new work, They Rose at Dawn, over three nights at New York’s Joyce Theatre. Tonight, they will perform the piece at NYU Abu Dhabi.

When the campus arts centre launched its inaugural programme last month, it promised to shake-up the emirate’s cultural scene – and Ragamala’s appearance so soon after the premiere is perhaps the most concrete proof yet of how quickly it has succeeded.

They Rose at Dawn is a solo work performed and choreographed by Aparna Ramaswamy – Ragamala’s co-artistic director alongside her mother, Ranee – which attracted a glowing write-up in The New York Times.

“I’m happy that this show has a continued life here in Abu Dhabi,” says Ramaswamy, who arrived in the UAE on Sunday morning.

“Over the three performances I was able to change things each night, and it feels like it’s going to be the same here. With five performances in a row, there’s so much room for improvisation.”

The result of six months of development, They Rose at Dawn is a 70-minute suite of four pieces set to a specially commissioned musical score.

This music, performed by a traditional four-piece Carnatic ensemble, made up of violin, mridangam (two-sided hand drum), nattuvangam (cymbals) and vocals, offers the building blocks for Ramaswamy’s hypnotic, virtuoso performance.

Ragamala is among the best-known proponents of the classical Bharatanatyam style, a South Indian dance form which dates back 2,000 years, revived in last century, but the company’s work is equally influenced by Ramaswamy’s diaspora experience of growing up in India and the US.

“The dance form we use is a language, it has a technique and aesthetic. It’s beautiful and we stay true to that,” she says. “But when you create with original ideas, this is where the contemporary comes in. The dance is contemporary because we are all living practitioners.”

Ramaswamy’s choreography sees her inhabit different female characters, offering a meditation on the role of women as “carriers of ritual and culture” and “the primordial source of all creation”.

The opening piece is a homage to the goddess Devi, in both “her ferocious form as a destroyer of evil” and as “a divine mother”. The second is a “metaphor for human love and living”, and the interim of “sacred and sensual”. Another piece probes at “the harmony that exists between humanity and nature.”

But despite all these ideals and inspirations, Ramaswamy is keen for her work to appeal beyond the academic and cerebral.

“It’s very important that the audience doesn’t see this as a museum piece or something ancient,” she says.

“It’s a holistic experience, it’s the whole body. It’s not just an art form, it’s something we can all feel. It’s important for people to lose themselves in it.

“In this age people want to make sense of everything. But dance is something that can be deep and spiritual, you don’t have to understand every movement to appreciate it.”

The 11 members of Ragamala Dance will be in Abu Dhabi for two weeks.

In addition to the two public performances, the company’s schedule includes panel discussions, masterclasses and community dinners. Ramaswamy will also use the residence as an opportunity to continue development on of ambitious new conceptual work, of which NYUAD is the lead commissioner. Written in Water is based on Mokshapat, the ancient Indian board game from which Snakes and Ladders was derived.

In this original form – widely dated to the 13th century – instead of reptiles and rungs, it is vices and virtues that decide a player’s ascent or descent on the board. Ramaswamy’s concept is to represent this sense of causality and luck in a semi-improvised dance performance, which would see performers traverse a life-size game onstage, with different musical and dance routines associated with each square of the board.

“The dancers become the players,” she says. “The whole thing is about chance. About realising the different stages in your life.”

The company has brought 100 of the boardgames to Abu Dhabi, and NYUAD students are encouraged to contribute to the creative process by playing and offering inspiration and insight.

By the end of their two-week stay, the team hopes to have finished a 15-minute segment of Written in Water, which will have its premiere in New York in January. A finished 70-minute piece will be developed next year. Given the project’s lengthy gestation period in Abu Dhabi, we can expect to see Ragamala return to these shores with the new show in the near future.


BWW Review: Aparna Ramaswamy at The Joyce Theater

Jessica Abejar, Broadway World
October 8th, 2015
Full article

This week The Joyce Theater is presenting two unique premieres. The first is Aparna Ramaswamy's They Rose at Dawn. Accompanied by a live musical ensemble, this gifted Bharatanatyam dancer graced the stage with such vibrancy, energy, and light, leading the audience to become part of a beautiful experience.

Bharatanatyam is an ancient Indian art that intertwines music, poetry, theater, and dance. This art form began in the ancient temples of Tamil Nadu, in southern India, and has survived for thousands of years, thanks to its relevance in exploring and understanding the mind, body, and spirit. Here in New York, Aparna Ramaswamy, co-director of Ragamala Dance Company (a position she shares with her mother), introduces audiences to this art in a most spectacular way.

The live musicians, visible on the side of the stage, set the tone and infuse The Joyce Theater with an enchanting melody. Aparna sets herself onstage for the solo evening performance. With four distinct pieces, a musical interlude, and poetry, it was an evening of non-stop entertainment, but also an evening of love, peace, and deeper meaning.

Her first piece Om Kara Karini was a great introduction to the physical vocabulary of Bharatanatyam. Similar movements would be present throughout the entire evening, which featured greatly the articulation of fingers, hands, feet, and toes, foot stamps accentuated by the bells around her ankles, and excellent facial expressions. The other pieces would touch on themes of family, nature, and celebration of life, but all displayed one thing - Aparna's outstanding gift and devotion to this magnificent art form.

A standout piece was Varnam, based on a love poem with a dual meaning. It was the longest of the four pieces and was a marathon of movement and drama. Aparna's theatrical performance was sprinkled with moments of flirtation, displays of fervent love, and true devotion, expressing the poem's duality of spirituality and sensuality. The dance included a wide variety of dynamic movements from subtle neck isolations to grandiose sequences of pure rhythmic footwork. With particular strengths in spatial awareness and musicality, Aparna's flawless lines seemed to create a pattern of poses that hit each beat perfectly. The angle and extension of her arms and limbs and the depth and placement of her bent legs created stunning pictures. Her fury of footwork was so synchronized to the music that the bells on her ankles seemed like they had always been part of the ensemble. As she repeated a few dance phrases, each was done with the same intensity and energy that each phrase seemed new.

Amid Aparna's technical abilities and her impressive stamina were a true delight for her own work. She had true dedication and commitment to her work, and paired with her energy and enthusiasm, she radiated throughout the evening. She also had an undeniable sense of living in the present moment and brought the audience members in with her. It was a truly wonderful evening that introduced audiences to the beauty and depth of Bharatanatyam.


Review: Aparna Ramaswamy, Solo and Symbiotic at the Joyce

Siobhan Burke, The New York Times
October 7th, 2015
Original article

Aparna Ramaswamy is a founder, director and standout member of Ragamala Dance Company, a Minneapolis troupe specializing in contemporary interpretations of Bharatanatyam, the classical dance form of southern India. Watching this ensemble, the eye often goes straight to Ms. Ramaswamy’s impeccable technique and incandescent beauty. Even when surrounded by others, she could be the only dancer onstage.

In “They Rose at Dawn,” she shares those gifts as a soloist, though she’s not alone. This four-part suite, which had its world premiere at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, pairs Ms. Ramaswamy with a live Carnatic music ensemble, whose five members — on flute, violin, mridangam (two-sided hand drum), nattuvangam (cymbals) and vocals — fill the space with music as lusciously as she does with movement, in such a way that the two seem inseparable, entirely symbiotic. (The original score is by Prema Ramamurthy, and the choreography primarily by Ms. Ramaswamy.)

“They Rose at Dawn,” Ms. Ramaswamy’s Joyce debut, is in some ways a radical programming choice for the theater, a departure from its often highly produced fare: just the essentials, no bells or whistles, except for the actual bells on Ms. Ramaswamy’s ankles, a traditional accessory that turns floor-slapping footwork into jingling percussion. She performs against a black backdrop for the full 75 minutes and wears a single costume of red and gold silk. The musicians, facing her, sit on one side of the stage, leaving the other open for her entrances and exits. The only superfluous element is an expository voice-over that swoops in between sections and tells us what to see. Why not let the dancing speak for itself?

Ms. Ramaswamy has a specific if sweeping theme in mind: women as “carriers of ritual and culture” and “the primordial source of all creation,” according to the program notes. She enters with a handful of flower petals and deposits them reverently at the front of the stage. At different points, she could be a warrior, mother or goddess, a yearning lover or protective leader.

More fascinating than these character portrayals, which at times seem too consciously layered on, like masks, rather than viscerally felt, is her physicality in itself: the sharpness of her hands as they burst into lotus-like shapes, the spring of her jump, the subtle bobbling of her head atop an otherwise still body. Through her dancing, the music’s textures come into view, from the crispness of the flute and heft of the drum to the peace of near silence.


Review in "Performing Arts: Dance - Aparna Ramaswamy"
Deirdre Tower,
October 7, 2015

In her NY debut at The Joyce Theatre, Aparna Ramaswamy’s fingers shimmy, beckon, beseech, and demand with as much expression as her eyes. Her heels flex as she lightly hops, and lunge with her arms making parallel lines with her legs. Wearing one orange and gold costume throughout, Ramaswamy appears to be inexhaustible, an elegant blaze of energy, capable of throwing her focus with equal intensity to the magnetic poles.

In a preview article on web magazine The Dance Enthusiast, Ramaswamy shares that, ”You must see the music and hear the dance.” In They Rose at Dawn, a world premiere, she makes her dance be the embodiment of power and strength. She dances in complete synchronicity with her musical ensemble led by Preethy Mahesh (vocals), C.K. Vasudevan (nattuvangam), Sakthiveal Muruganatham (mridangam), Sruthi Sagar (flute), Anjna Swaminathan (violin). That musical/dance alignment is so consistent that one might wonder whether any divergence is frowned upon?

In Varnan, which means colour, Ramaswamy softened her presence, and her phrasing lengthened. Alarmed Valli, her teacher and the choreographer for this dance, is quoted in the program as saying “the two most important aspects of Bharatanatyam - Nritta (abstract dance) and Abhinaya (dance theatre) are women into a unique dance tapestry.”


Ramaswamy has devoted her life to mastering the intricacies of this 2,000 year old South Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam, with her mother Ranee and in India, where she was born. The Ramaswamy mother-daughter team direct Ragamala Dance Company in Minneapolis with devotion to the traditions, as well as awareness of the tensions between the “ancestral and the contemporary.” 


Aparna Ramaswamy, Living and Breathing The Stories of the Gods
Trina Mannino, The Dance Enthusiast
October 2, 2015
Original article

Tromping through the mud, eating candy till your stomach hurts and getting into mischievous fun are childhood memories for many of us. Classical Indian dancer and choreographer Aparna Ramaswamy, by contrast, was “adult-like” since she could remember. By the time she was eight, she was studying several hours a day, splitting time between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chennai, India where she trained with legendary Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher, Alarmél Valli. This rigorous schedule was not thrust upon her, rather it was a discipline that Aparna fiercely desired.

The upcoming world premiere, They Rose at Dawn, at The Joyce Theater marks the fruition of Ramaswamy’s years of study, fastidious nature and strong familial influence. Like many creatives of her ilk, there is no line dividing between her artistic and personal life. Dancing is a family affair. “I started from the beginning with her,” says Aparna’s mother, Ranee Ramaswamy, referring to their side-by-side training with Valli.

Today the mother and daughter team co-direct the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company. “In our creative partnership,” says Ranee. “I bring a familiarity of languages, cultures and rituals from India as well as candid excitement and a deep desire to experiment. She brings reverence, exactitude, thoughtfulness, brilliant performance skills, and the great ambition to embody all that is excellent in Indian traditions.”

Even Aparna’s sister, Ashwini, is involved; she dances and manages the marketing and publicity for the company. “It’s very special to share something that you love and spend so much time doing with your family. It’s not for everyone but it works for us. Only our husbands get a little tired of it,” Aparna chuckles.

They Rose at Dawn deviates slightly from the usual collaborative process of mother and daughter. Aparna and Ranee often develop material in tandem. Together they choreograph, coach their dancers, and closely work with musicians to bring their visions to life. For this production, however, the dances and the ideas behind them are Aparna’s; except for one choreography created by Valli, with whom she continues to study. Ranee’s role has been to offer feedback and guidance.

Leading up to the premiere, Aparna carefully refines her movements in order to demonstrate the essential relationship of classical Indian dance to music. Aparna selected each raga (a series of five to nine musical notes upon which a melody is constructed) and worked closely with an Indian music ensemble to build a complex rhythmic score. “It’s my responsibility to bring that all to life," the soloist explains as she recalls the words of her maser teacher Alarmél Valli, "You must see the music and hear the dance. "

Aparna aims to reveal how the ancient and contemporary intersect. “I want to explore ritual and culture. I am especially interested in how we transmit ideas across space and time. What happens when individuals from cultures, like India, move to a different part of the world? What do we choose to leave and what do we carry forward?”

Looking to poetry from the 3rd century AD as well as age-old Indian stories, Aparna found connections that are relevant to contemporary times. In They Rose at Dawn, she personifies complex female characters such as the “Divine Goddess," not only presenting the deity’s nurturing side, but also bringing to light the ferocious tenacity of the goddess figure. In another section, Aparna explores human recklessness and its effects on the natural world. “In India, we have mythological figures, but they’re not relegated to temples and faraway times.” She reminds me how the stories of the gods still live and breathe within India’s people. “The power of iconography and metaphor is strong.”

Aparna may not have had a traditional childhood, but she approaches her art with the exuberance of a child. “The beautiful thing about this artform, even if you’re in an ensemble, is that there’s room for each person to express their individual personality.” She describes dancers on stage as unique paintings of various colors and hues. Breathing life into the tradition while respecting its foundation, Aparna plays with her own palette to share stories that resonate today.


Aparna Ramaswamy Will Dance a Solo Honoring the Wisdom of Women
Gia Kourlas, The New York Times
September 30, 2015
Original article

In the classical South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam, the body is material ― an interlocking puzzle of pieces assembled to create otherworldly grace. The fingers splay and stretch apart, the heels flex as a dancer hops from side to side, and the eyes flicker with lively vitality. Aparna Ramaswamy, an artistic director (with her mother, Ranee) of the much-respected Ragamala Dance Company in Minneapolis, is a vision of sculptural lucidity whose dancing brings a full-bodied awareness to complex rhythms and shifts of dynamics. All the while, the strength of her purity is second nature ― both explicit and seemingly casual.

Ms. Ramaswamy will make her Joyce Theater debut in “They Rose at Dawn,” an evening-length solo that honors the wisdom of women, who are seen as the carriers of reverence and imagination. Settle back as Ms. Ramaswamy, accompanied by a Carnatic musical ensemble, unlocks mysteries of feminine mystique. (7:30 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 6 and 7; 8 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 8, Joyce Theater,