Written in Water

Picture This Post - Review - Delicate Intricacy

Harris Theater presents RAGAMALA DANCE COMPANY Review – Delicate Intricacy

Hayley Ross
January 30, 2019
Original Article

Harris Theater presents Ragamala Dance Company performing Written in Water, classical  Bharatanatyam Indian dance based on the Indian board game Paramapadam, known in the Western world as Snakes and Ladders.

Mother and daughter team and Co-Artistic Directors of Ragamala Dance Company, Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, explain in the program notes that through the lenses of the board game in conjunction with the Sufi text The Conference of the Birds and Hindu mythological story Khseerabthi Madanam, the dance tells the experience of human life, love, and struggle in three movements.

Staying True to Tradition

Although Written in Water, contains many innovative and new age elements such as lighting projections on the floor and backdrop, and live musicians on stage with the dancers, the dance itself is Bharatanatyam, an age-old classical Indian dance form started in Hindu temples. The movements in Bharatanatyam are very delicate, intricate, and small, pairing well with the idea of turning the stage into a real life Paramapadam board. The five dancers glide elegantly across the stage conveying a story using small gestural movements with their hands and tiny, but distinctive, movements of the head and changes in facial expression. Aparna Ramaswamy, is especially mesmerizing with her facial expressions during her group and solo moments. In Bharatanatyam, the dancer’s torsos are always upright focusing the movement on the limbs and head. The Ragamala dancers do an exquisite job of maintaining this posture, always looking poised and calm.

Ranee and Aparna, co-Artistic directors of Ragamala Dance Company said in the post-performance talk back that they pride themselves on their ability to bring what they’ve learned in India with them and carry on this tradition and share it in the United States.

Embodying Music

Written in Water also features a live musical ensemble consisting of a trumpet, violin, vocalists, and Indian instruments santur, mridangam, and nattuvangam. In the post-performance talk back, Amir ElSaffar, who created the composition said that it took over over a year to create the composition for the piece with Ragamala Dance Company, and it shows. There is a masterful pairing of music and dance in this performance.

The dancers wear bells on their ankles which ring and jingle when they step. The musical ensemble’s music matches the dancers movements so well it is as if the music is coming straight from the dancer’s bodies. Each hand gesture and step matches a beat or vocal cue, making the music and dance one entity throughout the performance.

Telling a Story

While this reviewer has never studied Bharatanatyam, and has never played Paramapadam, it is easy to understand the semblance of the story through the dancers and music. The dancers portray sadness and struggle in slower movements and gestures reaching out into the distance for something they can’t attain and joy through faster, more upbeat rhythmic sections of the dance.

Projections on the floor that resemble a cross between a stained glass window and a game board give visual representation to the dancers moving through the game of life. Projections of paintings and other artwork on the backdrop of the stage also speak to the mythological and spiritual themes in the piece, providing the audience with more cultural and contextual understanding.

Written in Water contains a lot of various elements including dance, live music, art, and a story behind the dance. All put together, Ragamala Dance Company presents a beautiful evening of work that reveals something new about Indian dance, culture, and bringing those ideas to new audiences. For more information about upcoming Harris Theater Presents performances visit the Harris Theater Presents website.

Chicago Tribune - Review - Ragamala Dance Harris Theater Debut

In Harris Theater debut, Ragamala Dance shows the metaphor and mythology in a board game — and is pure fun to watch.

Lauren Warnecke, Chicago Tribune
January 12, 2019
Original Article

Founded in 1992, the Twin Cities-based Ragamala Dance Company made its Harris Theater debut Friday with the company’s 25th anniversary performance “Written in Water.” The hour-long work is a multi-disciplinary Bharatanatyam dance blending cultural traditions from India, Iraq and the United States, in an effort to explore the journey toward self-actualization.

The concept of the piece began with mother-daughter co-artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy using Paramapadam, an ancient Indian board game, as a framework for moving about the stage. Paramapadam is considered the precursor to Snakes and Ladders (later marketed in the West by Milton Bradley as Chutes and Ladders), often played — as Ranee explained in Friday’s post-performance discussion — during religious fasts to teach Hindu mythology and distract from the discomforts of fasting.

In the game, players move their pieces across a board of 100 squares, gaining progress by ascending ladders, or losing ground if a player ends his or her turn on a snake. The metaphor is the journey toward spiritual ascension, with ladders representing the virtues and snakes serving as temptations and vice. Stunning projections form the squares of the game board on the Harris Theater stage — best viewed from further back in the house – while the dancers’ winding floor patterns were developed by playing hundreds of games of Paramapadam in which they were the life-sized pieces set on a game board.

It is due to the influence of daughter Aparna Ramaswamy that Ragamala Dance has more recently turned to ancient texts and philosophy to support its artistic work, and “Written in Water” is deeply layered with Hindu and Sufi allegories, namely the 12th century “Conference of the Birds,” and “Ksheerabthi Madanam,” from Hindu mythology. The latter, translating to “the churning of the seven seas,” aligns with the seven valleys traversed in “The Conference of the Birds.”

In each case, the pinnacle of these journeys is transcendence as one navigates one’s interactions with good and evil, with the hopes of consorting with the divine — further paralleled, though perhaps unintentionally, by the snakes and apples in the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Whimsical illustrations by cartoonist V. Keshav are projected onto a panel covering the quarter of the stage behind a group of five musicians, tracking with each of the “Conference’s” seven valleys, and it’s the music that really unpacks the congruencies between Indian, Iraqi and American traditions.

Sufi music originating from Persia is, to my knowledge, rarely heard in concert settings such as that of the Harris Theater — Chicago audiences may be more familiar with the sounds of India given the wide variety of Bharatanatyam presented on concert stages here. So what a treat that composers Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy have exquisitely, painstakingly layered Sufi musical modes with Carnatic music originating from Southern India (the birthplace of classical Bharatanatyam). ElSaffar and Ramaurthy took approximately three years to develop a score which blends musical traditions that could take a lifetime to fully comprehend.

Accompanying the five dancers, ElSaffar plays santur, a large dulcimer struck with hammers. He also sings, as does Preethy Mahesh, and Ramanathan Kalairasan plays violin. Additional Carnatic instrumentation includes Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam, a percussion instrument sounding similar to tabla, and rhythmic recitations called nattuvangam by Kasi Aysola. Further, to this fascinating combination of musical modes ElSaffar adds the distinctly American sound of trumpet, but improvises within Middle Eastern scales and chords. None of this brilliant melding of cultures feels forced or out of place, as how the evolution of today’s society brings cultures together to harmonize — literally and figuratively.

The dancing is more distinctly Bharatanatyam in look and feel, with the dancers’ movement so crisp and precise that even the tiniest flick of a finger is crystal clear from midway back at the Harris. As the matriarch, Ranee is often smartly placed at the center of the group, flanked by her daughters and dancers Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala.

It may or may not be an important observation that the cast is entirely female, while Keshav’s illustrations of the story are likely to be interpreted as masculine-oriented. I’ve often found the women’s roles in classical Bharatanatyam to be that of the doting wife, or the longing lover. Contemporary Indian dance, however, has sought to radically change this; by these five women dancing as the protagonists in these ancient stories, “Written in Water” feels satisfyingly akin to this trend.

And while even a surface-level understanding of “Written in Water’s” embedded intellectualism deepens one’s appreciation for it, coursework in Hindu and Sufi philosophy aren’t pre-requisites to enjoying this work. What I mean is: “Written in Water” is not so heady that it evades entertainment, and those of us with no knowledge at all about the cultural and philosophical nuances at play can simply sit back and take in a wholly magnificent piece of live art. Like watching a great film in a language you don’t speak, “Written in Water’s” music is toe-tapping, the context clues universal and the visual atmosphere intoxicating, no matter your background.

Chicago Tribune - Dance in Chicago in 2019: Must See

Must-sees this winter include Akram Khan’s ‘Giselle’ and something brand new at Joffrey

Lauren Warnecke
January 3, 2019
Original Article

Winter used to be a rather dormant time for dance, but in 2019 the colder months bring some of the most exciting dance events of the year. Winter is typically a time when touring companies roll through town, with spring reserved for the locals. But two home-town companies will present world premieres in February. Two extraordinary Indian dance companies, both based in Minneapolis, pay a visit this season, and two companies who’ve not been here in decades join a crowded dance calendar with another celebrating a milestone 50 years of Chicago tours.

Ragamala Dance: Hindu mythology, 12th century Sufi texts and an ancient version of Chutes and Ladders were the inspiration for “Written in Water,” a full-length contemporary Bharatanatyam work navigating good and evil. Mother/daughter choreographers Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy celebrate 25 years since this Twin Cities-based company’s founding. Jan. 11 at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Drive; tickets $35-$135 at 312-334-7777 and www.harristheaterchicago.org

The Dance Center of Columbia College has a great spring season lined up, beginning with Spectrum Dance Theater Jan. 31-Feb. 2. Director Donald Byrd visits Chicago for the first time in more than 20 years, bringing work inspired by the national debate on immigration. Anaya Dance Theatre performs “Shyamali,” a Bharatanatyam work by dance legend Ananya Chatterjea Feb. 14-16, and Urban Bush Women return to the Dance Center for “Hair & Other Stories,” a dance about economic disparities between races and genders. At the Dance Center, 1306 S. Michigan Ave.; www.dance.colum.edu

Trinity Irish Dance Company gives its first full evening at home in over a decade, a one-night-only performance which boasts two world premieres. From the beginning, artistic director Mark Howard has been pushing a modern, progressive image of Irish dance which put the form on the map years before “Riverdance" fever took hold. Themes for this exciting evening center around female empowerment. Feb 2 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive; tickets $29-$78 at 312-341-2300 and www.auditoriumtheatre.org


Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s winter mixed-rep moves to April this year, to make way for a world premiere full-length ballet based on Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece about looking for love in all the wrong places, “Anna Karenina.” The collaborative effort between Joffrey and The Australian Ballet features choreography by Yuri Possokhov, whose rep for Joffrey includes “Bells” and “The Miraculous Mandarin,” and original music by Ilya Demutsky.Feb 13-24 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive; tickets $35-$176 at 312-386-8905 and www.joffrey.org

English National Ballet: Akram Khan’s first full-length ballet was a smash hit, a reimagination of the iconic “Giselle” combining ballet and kathak, a form of classical Indian dance. Composer Vincenzo Lamagna’s score plays off the original by Adolphe Adams, performed live by the Chicago Philharmonic in this stunning North American premiere, the company’s first tour to the U.S. in more than three decades. Feb. 28 to March 2 at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Drive; tickets $35-$145 at 312-334-7777 and www.harristheaterchicago.org

Malpaso Dance Company with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago: Choreography by Chicago local Robyn Mineko Williams and Osnel Delgado, artistic director of the Havana-based Malpaso, headline this exciting international collaboration bringing these two beautiful companies together for the first time. Malpaso delighted audiences with their 2017 Chicago debut at the Dance Center; seeing them perform with the silky-smooth dancers of Hubbard Street will likely yield an evening to remember. March 2-3 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive; tickets $29-$110 at 312-341-2300 and www.auditoriumtheatre.org

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrates its 60th anniversary with the company’s first two-act work,“Lazarus,” created by hip-hop icon Rennie Harris and inspired by the life of founder Alvin Ailey. Two other programs complete the company’s 50th consecutive year at the Auditorium, with a contemporary program featuring works by Wayne McGregor and Jessica Lang, and a third compiling more than a dozen Ailey classics. Given these choices, I’m thinking you might as well see all three programs. March 6-10 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive; tickets $34-$120 at 312-341-2300 and www.auditoriumtheatre.org

See Chicago Dance - A 2019 resolution that’s easy to keep

Lauren Warnecke
December 29, 2018
Original Article

A note from Lynn Shapiro:

To The Dance Community, Its Dedicated Audience Members, and All Our Readers:

For the past five years, I have had the privilege of serving as editor and dance writer for See Chicago Dance. At this time, I am stepping down from my role as editor. This will give me more time to spend with family, including new grandchildren, and to devote myself more fully to my work as a visual artist. I will continue to write for See Chicago Dance, but with a less demanding schedule. 

I wish to thank the staff and board of See Chicago Dance for giving me the opportunity to serve as editor. I also want to thank my fellow dance writers with whom I have had the pleasure of collaborating, exchanging ideas, and striving together to further the craft and art of dance writing.

Among the many blessings my life has given me is the opportunity to stay connected to dance, a lifelong passion, first as a dancer and choreographer, then as a teacher, and currently as a dance writer. 

I am happy to pass along the editor’s baton to my colleague, Lauren Warnecke, whose leadership and expertise promise to enhance everything we do at See Chicago Dance to support dance in Chicago.

Please join me in wishing her well as we launch another exciting year of dance in our fair city. 

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, dance-filled 2019!

In 2012, I got a call from Sid Smith. Sid was still writing for the Chicago Tribune, and he and Laura Molzahn were the only writers at seechicagodance.com. I was asked to supplement the April coverage on the site, a particularly busy month for dance in Chicago – one we now designate as Chicago Dance Month. I wrote my very first professional review on River North Dance Chicago’s “Havana Blue” at the Auditorium Theatre.

Submitting that first review to Sid was terrifying, his noon deadline crippling, but I was instantly in love with the process. When Sid retired and Laura stepped into his role at the Tribune, I was lucky to be able to continue writing for See Chicago Dance under Vicki Crane and then Lynn Shapiro, who have both taught me so much about dance writing.

As I now step into this role as the editor of See Chicago Dance, I’m humbly aware of the big shoes I have to fill, and exceedingly grateful to Lynn for steering this ship for the last five years. She’s had to deal with me, after all (no easy task) and has maintained a steadfast commitment to communicating her deep passion for dance through writing. I’m glad to know her important voice will continue to be part of See Chicago Dance as a senior writer, so we may continue to benefit from her decades of experience seeing and writing about dance in Chicago.

We also have some exciting changes ahead, namely the addition of two new writers, Jordan Kunkel and Brianna Heath, which will allow us to increase the depth and breadth of our coverage here at See Chicago Dance. A hearty welcome to them both, and now onto this month’s Critic’s Picks!

January used to be a rather quiet month for dance, a hibernation period before the onslaught of big touring companies coming through town in February and March. Indeed, a resolution to see more dance in Chicago won’t be hard to keep, with a number of exciting events approaching to keep your dance card filled through the depths of winter. 

RE|dance group, photo by Matthew Gregory HollisCelebrating its 10th anniversary this season, RE|dance group premieres new work at Hamlin Park Jan. 10-18. The “R” and the “E” of RE|dance, executive director Lucy Riner and artistic director Michael Estanich, have maintained a unique long distance artistic relationship across state lines for a decade, churning out gobs of long form works. Two companion pieces, “What Love Looks Like” and “The Biggest Wail from the Bottom of my Heart,” reflect on current events – rallying a call to political activism and imagining a world in which people of all classes and creeds are accepted equally. In his usual way, Estanich frames this within a beautiful, fantastical world, dancing an undoubtedly winding and satifying path through clouds and forest glades.

Sharing RE|dance’s opening weekend is Ragamala Dance Company’s “Written in Water,” Jan. 11 and 12 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. This Twin Cities-based Bharatanatyam company recently marked its 25th anniversary, with mother-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy developing an aesthetic uniquely tailored to their experiences as first and second-generation Indian-Americans. For “Written in Water,” the choreographers drew from ancient Sufi texts and the Indian board game Paramapadam (the premise of which Milton Bradley used to create Chutes and Ladders) to generate movement, all set to live music and a stunning visual landscape by V. Keshav of Chennai, India.

Finally, acclaimed choreographer Donald Byrd and his Seattle-based company, Spectrum Dance Theater, return to the Dance Center Jan. 31-Feb. 2 for the first time since a tour in the 1994-95 season. Frequent visitors to the Dance Center will find Byrd’s palate pleasing; his “Rambunctious Iteration #3 – The Immigrants” is a relatively crisp and clean modern dance set to an enticing score by composers from countries historically or currently at odds with the United States, namely Cuba, Mexico, Russia, China and Iran.

The National - Written in Water: A Moving Tribute to India's Bhakti & Sufi Movements

Jennifer Gnana looks back on her journey loving and learning Bharatanatyam, a Tamil classical dance form
Jennifer Gnana, The National
March 23, 2018
Original Article

Watching Written in Water, choreographed by the Minnesota-based Raagmala dance troupe at New York University - Abu Dhabi’s Arts Centre last night took me back in time. Bharatanatyam - a classical Tamil dance and the subcontinent’s oldest has been my long-abiding love and the performance reminded me of my own journey of re-discovering this most graceful art form.

I tied my first salangai (anklets) - worn by Indian classical dancers to perform intricate footwork to match a vocalist’s beats - at the age of four. I was always the quirky one on stage. Short and skinny, with hair like a little boy, I cut an odd figure. Backstage, makeup artists struggled to attach the jadai (braided hair extensions) to my sparse hair and eventually settled to pinning a strand of jasmine to the crown of my head. Unlike the elegant dancers, draped in silk, making them appear like apsaras (godly nymph-like dancers of Hindu mythology), with their bodies set to hour-glass perfection according to the sensibilities of centuries of Indian aesthetic, I had an ungainly gait, with no amount of padded fabric helping me achieve celestial perfection. However, despite my lack of stage glamour, I gave myself over to dance and for all my visible flaws, remained a dedicated student.

However, our move to Bahrain at the age of eight put a slow end to my learning. My mother and I worried about finding a good teacher and though I performed on stage for a couple of years, I gave it up for lack of training. The salangai remained in my room and there were days I would open the box, kiss the anklets and put them back with a sigh. I grew out of my silk dancer’s clothes and they remained in the cupboard, a relic of my childhood.

However, my move to Dubai last year renewed my search for a good teacher and I started lessons again, only to give up when my work as a journalist took up much of my time.

This is why sat in the audience last night, watching the mother-daughter duo perform with their troupe made me realise it was never too late to learn.

Ranee Ramaswamy, 65, founded the dance academy when she was 40 having earlier given up the dance form when she to moved to the US, as she was expected to focus on her family.

Trained under the iconic dancer Alarmel Valli in Chennai, Ranee and her daughter Aparna, 41, now manage a team that performs across the US, UK, the UAE as well as India. Both Ranee and Aparna are not just background managers but actually perform in all their shows. Watching them last night, moving to a beautiful meld of Iraqi, jazz and Carnatic (southern Indian) music by composer Amir El Saffar was an absolute treat.

The Carnatic musician's rendition perfectly yielded to Amir’s trumpet, and soft, moving vocals in Arabic. It warmed me to see the audience clap in between various segments, which was unusual for me as back in Tamil Nadu (India’s southern-most state), a Bharatanatyam performance is a sober event, performed as a prayer dance and treated very reverentially by the audience. Tamils, by nature remain conservative when it comes to safeguarding their culture and as a result Bharatanatyam remains one of the most guarded dance forms, very rarely, if ever allowing innovations on stage. What Ranee and Aparna have done is keep form at its purest, while allowing the Sufi music to lend to one of our greatest dances a truly global connect.

My most moving moment of the night came towards the end when the Carnatic vocalist ended the performance by singing in Tamil, “Anaithum neeye, anaithin porulum neeye”, which translated means “Everything is you, the meaning of everything and matter is you.” A line, straight out of the Bhakti and Sufi movements that characterised 15th century subcontinent, making sweeping changes to the dogmatic nature of religion and marking the emergence of India as one of the most spiritual places on earth.

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Tamil-speaking regions saw a slow movement towards devotional worship on the essence of God. Brushing aside centuries of puritanical Hinduism, the devotees of what is now called the Bhakti (devotion) movement immersed themselves in song and poetry, often sung in local languages in contrast to worship that used largely Sanskrit - a language incomprehensible to the common man and used only by Hindu clergy. The Bhakti devotees took their ideas northward only to meet, with the arrival of Islam in the subcontinent, the Sufi mystics of the northern plains. The amalgamation of their ideas gave birth some of the most beautiful poetry in Urdu - a language that grew from the mixing of khariboli, the lingua franca of northern India and Persian, the language of the Mughal courts. It also led to the birth of Sikhism, a religion that embraces aspects of the subcontinent’s diverse Hindu faiths with Islamic tenets.

Until the 19th century, performance of Bharatanatyam remained restricted to temples. Written in Water. Courtesy New York University Abu Dhabi

Yesterday’s performance was a beautiful synthesis of the Bhakti and Sufi movements and made me realise how much we could leverage art, even those guarded by purists by allowing it to match the rhythm of our times.

Last week, after watching an eighties Tamil film Sindhu Bhairavi about a fallen Carnatic musician, who finds his groove, I messaged my Bharatanatyam teacher saying I was thinking of coming back to class. In the film, the reformed musician finds himself back on stage and sings an invocation to Kalaivani, the Tamil word for Goddess Lakshmi, the patron of arts (kalai) in Hindu tradition. “I want dance to this, I want to come back,” I had texted her.

On my way out of the NYU arts centre auditorium, with anaithum neeye ringing in my ears, I decided it was time to wear my salangai again. I was going back.

danceviewtimes - Steeped in Tradition

“Written in Water” by Ragamala Dance Company at the Terrace Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

Arielle Ostry, danceviewtimes
Nov 3, 2018
Original Article

In “Written in Water,” a menagerie of talented dancers, musicians, and visual artworks joined together and intermingled to perform a sonically extravagant and visually alluring show. Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, the mother-daughter duo responsible for Ragamala Dance Company’s artistic direction, were informed by tradition and compelled by innovation to create a masterpiece respecting the sanctity of the present, exploring the boundaries of their culture, and celebrating beauty the in their journey. This show’s DC premiere last weekend at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre was intimate and charming, presenting a variety of dynamic movements and melodies.

“Written in Water” focuses mainly on the individual journey of each dancer to achieve union with the divine. This theme is portrayed by a human-sized version of the traditional Indian board game Paramapadam, which Americans may more easily recognize as Snakes and Ladders. Each of the five dancers performed separate movement to start, making the beginning of the show a lot to take in with an array of different colors, rhythms, and movement phrases. All of the dancers employed a wide range of performance qualities from teasing and playful to serious and mournful. These emotions were most clearly exemplified by the clarity and decisiveness prevalent in their facial expressions.

Under the direction of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, Ragamala Dance Company practices the South Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam, which was originally performed as a solo dance, and has since evolved. Mother and daughter diverge from the customary to bring Bharatanatyam to the stage in a dramatic group format. A highlight of “Written in Water” is the company’s incredible unison execution. Each dancer’s body retains consistent alignment, from the tip of each figure to the diagonal, perched placement of each heel, their rhythmic stomping and stilted jumps ideally synched, showing their confidence and exactness with every step.

Very few are able to perform Bharatanatyam quite like Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy. Both mother and daughter were taught the classic dance form by legendary dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli in Chennai, India. Their refined ability and control over the dance style were clearly shown throughout the performance during bouts of gestural storytelling, utilizing intricate hand gestures and distinct expressions to convey the story. They moved their hands in a variety of different ways, with shimmying shakes, energetic, rigid lotus positions, and waving ripples, which made their hands look more like reflections in water than real solid flesh.

The performance was broken up into three sections to frame a story inspired by “The Conference of the Birds,” a Sufi epic poem that details an expedition traveling through various human states of being, the ultimate goal being a unity with the divine. Segments of the show were punctuated by moments where the dancers left the stage completely, continuing on their journey while the musicians alone entertained the crowd with complex beats interlaced with hints of jazzy improvisation and impressive traditional vocals rolling effortlessly off of Preethy Mahesh's trained tongue. The composition itself was developed by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy, specifically for “Written in Water,” in collaboration with Ranee Ramaswamy and the rest of the musical ensemble. Additionally, artwork depicting various human and animal forms as well as abstract, spiraling shapes were incorporated into the show through projections on the floor and on a skrim backdrop. They were created by V. Keshav, a Chennai-based painter, and Nathan Christopher.

“Written in Water” was as dynamic as it was refined, and as bold as it was enlightening. Each dancer performed with such surety and ease, making the show a beautiful, engaging spectacle full of warmth and light, celebrating both the cultural philosophy from which this work took shape as well as the dance itself.

The Washington Post - Ragamala Elevates Snakes and Ladders

Dance Company Ragamala Elevates Snakes and Ladders to Spiritual Heights

Celia Wren, The Washington Post
Nov 1, 2018
Original Article

Hear the phrase “board-game-inspired movement” and you might think of a flourish with a chess piece, or a jubilant reach to place a Scrabble tile on a triple-word-score square. But the Ragamala Dance Company had more substantial physicality in mind for “Written in Water”: The sensory-rich, idea-steeped work, which will be performed at the Kennedy Center this weekend, reflects, in part, a historical Indian version of the game Snakes and Ladders.

“Written in Water,” choreographed by co-artistic directors (and mother and daughter) Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, riffs on the conceptual and philosophical framework of Paramapadam, an Indian game whose players risk serpentine plunges while trying to ascend to a board’s winning squares. Ranee and Aparna will be among the five dancers in the roughly hour-long work, which showcases the classical Indian dance style Bharatanatyam.

During “Written in Water,” illustrated-grid projections on the stage sometimes make the dancers appear to be pieces on a Paramapadam board. The illusion is infused with meaning, because the Indian snakes-and-ladders game — of which Paramapadam is one version — incorporates a morality-tale dynamic: The board’s upper squares symbolize spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine, while the lower squares correspond to vices and spiritual degradation. Ascending ladders and downward-propelling snakes provide shortcuts.

The Indian game has existed in various religious and regional variants over the centuries. The pastime traveled to England during the British Raj, eventually evolving to become the secular entertainment (a.k.a. Chutes and Ladders) many of us played as youngsters. (Before each “Written in Water” performance, you can play Paramapadam in the Kennedy Center atrium.)

Ranee Ramaswamy, who grew up in Chennai, in southern India, learned to play Paramapadam as a child. Raised in the Hindu tradition, she knew the game as a particularly popular diversion during religious festivals, with children and adults playing together. One version of the game board referenced the god Vishnu; another, the god Shiva. “Playing the game, we also learned about our own mythological stories,” Ranee said by phone from Minneapolis, where the dance company is based.

Aparna said that when she and her mother began mulling a dance based on Paramapadam, the idea seemed accessible and “rich with possibilities.” The game’s spiritual-journey framework made them think of other cultural lenses on mystical experience, such as a Hindu story about the churning of the cosmic ocean and the 12th-century Persian Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” about an avian search for an elusive monarch. Both narratives became additional thematic springboards for “Written in Water,” which exemplifies the Ragamala Dance practice of treating Bharatanatyam, in Aparna’s words, as an art form that is “alive and contemporary and growing.”

The resonance of “Conference of the Birds” prompted the Ramaswamys to contact Iraqi American jazz artist Amir ElSaffar, who, in addition to playing the trumpet and santur (a hammered dulcimer), is adept in Maqam, a classical vocal tradition that draws on musical traditions from Iraq’s neighbors, as well as traditions within Iraq. He wrote parts of the “Written in Water” score, and he leads an ensemble providing live accompaniment for “Written in Water” performances. (India-based composer Prema Ramamurthy composed other sections, consisting of southern Indian music.)

Folding Maqam and Persian literature into “Written in Water” might seem a bold move in an era leery of cultural appropriation. But Ranee Ramaswamy says the company took pains to make the work’s multicultural strands knowledgeable, respectful and “correct.”

Besides, she says, “cultures have some commonality. And if we hold on to that, we can make magic.”

Broadway World Review - Ragamala Dance Company's Written in Water

Ragamala Dance Company's WRITTEN IN WATER at the Kennedy Center

Sam Abney, Broadway World
Nov 3, 2018
Original Article

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.

Democrat-Gazette - Written in Water: Incredibly Emotionally Evocative

‘Written in Water’ looks at spirituality, mythology and more

Lara Jo Hightower, Democrat-Gazette
October 7, 2018
Original Article

The Ragalama Dance Company, says co-artistic director Aparna Ramaswamy, uses the ancient Indian form of dance called Bharatanatyam "as a language to explore universal themes." The company is bringing its production of "Written in Water," performed with live music, to the Walton Arts Center Stage on Oct. 14.

The wildly creative and expressive production that evolves from the company was called "a soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious collaboration ... startlingly seamless and marvelously danceable" in The New York Times.

The 26-year-old company, based in Minneapolis, is a family affair: It was founded by Ramaswamy's mother, first-generation Indian-American artist Ranee Ramaswamy, who now serves as co-artistic director. The company also includes Ramaswamy's sister, Ashwini.

Ramaswamy says adhering to the 2,000-year-old Bharatanatyam tradition takes thorough understanding and research.

"Our works are very evolved and extensive in their scope," says Ramaswamy. "We work to find all the original lyrics. We work with different composers from different cities, different countries. We fund-raise to create the music. It doesn't happen in one year -- it's a multi-year endeavor. We're working on several pieces at one time at this moment and touring three other works."

"Written in Water" is based on the ancient Indian game Paramapadan, which, over the centuries, evolved into the popular children's game Americans know as "Chutes and Ladders."

"Indian families would stay up all night and fast and play this game in order to teach their children about negative and positive energies of humans," says Ramaswamy. "It's a very multidisciplinary approach to discussing spirituality and mythology and religion. The idea of this game was fascinating to us in terms of all of the potential for this content, the underpinnings of the history and the psychology of the idea of humans traveling towards something and experiencing different aspects of life as they did so.

The show also pulls inspiration from the 12th century Sufi text "The Conference of the Birds" and the Hindu story "Ksheerabthi Madanam."

"As the dancers -- or players -- move through the board ... the nuances of the motions that go along with each situation are explored. The last piece is that we explore an Indian myth about the churning of the ocean."

The performance clearly offers a heaping helping of history, literature and mythology, but Ramaswamy says potential audience members should not fear the challenge; she promises audiences will find the show accessible.

"I do think dance is intimidating for a lot of audiences," she acknowledges. "I think people feel like they can intellectually grasp the narrative of theater or the accessibility of music. I think with dance, people feel they need to understand more of the technicality of dance, so I think [that perception] is a challenge.

"The thing is, dance can be enjoyed in the same ways as the other art forms. It can be incredibly emotionally evocative. You're seeing wonderful physical expressions ... these emotions of longing or love or sadness, and all of these shades and hues are related to the words and music. Together, it forms this really beautiful, genuine communication with the audience."

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.

Michigan Daily - Written in Water - Review

Ragamala Dance Company evokes a journey of self-discovery at the Power Center
Isabelle Hasslund, Michigan Daily
Monday, October 23, 2017
Original Article

The energy of the audience was bouncing off the walls at the Power Center for Performing Arts last Friday as audience members eagerly waited for the acclaimed Ragamala Dance Company. The curtain lifted and revealed an array of art forms, each coming together in a unique artistic masterpiece. The fanfare of visual arts, dance and music stunned the audience into an utter silence and focus. The entrancing beat of the mridangam, a type of Indian classical rhythmic instrument, combined with the soothing, earthy sounds of vocalists Preethy Mahesh and Amir ElSaff swept over the audience, soliciting a deep focus from every member.

The dancers glowed in their extravagant, traditional Indian costumes and jewelry. The images of the snakes-and-ladders board game projected on the stage transformed the dancers into plastic figures on a game board. The dynamic between playful upbeat projections and the serious grief of the performance, as portrayed through theatrics, allowed the audience to make the dance their own. Bharatanatyam, the South Indian dance performed by the company, is traditionally performed as a solo and a communication between the dancer and a deity.

Even though the ensemble performed as a group, their distinct inner dialogues and thoughts were projected onto the audience, and­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ each dancer was unique in their own journey of self-discovery. In one instance the mother and daughter duo, Aparna Ramaswamy and Ranee Ramaswamy, choreographed a memorable duet where the experience and heart wrenching grief of their movements were sharply contrasted with control and grace. Every subtle movement was purposeful, allowing the audience to find their own purpose through the the dancers.

The brilliant musical score, written by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy, was inflected with syncopated jazz rhythms that excited the mind and facilitated a deep journey into the inner depths of thought. Transitions between dance movements provided a time of reflection and meditation, as the vocal line submerged listeners with its drone-like, humming tones. Live music facilitated a dialogue between the musicians and the dancers that was incredible to behold. Every beat on the mridangam and every vocal line seemed to express the grief or ecstasy of the dancers, and the live music gave the choreography a human quality, especially in the highly rhythmic portions of the piece. The invigorating and crisp rhythmic vocalizations paired with the clear-cut movements of the dancers were intoxicating.  

One’s eye could never stay in one place for a long time. In addition to the snakes-and-ladders projections, a small screen hovered above the stage that projected the artwork of Keshav, who portrayed gods and goddesses of Hinduism through a modern lens. 

It was as much a journey of self-discovery for the artists as it was for the audience. Ashwini Ramaswamy, choreographic associate and dancer, said, “We move through different emotional states and states of being, and the audience will be on that emotional journey with us, as well.” 

The audience was right there with them. 


Star Tribune Review - Written in Water

Ragamala Dance evokes solidarity with banned immigrants
Sheila Regan, Star Tribune
January 29, 2017
Original Article

"Written in Water," by Ragamala Dance Company, is not intended to be a political work, but the latest actions by our new president make it political. In the piece, which was performed at the Cowles Center this weekend, ancient Hindu and Persian traditions were woven into a fabric that illuminated their similarities and brought out the beauty of each, with music blending Indian and Iraqi sounds with hints of jazz.

In light of President Donald Trump's executive order (which was immediately stayed) banning even those with green cards and valid visas from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States, Ragamala's gesture of collaborative art-making with Middle Eastern aesthetics evoked a meaningful gesture of solidarity with those communities.

A projection of the board game "Snakes and Ladders" grounded the work, literally. Projected onto the floor, cleverly designed by Nathan Christopher, the board game provided a structure on which the dance unfolded. As the piece began, the five dancers appeared to be like live board game pieces, journeying along the board squares, all the while executing the intricate movements of the Bharatanatyam dance form.

Later, the "Snakes and Ladders" board changed into its earlier iteration, the ancient Hindu game of Paramapadam, which, unlike the modern version, is black and white. Meanwhile dancers carried out the emotional journeys that resulted from their moral choices symbolized in the game.

The impassioned moments were contained within the dance's overall precision, even at their most heightened demonstration. A gesture of despair, a body fallen to the ground and hands clenching the face in grief, were all done with absolute control.

Woven into the journey of the board game was imagery drawn from the ancient Sufi poem "The Conference of the Birds," through the choreography as well as a series of colorful paintings by the Chennai-based artist, Keshav. The movement, created by mother and daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, along with choreographic associate Ashwini Ramaswamy (Aparna's sister), conjured the flight of birds through the flourishing movements of the dancers' arms, hands and fingers. The way that the Ramaswamys were able to intertwine the abstraction of the fluttering wings within the tight architecture of the Bharatanatyam form was truly magical.

Big Dance Town Review - Written in Water

Ragamala Dance Company
Caroline Palmer, Big Dance Town
January 29, 2017
Original Article

“Chutes and Ladders” is a familiar childhood game but few who grew up in the west are familiar with its origins. Originally called “Paramapadam,” among other names, the Hindu morality game was first played centuries ago in India, then re-conceptualized as “Snakes and Ladders” during British colonization, and finally given its less evocative title by board game maker Milton Bradley in 1943.

Ragamala Dance Company chose this story as inspiration for their latest full-evening Bharatanatyam work, “Written in Water,” performed this weekend at the Cowles Center. The troupe, led by the mother-daughter team of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, perform what may be the artistic directors’ most artistically daring creations in its 25-year existence.

The dancing takes place amidst projections onto the stage floor depicting the board game, showing different versions from the ancient to the more abstract. There are also beautifully detailed visual images on the backdrop, created by Keshav and Nathan Christopher. The dancers include Ranee and Aparna, plus Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala.

The work came into being as the performers played the game repeatedly, internalizing its messages and exploring possible life metaphors. The Sufi epic “The Conference of Birds” provides a narrative framework. Snakes and ladders can represent everything from fear to transcendence, earth to heaven. The Sufi guidance points the way to life’s balance between good and evil, a tenuous and rarely achieved, yet aspirational, state of being.

Ragamala creations sparkle with crisp, exacting energy and “Written in Water” is no exception. There are unique elements to the movement – a serpentine set to the arms and backs, a rubbing of hands like throwing dice in a game, a sense of sliding and gliding, as if traveling along the back of a snake or a slippery chute.

Ashwini and Aparna represent different aspects of animalistic nature within the work – fierce and vulnerable, wary and carefree. Ranee’s movement offers a sense of steady ethos, she is not easily seduced by the game but she sees the effects of its unpredictability on others. Nadel and Fiala are strong presences as well, steadfast and focused in their precise movement, navigating their way along an uncertain path.

“Written in Water” is built upon a particularly strong partnership of music and movement. A live ensemble led by Iraqi-American jazz performer Amir ElSaffar, and including Preethy Mahesh (vocals), Rohan Krishnamurthy (mridangam – percussion), Anjna Swaminathan (Carnatic violin) and Kai Aysola (nattuvangam – cymbals), fills the space with a kaleidoscopic sound, made particularly vibrant by ElSaffar’s soulful command of the trumpet and santur (Iranian hammered dulcimer). ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy’s composition is evocative and particularly poignant for the existential subject matter of the performance.

This creation is yet another fine example of Ragamala’s ever-evolving artistry. As the troupe continues to gain national and international exposure, I am reminded how fortunate we are to have this accomplished company in our midst.

CBS Minnesota - Written in Water

Ragamala Dance Company's Newest Piece has limited run at Cowles Center
Katie Fraser, CBS Minnesota
January 26, 2017
Original Article

For one weekend only, audiences in the Twin Cities can see Ragamala Dance Company’s latest work, “Written in Water” at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in downtown Minneapolis.

An allegory of human’s constant search for higher meaning, “Written in Water” takes inspiration from the Indian board game Paramapadam, an early version of Snakes and Ladders, and the 12th century Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds.”

Both the game and the poem explore what it means to be on a journey seeking higher meaning.

The shows development, which took over four years, includes a myriad of artist elements – including projections of paintings by Chennai-based artist Keshav and Minneapolis artist Nathan Christopher.

The performance also features an original score by Iraqi musician Amir ElSaffar. ElSaffar blends jazz trumpet with traditional Iraqi Maqam to create a sound unique to the show.

“Each art form and artist was specifically chosen to enhance the work and strengthen the performance as a whole,” Ashwini Ramaswamy, director of marketing and publicity for Ragamala Dance Company, said in a recent press release.

“Written in Water” opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27. There will be an 8 p.m. performance on Saturday, Jan. 28 and a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, Jan. 29.

Tickets cost $29.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the Cowles Center online.

Twin Cities Daily Planet - Written in Water

Ragamala Dance Company brings "Written in Water" to the Cowles Center
Twin Cities Daily Planet
January 27, 2017
Original Article

MINNEAPOLIS – Following a successful debut in Tallahassee, Ragamala Dance Company is bringing its newest work, “Written in Water,” to The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts.

Developed over nearly four years, “Written in Water” is an exploration of the Indian board game “Paramapadam” – an early version of “Snakes and Ladders” – and the 12th century Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds” – which details a journey through the seven valleys (or states of being) necessary to attain Enlightenment. Both the board game and the text reflect an intricate allegory of the way in which a universal paradigm – that of the seeker on a journey to overcome human failings and find ultimate truth – is experienced within these spiritual traditions.

“Paramapadam was originally invented to impart the consequences of human actions and reveal that some aspects of life are within our control and some are unpredictable,” explained Ashwini Ramaswamy, Director of Marketing and Publicity for Ragamala Dance Company.

Large-scale projections of original paintings by Keshav – a Chennai-based visual artist – and Minneapolis artist Nathan Christopher on the stage and behind the dancers are woven throughout the choreography, as the dancers navigate the game and experience its emotional and philosophical consequences.

“Written in Water” is further punctuated with an original score by Amir ElSaffar – an Iraqi musician known for blending contemporary jazz trumpet and traditional Iraqi Maqam – and Prema Ramamurthy – an Indian composer specializing in traditional Carnatic compositions.

Ramaswamy added, “Each art form and artist was specifically chosen to enhance the work and strengthen the performance as a whole.”

Of “Written in Water,” The Tallahassee Democrat wrote, “The work’s power and the company’s artistry created a lexicon of sound, vision, and movement that allowed each audience member to project their own story onto the stage.”

About Ragamala Dance Company

Under the direction of Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, Ragamala’s work explores the dynamic tension between the ancestral and the personal. As choreographers and performers, Ranee and Aparna create dance landscapes that dwell in opposition – secular and spiritual life, inner and outer worlds, human and natural concerns, rhythm and stillness – to find the transcendence that lies in between. As mother and daughter, each brings her generational experience to the work—the rich traditions, deep philosophical roots and ancestral wisdom of India meeting and merging with the curiosity, openness and creative freedom fostered in the United States.

Now in its 24th season, Ragamala has been hailed by The New York Times as, “soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious,” “[Ragamala] showed how Indian forms can provide some of the most transcendent experiences that dance has to offer.” The company has been featured at the American Dance Festival (North Carolina), Lincoln Center (New York), Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), Music Center of Los Angeles (California), Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (Illinois), International Festival of Arts & Ideas (Connecticut), University Musical Society (Michigan), Just Festival (Edinburgh, United Kingdom), Bali Arts Festival (Indonesia), Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (Chennai, India), and National Centre for Performing Arts (Mumbai, India).

About The Cowles Center

The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts serves as the Twin Cities’ flagship for dance, presenting 20+ productions each season in its historic Shubert Theatre in the heart of Downtown Minneapolis. Furthermore, the Center’s campus includes three performance spaces, education studios, and administrative offices for more than 20 arts and nonprofit organizations – making it a dynamic and vibrant hub for the Twin Cities’ performing arts community and a place where dance can grow and thrive.

At a Glance

WHAT: “Written in Water” presented by Ragamala Dance Company and The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts

WHERE: The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, Goodale Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55403

PRICE: $29

TICKETS: www.thecowlescenter.org


January 27 at 8 p.m. – Performance will be followed by a Q&A with the performers

January 28 at 8 p.m. – Ragamala’s 24th anniversary gala begins at 5:30 p.m.

January 29 at 2 p.m. – Pre-performance family activities will take place in lobby


Star Tribune Preview - Written in Water

Ancient Indian board game inspires Ragamala Dance Company's "Written in Water"
Sheila Regan, Star Tribune
January 27, 2017
Original Article


Ever play Chutes and Ladders as a kid? You probably didn’t know the board game has roots in ancient India. Originally called Paramapadam, this Hindu game of morality was brought to England in the 19th century and renamed Snakes and Ladders. Ragamala Dance Company marries the game’s 2nd-century version with 12th-century Sufi poetry in a new show called “Written in Water.” An exploration of people’s search for truth — and their desperate attempts to avoid human failings — the show unfolds amid a giant game of Paramapadam and large-scale art projections. Also featured is an original commissioned score by Iraqi-American jazz artist Amir ElSaffar. (8 p.m. Fri. & Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., 528 Hennepin Av. S., $29, the Cowles Center, 612-206-3600, thecowlescenter.org.)


Minn Post Preview - Written in Water

Ragamala's ambitious 'Written in Water' at the Cowles
Pamela Espeland, CBS Minnesota
January 26, 2017
Original Article

Ragamala Dance Company’s new work, “Written in Water,” is its most ambitious yet and potentially most moving and satisfying. Which is saying a lot for a company whose path has been always upward, and whose henna-tipped toes have stepped surely since Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughter Aparna co-founded the company in 1992.

Four years in the making, “Written in Water” combines an ancient Indian board game, a 12th-century Sufi poem, a Hindu myth, an original score melding traditional Iraqi Maqam and Indian Carnatic music, and large-scale projections with the intricate movements and gestural storytelling of Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance form the company practices.

It’s a journey through life to enlightenment, told through movement, music and paintings. A reviewer who saw “Written in Water” in Tallahassee, where it had its world premiere, called it “mesmerizing” and raved that the evening “unfolded like a dream.”

“Written in Water” comes to the Cowles this weekend for three performances. We asked Ranee Ramaswamy to walk us through it.

“We have three movements,” she said in conversation earlier this week. “In the first, we explore human life, with love and struggle, through the board game.” The board game is “Paramapadam,” a precursor to “Snakes and Ladders” (itself a precursor to our own “Chutes and Ladders”). In the dance, it’s a metaphor for life’s ups and downs. “The second movement is the story of the churning, dynamic tension between good and evil,” Ranee continued. Its inspiration was the Hindu myth “Ksheerabthi Madanam,” which tells of the churning of the seven seas. It’s a metaphor for a world in chaos. “The final movement is the union with the Divine, toward transcendence,” Ranee said. The epic Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” which frames the entire dance, tells of birds who travel through seven valleys to achieve immortality. Not all of them make it, but some of them do.

Choreographed by Ranee and Aparna, “Written in Water” is danced to live music, an original score commissioned from Iraqi American trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar and Indian composer Prema Ramamurthy. ElSaffar, whose performance last year at the Walker was joyous and electrifying, draws on Iraqi Maqam, a vocal tradition included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. ElSaffar went to Baghdad to study it from the few remaining living masters. Ramamurthy is one of India’s greatest living composers of Carnatic (South Indian classical) music. Ranee believes this is the first time Maqam and Carnatic have joined in a single work.

The projections – of the board game and other imagery – are original paintings by Keshav Venkatraghavan, an artist based in Chennai, India, also commissioned by Ragamala. The images will be projected on the floor and on a screen. “They take your eyes up, like you’re in a church, cathedral or temple,” Ranee said. She compared them to stained glass windows.

Something else from Ranee to ponder, if you go: “When you write in water, it’s not concrete. It’s something that is constantly changing.”

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon in the Goodale Theater at the Cowles CenterFMI and tickets ($29). Here’s a video excerpt.


Mesmerizing Indian dance launches musical weekend
Kati Schardl, Tallahassee Democrat
October 6, 2015
Original Article

Grounded in the ancient Indian texts called the vedas, the classical South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam was once the exclusive province of the gods, particularly Shiva, the Lord of the Dance. Thousands of years ago, it came down to earth and was gifted to humankind when the sage Bharata wrote his great treatise on Indian music, drama and dance.

Bharatanatyam is considered the embodiment of the eternal cosmic dance, and dancers who devote themselves to the art approach performance with an attitude of reverence and ritual.

The universal became personal when Ragamala Dance Company performed the world premiere of “Written in Water,” a work co-commissioned by Opening Nights Performing Arts, Wednesday night at the Nancy Smith Fichter Dance Theatre.

One didn’t need to know the specific narrative arc of the story being told onstage to get swept up in its drama. The work’s power and the company’s artistry created a lexicon of sound, vision and movement that allowed each audience member to project their own story onto the stage.

The piece is based on the ancient Indian board game of Snakes and Ladders, which served as a metaphor for the tension between earthly longing and divine ecstasy. The five dancers of the company — troupe founder Ranee Ramaswamy and daughters Aparna and Ashwini, with Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala — performed on a stage ornamented by projections of original paintings by the Chennai-based artist Keshav, to music composed by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy. ElSaffar also led the superb musical ensemble on santur, trumpet and vocals.

A minor lighting glitch at the beginning halted the performance but once it was sorted and the dance began in earnest, “Written in Water” unfolded like a dream — a feast for the eyes, ears and heart. Tightly choreographed ensemble passages flowed into improvisational movements that gave each dancer a chance to add her personal vocabulary of gesture and motion to the overall narrative.

In an ensemble performing a form as defined as Bharatanatyam, the individual blends into the whole with synchronized movements and beautifully expressive gestures. But Aparna Ramaswamy in particular riveted the eye and stirred the heart with steps and gestures that were by turn assertive and exquisitely delicate. With sinuous waves of her hands, she embodied the naga, or serpent, of the game, or summoned the motion of water; with lovely fluttering fingers, open arms and a radiantly expressive face, she was the essence of jubilance and gratitude.

The musical ensemble’s seamless mind meld with the dancers sealed the spell cast by “Written in Water.” ElSaffar’s vocals wove in and around those of singer Preethy Mahesh, whose warm, emotive voice was mesmerizing — she anchored the sound with her pure, limber alto tone.

It was coincidence that this wonderful new work was performed in the middle of the nine-day celebration of Navaratri, one of the most significant festivals on the Hindu devotional calendar. It honors the divine feminine in the form of the goddess Durga and her avatars. As Ranee Ramaswamy said in a Q&A session following the performance, when you practice an art such as Bharatanatyam, every day is Navaratri — a spiritual celebration illuminating a secular world.