Dancers bring worldwide flair to audience
Susan Broili, The Herald Sun
July 16, 2012

The American Dance Festival’s fifth week had an international flavor when Israel’s Vertigo Dance Company and Ragamala Dance came to town.

The Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance proves that tradition can be transplanted. Their performance offers an Indian feast for the ears and eyes. Vocalist and musicians sit onstage as their melodic, meditative sounds begin the 90-minute “Sacred Earth” and sets the mood of ritual and centuries-old traditions. Breathtakingly beautiful backdrops of landscapes, ocean and fantastical trees where birds perch and monkeys swing add to the exotic atmosphere. Anil Chaitya Vangad created these paintings in the Warli style, a craft his family has practiced for three generations. The art, music and South Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam make this performance a rich, cultural experience.

This dance begins with a ritual practiced each morning in southwestern India by women who make rice flour designs on the ground as offerings to Mother Earth. Dancers release rice flour in circular patterns on the stage floor. When they finish, they squat, knees out to the side, and press hands together in prayer.

The entire dance has a reverent quality that honors the earth. Dancers make planting motions, smoothing the ground, casting seeds. At one point, a dancer’s down-turned finger motions suggest rain.

Dancing alternates between sculptural poses and embodiment of rhythms. When dancers stamp their feet, their ankle bells jingle. One soloist uses her feet to duplicate each intricate, changing rhythm of the drums.

Even though it is based in Minneapolis, this company represents a long Indian tradition since half of its members come directly from that culture. There’s Ranee Ramaswamy, who founded the company in 1992, and her daughter Aparna Ramaswamy, who both serve as artistic directors as well as dance, and another daughter, Ashwini Ramaswamy, a dancer. They are joined by a disciple of many years, Tamara Nadel.

In addition to the inclusion of two U.S. dancers relatively new to this art form, Jessica Fiala and Amanda Dlouhy, students of Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy, this company also adds some other modern aspects. While musicians’ instruments include the traditional nattuvangam, a set of cymbals, there’s also a Western instrument – the violin.


ADF Presents Ragamala's Beautiful Sacred Earth
Kate Dobbs Ariail, Classical Voice of North Carolina
July 10, 2012
Original article


Ragamala, a South Indian Bharatanatyam dance company from Minneapolis, turns the Reynolds Theater stage into a mesmerizing village in Sacred Earth, for the company’s first American Dance Festival appearance. The six female dancers are accompanied by a four-person orchestra, which includes a rich-voiced Carnatic singer. The beautiful program will repeat on July 11 and 12.

Ragamala was founded 20 years ago by Ranee Ramaswamy (she and daughter Aparna are co-artistic directors and soloists; another daughter Ashwini is also a soloist), but the ancient forms of Bharatanatyam dance, with its expansive language of gesture and movement, developed in south India over centuries before the Indian diaspora cast it up in such an unlikely new home as Minnesota. Bharatanatyam can seem surprisingly modern, and here the production’s video backdrop component keeps us aware of the 21st century. Drawings in the Warli style by Anil Chaitya Vangad, white on dark grounds, are projected onto backdrops and sheer scrims. Motifs include trees of life, rivers, rice fields, and village rituals, all arranged with relaxed symmetry and many including circular or spiral patterning. Sacred Earth utilizes, and draws imagery from, Tamil Sangam poetry (300 BCE-300 CE). An English version of these fragments is conveniently provided in the program, and intermittently, the texts are spoken in English, as well as being sung in their original language, accompanied by nattuvangam, mridangam and violin. The rhythm is steady, rising and falling like breathing, and the dancers add high and low sounds to the mix with their gentle stamping and the shimmer of their ankle bells.

For many people from Western cultures, the way in to Indian classical dance is through color, and the glories of silk pleated, wrapped and draped over the dancers’ bodies. Certainly, those are important components of the spectacle. In Sacred Earth, each dancer wears a very similar costume, but each has her own color, ranging through the golden and red earth tones, with one the green of rivers and distant mountains. The rich silks are given even greater depth by the way their pleats and folds move and reflect the light differently from their taut expanses, and the colors are further augmented by the red-stained decorations of the bejeweled dancers’ feet, fingers and palms. Although the dancers are almost completely covered, their shapes are well-defined and smoothed into sensuous curves.

Sacred Earth begins with a long, pleasing ritual spreading of rice flour upon the earth. Kolam is a practice of women in southeastern India, who begin each day marking out a pale design, an offering to the Earth Mother, outside their doors. This stage version was designed by Ranee Ramaswamy. In it, five dancers quietly arrange their white flour drawings on the black stage floor, turning around them as they begin to spiral. In the center of their circle, a sixth dancer does the same, a wheel within a wheel. The designs eventually meld into circles within a circle, which becomes the dance ground.

As the dance develops, the storytelling strengths of Bharatanatyam become evident. Even if you’ve never seen any Indian classical dance, you will find some of the gestures immediately clear, and here the use of poetry and painting makes gesture interpretation generally easy (although I’m certain there are levels and levels beyond the easy one). As the evening goes on, this complex art’s many elements — music, rhythm, song, story, poem, prayer, gesture, motion, image, light, color — meld, like “Earth and pouring rain/Mingled/Beyond Parting."