Pleasing Deities, and the Eyes, With Storytelling Steps From India
Bharatanatyam and Odissi Dance Performances in New York

Siobhan Burke, The New York Times
October 8, 2013
Original article

The city’s dance world at this time of year offers no shortage of festivals, from the something-for-everyone programming at Fall for Dance to the genre-blurring lineup at Crossing the Line. While dancegoers flocked to those last week, a kind of inadvertent festival, the product of serendipitous timing, unfolded with less fanfare.

Classical Indian dance has a strong presence in Manhattan, but it’s rare for four solo practitioners of Bharatanatyam (a South India style) and Odissi (native to the northeast) to perform in town within a few days.

On Oct. 1 the venerable Leela Samson and Madhavi Mudgal, both based in Delhi, shared a bill at the Asia Society. On Saturday, Aparna Ramaswamy, a younger dancer from Minneapolis, lit up Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. And at the Ailey Citigroup Theater on Sunday, New York’s own Rajika Puri gave a survey of her work, presented by the South Asian arts organization Navatman.

Together, these concerts afforded a close look at two highly codified dance forms, revealing nuances that can be hard to discern in a single evening.

Both Bharatanatyam and Odissi are largely storytelling traditions: Hindu scripture, physicalized. Dancers, channeling deities, might relate romantic dramas or turbulent sagas through elaborate, sculptural gestures. But for viewers not versed in these corporeal languages, the stories can be hard to decipher. As fascinating as Radha, Krishna and the whole pantheon can be, an untrained onlooker might wonder, Am I missing something?

That pesky question, of course, accompanies many experiences of watching dance. Ms. Mudgal and Ms. Samson — both in their 60s and both considered masters of their forms — reminded us that with Odissi and Bharatanatyam, as with any art, you don’t need to know everything to appreciate some things.

In Ms. Mudgal’s “Madhave Makuru Manini” — an Odissi work portraying the goddess Radha as “one who has quarreled with her beloved and sent him away” — the story didn’t matter as much as the dancer’s utter commitment to telling it. Every shift of weight, every darting glance, every hummingbirdlike flourish of the hands furthered the conversation she seemed to be having, with its shades of yearning, anger, surprise. Ms. Mudgal’s immersion in that material, regardless of its content, was enough to hold you captive.

The same was true of Ms. Samson, a more jovial if less mysterious performer, who offered the Bharatanatyam portion of the evening: a gentle, poetic vignette followed by a more bracing one, punctuated with percussive footwork. In a discussion after the show, the moderator (Ms. Puri, it so happened) remarked on the inward-looking intensity — and its radiance outward — of both performers. As one audience member said of their dancing, “You’re almost breathing it.”

If age brings a rich inner life, it also brings wear and tear on the body. Compared with these wise, grounded veterans, the ravishing Ms. Ramaswamy, perhaps a couple of decades their junior, exuded a brisk, eager energy in her hourlong program, “Sannidhi (Sacred Space).” Joined by four superb musicians, she gorgeously embodied the swooping violin; the plunking mridangam; the wailing, warbling vocals. Again, any fixation with “getting it” slipped away.

Ms. Puri, though, seems to care very deeply that we get it. A noted scholar of Indian dance, she has developed a more literal genre of danced storytelling, simultaneously narrating myths (most recently, scenes from Homer’s “Iliad”) in movement and words. In her lengthy program, “Sutradhari Natyam,” she guided us through her repertory.

Despite Ms. Puri’s inviting, intelligent presence and the novelty of her approach, the work, in all its theatrical exposition, felt overbearing. These eyes just wanted to see her dance.


Ragamala Dance casts an artful spell in Power Center performance
Susan Isaacs Nisbett, The Ann Arbos News
August 25, 2013
Original article


It is autumn for the 6 women dancers on stage, adorned in pleated silks of russet and gold, scarlet, olive and saffron. But there are flowers in their hair, and there is nothing autumnal about the hour-long “Sacred Earth,” presented by Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Wednesday at Power Center by the University Musical Society. On the contrary, it’s joy and serenity—the very opposite of fading light and waning days—that radiate from these exquisite dancers, trained and performing in the style of Indian classical dance known as bharatanatyam.

The dancers of Ragamala, directed by 2 of the 6, mother and daughter Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, who also choreographed “Sacred Earth,” dance with every fiber of their bodies, from the top down and to the tips of their fingers. Eyes dart, teeth flash, bells jangle at their ankles, feet and hands are tinted red to read all the more vividly.

They are pictures of grace and balance, centered and upright, but also supple in their movement. And they dance in harmony with, well “Sacred Earth,” revealed here through Tamil poetry, tribal Indian art and live music.

Bharatanatyam is traditionally a solo art, but in “Sacred Earth” the Ramaswamys artfully employ an ensemble—not just to echo and amplify the movements of soloists (the two of them plus Ashwini Ramaswamy and Tamara Nadel), but to mesmerize through unison movement and accumulation of gestures.

In the opening, the ensemble circles Ranee Ramaswamy, rice powder streaming from their outstretched hands as she crouches at their center, making a rice-powder design on the floor, an offering to Mother Earth. It would have been nice to see that pattern projected on the backdrop, but what is there instead—projections of chalked wall paintings commissioned from a Warli artist from western India, Anil Chaitya Vangad —seems the very incarnation of the dance’s theme of harmony between the elements of nature and all who inhabit it, human and animal.

Stick-figure humans spiral across the space in expanding arcs at the dance’s beginning. Trees of life spring up, monkeys climb them; rivers flow, fish swim; horses graze and are groomed; birds nest among grasses and whole villages materialize against smoke and mauve skies.

The dancers bring these pictures—and those of the poems, with their metaphors of love and nature—to life in narrative sections of the dance; the excellent musicians (Lalit Subramanian, Suchitra Sairam, Rajna Swaminathan and Anjna Swaminathan) contribute their voices with expressive melismatic singing, and with violin, tabla and cymbals. They follow and lead and call out the rhythms in the animated pure-dance sections that showcase the dancers’ technical skills.

Aparna Ramaswamy made a particularly strong impression with her vivacity and precision and musicality, but all the dancers—as befits a dance about harmony—worked together with a sort of luminous sympathy that was itself a meditation.


1,001 Buddhas is a trip for the soul
Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune
March 25, 2013
Original article


The Sanjusangendo Temple is a marvel, a sight not to be missed in Kyoto, Japan. But if a trip halfway across the globe isn’t in your future, the next best thing can be found at Minneapolis’ Cowles Center this weekend. Ragamala Dance’s “1,001 Buddhas: Journey of the Gods” celebrates the famed landmark with a stunningly beautiful production created and choreographed by the mother-daughter team of Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy.

Inspired by the temple’s treasures, 1,001 Buddhist figures “guarded” by 28 Hindu deities, the artists made a work combining elements from their area of expertise — south Indian music and dance, specifically Bharatanatyam — with soul-stirring Taiko drumming performed by the impressive Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara of Nagano, Japan. The collaboration had its world premiere on Friday night before a rapt audience.

Relationships are important to this work. The first is among the Ragamala dancers (Amanda Dlouhy, Jessica Fiala, Tamara Nadel and Ashwini Ramaswamy, in addition to Ranee and Aparna). Their reverent movements evoke the gods and demons in Hindu traditions — from the gentlest to the most fearsome — accounting for every element of symbolic expression. Sisters Aparna and Ashwini are particularly divine in a lengthy duet, their eyes conveying different personalities from one moment to the next. They dance as if two halves of a single being.

Next is the coordination between the members of Wadaiko (Art Lee, Yukari Ichise, Dean Havixbeck and Takafumi Onozawa). They play their massive drums with masterful precision, proving that power and grace are compatible concepts. They are partnered with the soaring sounds of an Indian orchestra featuring Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan (Chenda drum), Rajna Swaminathan (Mridangam drum), Anjna Swaminathan (violin) with vocalist Lalit Subramanian, whose singing casts a spell. Prema Ramamurthy also contributed to the musical composition.

And finally there is Jeff Bartlett’s lush lighting, imbued with golds and reds. The dancers seem to flicker like flames.

All of these elements come together in a seemingly effortless manner to produce a singular and transformative work. “1,001 Buddhas” shifts the viewer’s relationship to space and time. Within just one hour it feels possible that we were spirited away to Sanjusangendo to witness its carved statues come to life, perhaps during the magical darkness of a late night. And then we return, forever changed by — and grateful for — the experience.


Drumbeats and dance moves as Ragamala joins forces with Japanese percussionists
Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune
March 16, 2013
Original article

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon the walls of Ragamala Dance’s studio in south Minneapolis reverberated with the thunderous sounds of taiko drums played with a combination of raw power and disciplined grace by the Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara of Nagano, Japan. Ragamala members Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel, Jessica Fiala and Amanda Dlouhy moved with assured deliberation and regal poise in striking counterpoint to the rhythmic fury. They became a quartet of statues animated by the exquisite breath of life.

And that is precisely what Ragamala artistic directors Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy intended when they set out to create “1,001 Buddhas: Journey of the Gods,” premiering this weekend at the Cowles Center. The choreographers (who were named the Star Tribune’s 2011 Artists of the Year) work primarily in the south Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam and found inspiration from the uncommon pairing of 28 Hindu carved deities with 1,001 Buddhist figures in the famed Sanjusangendo temple in Kyoto, Japan. After being awed firsthand by the impressive sight of the temple and its spiritual lore, the mother and daughter team began to delve further, eventually merging their artistic perspectives with information gleaned from extensive research.

The resulting evening-length work unites mythology, iconography and history with the practice of honoring the past by finding new relevance and expressive possibility in the present day. This is the sort of delicate balance between the ancient and the innovative that Ragamala has managed so successfully over the company’s two decades in existence.

“We are not trying to make statements about Buddhism, that’s not our goal,” Aparna said during a rehearsal break. Instead, both she and Ranee explained, the piece is a deeply personal response to the power, grandeur, beauty and fearsomeness of the Hindu sentinels, gods and demons alike. It is also an exploration of the deep-seated connections between Japan and India established through thousands of years of cultural interchange, including the new ones forged through this particular project.

Everyone involved in “1,001 Buddhas” has been challenged to stretch the boundaries of his or her particular artistic form while staying true to its integrity. The musicians, for example, come from both Japanese and Indian rhythmic traditions, and yet have found ways over just a few short weeks to seamlessly meld the two so they become like one in the piece. “We’re building not just in blocks, but in layers,” said Aparna.

“All of us are keeping our information correct while experimenting amongst each other,” added Ranee.

The explosive Tokara (Art Lee, Yukari Ichise, Dean Havixbeck and Takafumi Onozawa), which first worked with Ragamala locally in 2008’s fiery “Sva (Vital Force),” has expanded upon the basic elements of the taiko drumming tradition. “We’ve come up with something completely new,” said Lee, referring to the increasingly fluent musical conversation that occurs over the course of the performance between his ensemble and Ragamala’s south Indian orchestra featuring Rajna Swaminathan (mridangam drum), Anjna Swaminathan (violin) and Lalit Subramaniam (vocals) plus guest Chenda drummer Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan.

“What I play is usually in close dialogue with footwork. Now there are new things to rearrange, it’s more abstract,” said Rajna, who has also considered ways to give voice to her much smaller drum in response to the larger ones played by Tokara.

The sense of abstraction has opened up an opportunity for the Ramaswamys to approach their own work differently. While classical Bharatanatyam technique and tenets still underscore the dancing in “1,001 Buddhas,” longtime Ragamala watchers will note that many of the gestures, poses and movement elements have a different sense of rhythmic freedom, characterization and flow. The varied personalities of the Hindu deities are represented through alert bird-like stances, gnarled hands, shuddering arms and piercing stares. The dancer’s bodies remain very upright and they perform even more closely together as a unit, emanating the sort of regimentation befitting supernatural beings tasked with the role of zealous protectors.

Aside from this latest endeavor the increasingly in-demand Ramaswamys are keeping busy with other commitments both on and off the stage. Last year Ranee was nominated by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Arts. She was also named a United States Artists Fellow. And Aparna, who has received international recognition as a soloist, recently scored a National Dance Project Touring Fund to tour an evening of her own choreography.

So today Ragamala Dance and the Ramaswamys are taking on the United States, India and Japan. Which corner of the globe will find its way into their next project? Wherever it may be, when these artists act as guides the journey is always a delight.