Indian dance troupe honors secular and spiritual life
Gwyn McAllister, The Martha's Vineyard Times
August 26, 2014
Original article

Like a Hindu goddess come to life, Aparna Ramaswamy of the Ragamala Dance Company enchanted a sold-out house at The Yard this past Saturday night. In two weekend performances, the master of Bharatanatyam dance presented four intricate dances each with a different theme — the Divine Feminine, the Ganges River, a love poem, and a celebration of life.

Dressed in traditional costume comprising a sort of sari/pants/pleated skirt combination, with a jeweled headdress, belled ankle cuffs, and eyes made up in an exaggerated cat eye style, Ms. Ramaswamy expertly combined a series of statuesque poses with fluid dance moves and mimed actions. Accompanied by a singer, a chanter, and two musicians (all female), the accomplished dancer utilized every part of her body — from her eyes, head, and neck to her very supple fingers — to achieve a program that was in equal parts a spectacular display of dance and a very moving and spiritual experience.

Ms. Ramaswamy, along with her mother and co-choreographer Ranee, her musical accompanists, and a small troupe of dancers were in residency at The Yard in Chilmark for two weeks before presenting their work Sannidhi (Sacred Space) to the public on Thursday and Saturday nights.

The Minneapolis based Ragamala Dance Company was founded by Ranee Ramaswamy in 1992. The mother and daughter are co-artistic directors and choreographers. Their work has been performed at venues all over the world and they have received commissions from a number of prestigious organizations including, most recently, Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

The New York Times gave a rave review to that performance of Ragamala’s Song of the Jasmine, which featured five dancers in a music/dance collaboration, calling it, “a soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious collaboration with the superb jazz composer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.”

Bharatanatyam is a classical form of Indian dance that dates back to ancient times when it was performed as a form of devotion to the gods in the Hindu temples. Since enjoying a revival in the 19th and 20th centuries, Bharatanatyam has become very popular throughout India and elsewhere. The music — called Carnatic music — is an integral part of the dance. As the younger Ms. Ramaswamy explained in a Q&A after Saturday evening’s performance, the Ragamala musicians work very closely with the choreography team in creating the dances. Bharatanatyam is said to be the embodiment of music in visual form.

The musicians, who also performed an intro and an interlude unaccompanied by dance, were fascinating to watch. Sitting on the floor to the side of the stage, along with Ranee who at times read from classical Indian poetry and chanted, were vocalist Ramya Sunderesan Kapadia and sisters Anjna (violin) and Rajna (percussion) Swaminathan. Both highly skilled, the sisters improvised a good deal, demonstrating both their prowess and the level of connectedness they have attained in the years spent performing together.

Ms. Ramaswamy stressed the amount of training that each of the members has gone through. Although the younger troupe members, including Aparna, were born in the U.S., they have all spent years studying under masters in India.

“Each of us comes from a very well known, well respected teacher in India,” said Ms. Ramaswamy. She and her mother both studied under one of the world’s greatest living Bharatanatyam dancers.

However, as Ms. Ramaswamy explained to the Saturday audience in a knowledgeable and articulate manner, the Ragamala dancer’s work is very much a product of the member’s experience living in this country as well as their roots in India.

According to the Ragamala website (, “We draw from the myth and spirituality of our South Indian heritage to make 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. Together we craft every moment to create intricate and complex worlds that convey a sense of reverence, of unfolding mystery, of universal celebration.”

The quartet of dances enjoyed by Yard audiences last weekend were both aesthetically pleasing and emotionally gratifying. There was something mesmerizing about watching the fluid movements and marveling at Ms. Ramaswamy’s grace and strength that provided a soothing, meditative experience. Although the lyrics would have been unintelligible to most Western audiences, the poems were read by Ranee in English and the stories and themes of each dance were obvious. In particular, the dance that dealt with the relationship that Indians enjoy with the sacred river, the Ganges, was very literate and beautiful as Ms. Ramaswamy used her expressive hand movements and postures to full effect.

Both informative and exhilarating to watch, the Ragamala performances were a great example of the spectrum of dance that The Yard brings to Vineyard audiences every summer.

“This summer we’ve had an overarching theme of artists who have clearly dedicated themselves to the past but are not trapped by the past,” said David White, in his introduction to Saturday’s performance.

After the performance, Mr. White said that he hopes to have a continuing relationship with the Ragamala dance troupe.


Karen Campbell, The Boston Globe
August 16, 2014

APARNA RAMASWAMY Born in India, raised partly in America, the heralded Bharatanatyam soloist and choreographer preserves ancient dance forms with stunning technical virtuosity and expressivity. Yet she also aims to create a living tradition that is resonant for modern times, a philosophy reflected in her new solo with live music “Sannidhi (Sacred Space).” 

Aug. 21 and 23, $15-$25. The Yard, Patricia N. Nanon Theater, Chilmark. 508-645-9662 


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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