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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BWW Review: Aparna Ramaswamy at The Joyce Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: Aparna Ramaswamy, Solo and Symbiotic at the Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Review: Ashwini Ramaswamy Goes Solo at the Drive East Festival
Gia Kourlas, The New York Times
August 12, 2015
Original Article

Dancers are like anyone else: Sometimes they get the urge to leave the nest. Ashwini Ramaswamy, a soloist with the much-admired Ragamala Dance Company, struck out on her own on Tuesday night at Drive East, the excellent festival of Indian music and dance playing through Sunday at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa. 

Ragamala, based in Minneapolis, is led by the artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy and specializes in the classical style of Bharatanatyam. (Ranee is Ashwini Ramaswamy’s mother; Aparna is her sister.) For this performance, Ms. Ramaswamy opened with “Shankara Sri Giri,” a dance honoring the Shiva Nataraja, the creator and destroyer of the universe, as choreographed by Alarmél Valli. This solo of sacred movement wove together, both fearfully and joyfully, the human and the divine as expressed through the body of Ms. Ramaswamy. 

Despite her gleaming beauty, Ms. Ramaswamy presents herself with a forthright simplicity, imbuing her refined, sculptural muscularity with a tranquillity that contrasts with the springy exuberance of her feet. Whether emphasizing thrusting heels or balancing in a sacred pose with one leg raised and bent forward, she neither rushes nor remains frozen: Within each articulation is the sense that there is breath — or a continual flow of energy — coursing through her limbs. 

In “Varnam,” the dancer longs to be united with Lord Vishnu. Before this exploration of love got underway, Ranee Ramaswamy, the work’s choreographer as well as a player in the four-member orchestra, explained that it was “a metaphor for the ecstasy that one feels for the divine.”

A half-smile brought an impish candor to Ashwini Ramaswamy’s face and dancing eyes, while her light jumps and tilting torso pulled her from one diagonal to the other. She had been heroic before; now she exuded the darting ebullience of a butterfly. 

As she pined for Vishnu, opening her fingers like blossoms, Ms. Ramaswamy embodied a youthful restlessness that took on even more speed and valor in the finale, “Thillana,” choreographedby Ms. Valli.

But the all-woman orchestra also gave this program luster. Along with Ranee Ramaswamy on nattuvangam, or cymbals, the musical accompaniment included the lush singing of Roopa Mahadevan and robust violin playing by Anjna Swaminathan. Rajna Swaminathan, her sister , on mridangam, kept the beat. In classical Indian dance, such girl power is a rare and welcome sight.


Meet the Women Radicalizing One of the World's Oldest Dance Forms
Mallika Rao, The Huffington Post
August 12, 2015
Original article

One of America’s most unusual dance dynasties reigns in Minneapolis: the trio of Ranee Ramaswamy, and her daughters Aparna and Ashwini.

In just over two decades, their company, Ragamala, has become the standard bearer of a singularly successful kind of hybridity, merging ancient traditions into high-end productions that major grant organizations find hard to resist. Their only other members are not of Indian origin. Together, the five dancers travel the world with first generation Indian-American women accompanists, bucking the classical hangup that true virtuosity is the domain of men.

Maybe it's the "Minnesota nice" effect, but the cutthroat vibe that usually attends Indian classical artistry isn't evident in the company's protocol either. Sweeping her arms upward at a rehearsal in Manhattan this past Sunday, in a move choreographed by her mother for the pièce de résistance of a bharatanatyam program -- the varnam -- Ashwini joked that the gesture reminded her of the Disney classic “Fantasia": “when Mickey calls up the waves.” 

That sense of "mischief," to quote one reviewer, comes out in Ashwini'sadami, the signature head movement usually associated with seduction. Offstage, the dissonance continues, with speech peppered in a cheery mix of pop culture references and the flat As of the midwest.

Ashwini was rehearsing for her solo Manhattan debut, made Tuesday night as part of the South Asian arts festival Drive East. In one wing of the studio sat Ranee, on nattuvangam -- brass cymbals used to keep time by the dancer's guru. Youthful at 63, she was the eldest there by a few generations. To her left sat vocalist Roopa Mahadevan, and flanking the two, sisters Anjna and Rajna Swaminathan on the violin and themridangam respectively, the latter a barrel-shaped hand drum.

In her saffron half-sari set off by neon orange toenails, Ashwini looked up to the task of hooking modern viewers. Aparna sat directly in front of her so as to “nitpick” -- as she put it -- precisely. English, Tamil and Sanskrit flew. Everyone except Ranee occasionally dipped into Indian-isms for comic effect: “Why you do like that?” Aparna asked Mahadevan, when the singer mistakenly cut a jati off too quickly.

The women took pains to plot out the impact of fleeting moments, timing each step of Ashwini’s slower riffs, and building in space for Mahadevan to improvise with pleasure. “You should feel freedom,” Aparna told the singer gravely. Comic relief came during a recap of the varnam, in the form of a Tamil metaphor for lovers: a “creeper” vine and a tree. Ranee got an earful on the stalker vibes of a word the rest insisted only Indians use. “If I ever find a skinny man,” said Mahadevan, who with her curly hair and Venus shape, looks like a Renaissance painting, “I’m going to say, ‘You’re the creeper to my tree.’”

“I think we’ve got a good Hallmark card idea here,” Ashwini shot back.

The Ramaswamys function on an "adapt or die" mentality, but “fusion” is a bad word. They say they haven’t yet found a term dimensional enough to please them. “You wouldn’t believe how many people ask us if we’ve done something with flamenco,” Aparna says later, sitting at a café down the street from La MaMa, the experimental performance space where Drive East unfolds through mid-August.

The elder of the two, Aparna is ferocious where Ashwini is affable. She gets visibly charged when she explains why the company, which doubles as a small dance school, doesn’t "do arangetrams."

For Indian-Americans, the word itself conjures up an entire culture. Think wedding, quinceañera and bat mitzvah madness rolled together, only with the star of the show dancing for three hours with the help of live musicians flown in from India, and flower arrangements from Holland and Hawaii. Literally translated to “ascending the stage,” the arangetram is essentially a debut performance. What was once the purview only of dancers with intentions of going pro has become a standard rite of passage for Indian-American high schoolers set to switch their sights onto medicine or engineering come fall. Over the years, one-upmanship has scaled new heights, with some families booking the Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall for their girl’s big day. 

For non-Indians throughout the country, invited by colleagues or friends, these events can be a primary mode of dance education. This primacy troubles the Ramaswamys. “As a cultural representation, community productions are not always of the highest quality,” Aparna says carefully. “And it’s hard for audiences to tell the difference.”

In some respects, the apocryphally old dance form enchants easily. Bharatanatyam dancers dress in peacock-bright pleated costumes, sewn from saris. Good footwork is thrilling, and experts can seem to fly in the air when they get going. Then there are the stretches ofabhinaya, or expression, which can feel like avant-garde theater. Scenes take shape with mudras -- hand gestures -- depicting every magical Indian icon, from the elephant to the peacock to the pantheon of Hindu gods.

The flashy exterior belies an intense interior experience for the dancer. Aparna equates dancing to engaging in “prayer.” The soulfulness of the form is why collaboration must be approached respectfully, she argues. Mindless flamenco infusions are out. “You have to be thoughtful. It's not just about, ‘Oh, they have rhythm, and we have rhythm!’” she says, her eyes widening. “That's too shallow.”

Given the obsession with classical culture in Indian-American communities nationwide, the dearth of homegrown professionalism is striking. Rajna Swaminathan says she is one of two Indian-American women who plays the mridangam full time in the country. Those who do take the leap typically do so with the support of parents unswayed by the security of a career in medicine. Often, they are musicians themselves. The Swaminathans’ father, for instance, a physicist based in Maryland, is also an accomplished mridangist who accompanies visiting performers.

In this underpopulated landscape, cross-disciplinary collaboration is key. On the docket for Ragamala is a project with Amir ElSaffar, a talented Iraqi trumpeter. Last year’s “Song Of The Jasmine” -- run at the Lincoln Center, which also co-commissioned the production -- featured the Indian-American jazz composer Rudresh Mahanthappa. In the lead-up, he decamped to Minneapolis to workshop with the Ramaswamys, a process that involved poring through love poetry by the eighth-century Tamil poetess Andal. The result was an original work heralded in The New York Times as “infectious.” “You don’t generally go to a performance of Bharatanatyam,” began the review, “expecting to want to get up and dance.”

The key in mixing forms is “finding a thematic bedrock,” Aparna says. Tapping into a shared idea -- the parallel between romantic and spiritual love, perhaps, or, as in the case of jazz and Carnatic traditions, a love of improvisation -- yields entry points. Engaging fully in the creative stages "allows wider audiences to understand the complexity and the richness of the individual forms," Aparna says.

The Ramaswamys' obsession with the idea of individual integrity comes from their teacher, Alarmel Valli. A legend in India, Valli is trained in a style known aspandanallur. A guiding metaphor is of a feather blown into a straight line. “That interplay of grace and strength,” Ashwini credits as the basis for the style's every movement.

A point of distinction for Valli is to access one's personhood on stage. The Ramaswamys are schooled to some extent in themselves. Where Aparna is fierce (in the family mythology, she knew she was going to be a dancer at the age of three), Ashwini is a wanderer. Both women are graduates of Carleton College, a liberal arts school not far from where they grew up. After graduation, Aparna worked on Ragamala with their mom while Ashwini headed to New York, spending a few years in the book publishing world before turning back to what they jokingly call “the family business.”

In childhood too, the girls diverged. “I was more of an American kid,” Ashwini says, rattling off her list of interests: writing, drawing, singing. “Most American kids try all the activities,” Ranee says pragmatically. “They don’t go deep, they go out.”

Aparna, she contrasts, “was ready to be molded” the moment she saw Valli perform, as a young girl. That first glimpse became the family’s origin story. Living in Minneapolis, they rarely saw the big visiting artists from India, who mostly toured the diasporic hotspots: New Jersey, Texas, California. When Valli came to town in 1982, “she changed the city,” Ranee says. Non-Indians and Indians alike turned out for what would become the first of many appearances in Minneapolis.

By then, Ranee had become the small community’s de facto performer. “Women my age were not usually trained at all,” she says. Her first marriage, to Ashwini’s and Aparna’s father, was arranged, into a family who “didn’t even like me to hum,” she says. “They thought it wasn’t proper for a Brahmin woman to perform,” and so she pursued her childhood passion tepidly, performing to taped music at community events that didn't require much soul-searching.

Her eventual divorce set the three women in motion toward the stage. They began to take annual pilgrimages to India to learn at the feet of Valli, who encouraged Aparna to access her fire, and Ashwini to let her playfulness shine through.

The counterintuitiveness of their lives (relatedly, all three women are now married to non-Indian men) seems to give them pleasure. "We're not one or the other culture, so why would our work be?" Aparna says. 

Indeed, they seem to be performing even when they're not. At the end of rehearsal, Ashwini mugged one last time. “The best feeling is being done,” she said, panting a little after the final leg of her thillana -- all leaps and quicksilver footwork. Then, a smile, as if she didn't mean that at all.


Mother and daughter pair jazz with Indian dance
Laura Molzahn, The Chicago Tribune
April 7, 2015
Original article

"We are partners in everything," says Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company with her mother, Ranee Ramaswamy. "We each have our own strengths, but everything we do comes from a dialogue."

Their collaboration began officially in 1992, when Ranee founded Ragamala, an innovative Minneapolis-based Indian dance company, and made her teenage daughter co-artistic director.

But they were working and studying together much earlier, says daughter Aparna, who believes their different personalities balance each other out: "My mother is high-energy, full of ideas, a broad thinker. I'm more deliberate: I like to go deep, so I'm more cautious. If we were in rehearsal and had an argument, she would storm out, and I'd be the one to ask her to come back, even at 8 or 10."

Over the years, Ragamala has leveraged that talent for collaboration in pieces that featured a flamenco dancer and opera music, for example. In 2013, with award-winning jazz composer-saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, the company began to create "Song of the Jasmine" (2014), which will have its Chicago debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art with five dancers, including Ranee, Aparna and younger daughter Ashwini.

Mahanthappa joins them onstage on sax, along with four other musicians playing electric guitar and Indian flute, percussion and violin.

Mahanthappa has studied traditional Indian Carnatic music, he says, but not in depth. The "Jasmine" score is jazz — with "big chunks" of improvisation built in. The choreographers have done the same, expanding the usual improvisations of Bharatanatyam.

Both Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music are rooted in Hindu religious poetry and take decades to master; both are revered, and carefully preserved, in Indian culture.

And what Ragamala performs is traditional Bharatanatyam, period. But collaborators have taken the company far afield in other ways. In 1991, Ranee set a piece to Robert Bly's translations of 16th-century Indian poet Mirabai.

"I was very scared," she says. "At that time, no one danced Indian dance to poems in English." So she added an Indian singer to the mix, "to justify what I was doing, so I was dancing to Indian words too."

Though Ranee studied Bharatanatyam from an early age, "I was only trained to be married," she says, "so I'd have an added qualification with Indian dance."

She stopped dancing when she wed, at 17, then took it up again after a lapse of several years. "I'm not a very assertive person," she says. "But I wanted to do that so badly that I choreographed myself from whatever I could remember."

Ranee started studying again, then taught, then began choreographing and performing. When Aparna was 8, mother and daughter took workshops at the University of Minnesota taught by renowned Indian dancer Alarmel Valli, venerated for her mastery of Pandanallur, one of three schools of Bharatanatyam.

"When we took that class," Ranee says, "Aparna was the one who absorbed everything. Valli said, 'You're like a computer!'" She became their guru, inviting Aparna and Ranee to train with her in India.

"From then on," Aparna says, "we went to India four months a year." Back home in Minnesota, the two toiled together to absorb Valli's teachings, knowing that she wouldn't take them back if they returned and had regressed.

"We would work tirelessly, every day," says Aparna. "We were correcting each other, working together. Then, when we went back (to India), it was a very vigorous study, 10 hours a day, every day."

In "Jasmine," Aparna wanted to collaborate with Mahanthappa on a thematic level.

"My mother and I wanted to work with the idea of the sacred and the sensual, something that's very clear to me in jazz and Indian music," says Aparna. "There's no separation between the two."

As their text, they chose "Sacred Sayings of the Goddess," a poem of 143 verses by 10th-century female mystic Andal, whose longing to unite with Lord Vishnu has struck some conservative Hindus as overly erotic.

But no verses are heard or embodied in "Jasmine." Instead, mother and daughter chose just a few lines of poetry to "inspire the work," Aparna says. "There's no spoken text, no sung lyric. The ideas are brought out, in five sections, in the music and dance."

Mahanthappa says the challenge was to "conjure this emotion and imagery with wordless melody and choreography." That's "a big deal, a big stretch," he adds, in the universe of Indian music and dance.


The Do-ers: Celebrating Women Who Do
Aalaap Magazine
A bi-monthly Indian performing arts magazine, with perspectives and point of views on specific subjects by artists and connoisseurs from across the world. 
March 12, 2015
Click here to download this issue of Aalaap Magazine

Do you remember your first day at work? Tell us what you were thinking, how your day went by, and what was running through your mind when you got home that evening?

I have an interesting situation, where my work and family life are interconnected. The Ragamala Dance Company was formed by my mother and sister, Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, when I was 12, and I danced with the company throughout my school years. I took a break after university to work in publicity at Penguin Books in New York City. Later, in 2007 I began working at Ragamala (Dance Company) as the Publicity and Marketing Director as well as a company dancer. So I can’t recall an exact first day because Bharatanatyam has been part of my daily life since I was a young child. But I will say that the administrative side is a constant learning curve — the ways to promote and create visibility for a dance company are always changing. My background was in book publicity, so I use the skills I developed working on books, and adapted them to the field of dance.

What is your typical day like, in office?

No such thing! Every day is different — between the company’s busy touring schedule, meetings, shifting rehearsal schedules (we like to maintain a balance of individual practice and group practice), and teaching, I find that virtually no two days are the same. But on a typical day that we are not on tour, the group or I would practice for two to three hours in the morning, and then I usually do my office work like managing our website, creating emails to send out to our audiences, contacting press about upcoming tours and events etc. After lunch, I may have a meeting or I might continue with office work. I might end the day teaching a dance class, maybe from 5.30-6.30pm. Of course, as dance artistes, we must also find time to read inspiring texts and poetry, listen to music, and develop our physicality and stamina by going to yoga or pilates classes.

?What are the pros and cons of working with the family? Do you think you can take more liberties here than you would have, at another job?A lot of people tell us that they could never work with their family, but I think it works in this situation for a couple of reasons — first, we don’t really know any other way of existing; as I mentioned before, dance has been a part of our lives for over 30 years now, the love for it is in our blood. The strength of that bond, and the passion we have for our art makes it natural that we want to work together to bring our vision to life. Secondly, I think being from India is a major factor; our culture values the importance of family, so we are used to being surrounded by family members. That is not the case in the US, where personal space and independence are highly prioritised. I think people in India understand our way of working more than people in America! The cons are standard, sometimes it is difficult to separate the personal from the professional, and of course we bicker since we are around each other so often. But in the large scheme of things we work very well together. There are definitely more liberties here than at other jobs! We can seamlessly segue from a conversation about Bhakti poetry to recipe suggestions to shopping tips. And Aparna has twin boys and we love it when she brings them to work!

What have been your greatest learnings from the Ragamala Dance Company?

A strong work ethic; I have seen first-hand how hard work and dedication create success. Ragamala is the most successful Indian company in the US, and we perform at very prestigious theaters. We are programmed alongside some very famous modern dance companies, which is a huge step forward for a culturally based form. That is all due to the dogged determination of Ranee and Aparna.

Who is your role-model at work?

You can probably guess this, but both Ranee and Aparna are my role-models at work. They learn about staying true to one’s vision, aiming for the highest levels of artistry, and extreme commitment from our Guru, the legendary Smt Alarmél Valli. They imbue these practices into every aspect of their work, and I deeply respect that. 

Working in the arts isn’t exactly easy, right? How have you learnt to work around it? Can you share an anecdote or two with us?

You have to learn to be resourceful, because because the arts can be very fickle. One day there might be too many performances, and the next there may be none. Or there can be funding cuts at any time. All our staff knows how to stretch a budget, plan for potential pitfalls, and use our time wisely. I won’t mention any names, but many years ago we had a company manager who badly mishandled company funds, including omitting to paying payroll taxes. It is possible that she also embezzled money. It took time, patience, and help from wonderful volunteers, but everything was eventually sorted out and now we are stronger than ever. Our business manager is very cautious and runs a tight ship. You don’t want to ever forget to submit a receipt or you’re in trouble!

What is it like to curate and present Indian arts in a foreign country? Can you share a couple of your special experiences?

As I mentioned, this has been an ongoing process (Ragamala is now in its 23rd year as a company). It has taken an extraordinary amount of time to reach a point where people outside of India can approach Bharatanatyam and other classical arts without exoticizing or labeling them as ancient forms that are related to the past. Now that there are artistes in the diaspora like Ranee and Aparna who continue to create work that speaks to a wide cross section of people, Western audiences are much more familiar with Indian arts and are open to experiencing them in their purest forms. I can’t pinpoint one particular experience, but I love it when someone comes up to us and conveys that even though they didn’t understand the words of the music or the specificity of the gestures, they felt a connection to the art, and to us. When someone understands the universality of our art form and they want to see more, we have done our job. It is very satisfying to see the bhava and rasa concepts come to life within a non-Indian audience.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

Every year, actually every month, I strive to be a better dancer than the previous month. So in five years I hope to have grown and changed a lot as an artiste. I plan to continue going back to India to learn from Smt Alarmél Valli; every time I am around her I learn to be a better artiste. I am also interested in choreography, and have ideas for my own work. So in five years my goal would be to have presented at least two full evenings of original choreography. If there is one significant change/contribution that you’d like to make to the person/ organisation/institution you work for, what would it be? Ranee and Aparna are the visionaries behind Ragamala; my dream is to someday create work alongside them, and add my own vision to our company. I know that they would be very proud if we became a choreographic trio. I think that would be a very rare and exciting transformation for the company.



Song of the Jasmine divinely blends movements with South Indian melodies
Celia Wren, The Washington Post
January 30, 2015
Original article

Like a lover yearning for her beloved, the human soul longs to unite with the divine. That idea comes into play in “Song of the Jasmine,” the bharatanatyam dance work scheduled to visit the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Feb. 7.

Choreographed by Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy of the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company, in collaboration with saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, the piece takes inspiration from the writings of the Tamil mystic poet Andal, known for her devotion to the god Krishna.

“In Andal’s poetry, and in bharatanatyam — and on a much deeper level as part of the Indian psyche — the sensual and the sacred are one. There doesn’t have to be a disconnect between those two concepts,” Aparna Ramaswamy said, speaking by phone from Minneapolis.

Aparna and her mother, Ranee, are co-artistic directors of Ragamala Dance, which Ranee founded in 1992. Both women were born in India; both have trained with Alarmél Valli, a celebrated performer and choreographer in the Indian classical dance form of bharatanatyam.

Mother and daughter are among the five dancers who interpret “Song of the Jasmine,” a roughly hour-long work set to music inflected with jazz and South Indian music. (Ashwini Ramaswamy, Aparna’s sister, is also among the dancers.) In a version of the piece performed at New York’s Lincoln Center last year, the dancers drew on bharatanatyam’s physical vocabulary in ways that seemed now seductive, now jaunty, now rapt.

One side of the stage featured the five-person band, including composer Mahanthappa on alto saxophone. Other instrumentalists played the guitar, the mridangam (a two-sided hand drum), the Carnatic (or southern Indian) flute and violin. (The band will also perform live at the Feb. 7 performance.)

“Song of the Jasmine” began to bloom after the Ramaswamys attended a concert by Mahanthappa, who is known for fusing elements of South Indian music with jazz. Aparna Ramaswamy says she immediately connected with the musician’s sound.

She resolved to come up with a project that would involve the composer-saxophonist. Discussions about such a collaboration intensified in 2011, when Ragamala Dance performers and Mahanthappa were among the artists participating in the Kennedy Center’s Maximum India festival.

Eventually, the Ramaswamys proposed building a joint venture around the poetry of Andal, who lived in the 8th century or thereabouts. In India, Andal is “a household name,” Ranee said.

Ranee was raised in India. Aparna grew up primarily in the United States, but she spent a few months in India every year, and was familiar with Andal’s legacy. Mahanthappa, raised in Colorado, didn’t know Andal’s writing, but he found the source material fruitful. The Ramaswamys “would send me pages and pages of poetry and their thoughts about the direction of the piece,” he recalled, speaking by phone from his base in Montclair, N.J. Often, he “would latch on to two or three lines [of verse], and that would be the big inspiration for the musical narrative.”

Early on, the collaborators agreed on the instruments that would supply the accompaniment. Subsequently, the music and choreography fell into place roughly simultaneously: The Ramaswamys and Mahanthappa typically drafted sketches on their own, but then, in regular joint workshopping sessions, they significantly revised those drafts.

Mahanthappa, who had never collaborated with dancers previously, found the process exciting. “Dancers hear music differently,” he observes. The dancers’ needs, and the specifics of the ensemble, led him to an approach in which “it’s melody and rhythm that are the guiding forces, and not necessarily Western ideas of harmony and chord progression.”

Eventually the piece grew to encompass several sections based on different ragas (a raga is an Indian musical concept somewhat akin to a scale) and rhythmic structures.

As South Indian dancers, “it’s important that we have a raga-based music. It pushes the spirituality of the work,” says Ranee, whose credits include being appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Arts.

Both score and choreography would ultimately include sections of improvisation, including sequences where the musicians and dancers are essentially reacting to each other.

“That was one of the intentions when we created the piece, to have that freedom on the stage between music and dance, and to really underscore that relationship,” says Aparna.

Co-commissioned by the Clarice Smith and other entities, “Song of the Jasmine” premiered last year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The collaboration with Mahanthappa was a new line of inquiry for Ragamala Dance, but the mystical motifs that surface in “Song of the Jasmine” speak to the company’s broader interests, Aparna Ramaswamy says.

“Dance and music evoke the feeling of transcendence and spirituality,” she says. “I’m very interested in weaving that thread through any work that we do."


Tribute to Mother Earth
George Pioustin, The Hindu
January 22, 2015
Original article


With the ever increasing number of aficionados crossing cultural and geographical boundaries, Bharatanatyam has gained international recognition.

Exploring this contemporary possibility are performers and choreographers such as Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, who are protégés and senior disciples of Alarmel Valli. As Indian dancers based in the U.S., their works reflect the rich heritage and deep philosophical roots of India amalgamated with the inquisitiveness and creative liberty of the United States.

Their initiative, Ragamala Dance Company, presented ‘Sacred Earth’ for Trinity Arts Festival of India at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. ‘Sacred Earth’ delved into the interconnectedness of man and Nature.

The repertoire started with Lakshmi Stuthi from Sri Suktam, a choreographic piece by Alarmel Valli. Inspired by the philosophy and art of Kolam, the artists blended dance and drawing kolam designs on stage.

The Sangam poets’ works which use Nature as a metaphor to identify emotions, were taken to craft the repertoire. Tevakulattur’s verses from Kurunthokai 3 describing paalai tinai were followed by Paranar’s mullai tinai from Kurunthokai 36, Venputhi’s neythal tinai from Kurunthokai 97, Milai Kanthan’s marutham tinai from Kurunthokai 196 and Sempulappeyanirar’s kurinji tinai from Kurunthokai 40 respectively. ‘Sacred Earth’ concluded with Prithvi Suktam from Atharva Veda.

The choreography was visually opulent and filled with zest. Perfectly synchronised movements, pointing out the conspicuous rigorous rehearsals deserved compliments.

Though the crisp geometric formations throughout the nritta segments were impressive, there was less space for abhinaya.

The voice-overs throughout the performance lacked clarity and created ambiguity amidst the background music.

The beauty of the Pandanallur bani was well delineated by the dancers clad in earthen shades of yellow, brown and green, aptly designed for the theme. Ragamala Dance Company comprises lead dancers and choreographers Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy along with Aswini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala. The orchestra had Ramya Kapadia on the vocal, Suchitra Sairam on the nattuvangam, Rajna Swaminathan on the mridangam and Anjana Swaminathan on the violin who gave melodic enrichment.


Taking Bharatanatyam to the Americans
Naveena Vijayan, The New Indian Express
January 4, 2015
Original article

CHENNAI: For US-based bharathanatyam dancer mother-daughter duo Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, performing for a crowd of Americans, even those who have no idea about the Indian tradition, has never been difficult. The disciples of veteran dancer Alarmel Valli package their performance in a way that is understandable for a layman — with talks before and after, and visual projections weaved into the dance — while keeping the form, technique, vigour and aesthetics of the dance untouched.

The duo is in the city for the performance ‘Sacred Earth’, a production by the Ragamala Dance Company started by them 22 years ago, as part of the Margazhi season. While the dance production has been performed in over 30 venues in the US, this is the first time they are bringing it to India. “The concept of the dance is about connecting with the earth. While there is a lot of talk going on about going organic and local, we should realise that it has been a part of our culture forever. It is very important for us to show this to the people in the US,” says Aparna. She quotes examples of kolam, as a way of giving back to the earth, and the Warli paintings, a tribal art form, which conveys the unity between humans and nature.

“For this production, we have taken four landscapes from Sangam poetry, which talk about the idea of this harmonious relationship. While the verses would be in Tamil, we have English translations of it weaved in. We also had a Warli artist staying with us in Minneapolis for a month, translating the meaning of the verses into life-size paintings. The photographs of these paintings were projected in the background as part of the show,” says Aparna.

The whole process — right from the conception of the idea— took the team a year and a half.

“Our aim is to convey the depth and beauty of an art form like bharathanatyam in a way people can understand and grab, and realise how relevant it can be to the present times,” says Ranee.

While a lot of research including talking to US-based experts in Indian literature went into the production, in case of any hiccups in the techniques of dance, they had their guiding light their guru Alarmel Valli. “She has moulded and shaped me into what I am today. It has been a life-changing experience to be learning from her,” says Aparna, who started training under her when she was eight years old.

Ranee recalls, “It was in 1984, when we first saw her perform in Minneapolis. I was so blown away by her dance that I asked her if she could teach us both. Aparna was a kid and I was 30 then. She agreed, and since then, we have been visiting India for four months every year to observe and learn from her.”

Ragamala Dance Company will be performing Sacred Earth at 7 pm at Krishna Gana Sabha, today.


Giving Bharatanatyam a Global Stage
Arpita Bose, Times of India
January 4, 2015
Original article

Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy have been working to promote awareness on the traditional dance form in the US for two decades.

There are many artists credited with putting Bharatana tyam on the global map, but the work of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy stands out. The mother and daughter have been spreading awareness about the traditional art form in the US, carving a niche on the cultural scene there, with Ranee being appointed member of the National Council on Arts by US President Barack Obama in 2013.

Tapping into the cultural melting pot that is America, the two, through their dance company Ragamala, have been performing and educating people about Bharatanatyam for the past 22 years.“The definition of `American' is not one ethnic kind of culture; the immigrants are very much part of what it is to be American. The art forms that each of the communities bring contribute to that culture, and as we see it, Bharatanatyam too is part of it,“ says Aparna, who will be performing with her group at Krishna Gana Sabha on Saturday.

The seamless partnership of the mother and daughter started in 1984, when Alarmel Valli performed in Minnesota. Awestruck by her performance, they asked her to be their guru.Thus began the annual tryst with Chennai where the family would come down for four months to train. Though Ranee had quit dancing at 17, when she got married and left Chennai for the US, dance was her passion and her elder daughter shared it.They became companions while attending Valli's classes, exchanging notes and practising till they got every movement right. Later, her younger daughter Ashwini joined the team.

True to its cross-cultural quality , the group comprises Ranee, her daughters and two Americans who have been part of the group for more than a decade.The strong classical tutelage meant the Ramaswamys stuck to the traditional approach to Bharatanatyam, but since they were aware of the needs of the foreign audience they created a sub-genre, combining a contemporary Western aesthetic with an Indian ethos. Through the years they have collaborated with a poet, jazz musician, a group from Indonesia and are exploring visual media in their new production `Sacred Earth'.

“Non-Indians today are sensitive to the dance form.They want to go beyond the technicalities and delve into its history and nuances. To give them a fresh perspective, we are packaging it in a way they can appreciate and understand. `Sacred Earth' deals with topical issues of sustainability and conservation of nature, subjects which were always in the Indian consciousness,“ says Ranee.

`Sacred Earth' uses the visual arts of kolam and Warli painting, which people practise every day to find their link with the divine.

“Both, done with rice flour, show the harmony and balance with the natural elements. It also stands for the ephemeral quality of life. As the textual base, we have used Sangam poetry which brings to life natural landscapes representing human emotions. It is a love story about humans and nature,“ says Aparna, who has used Carnatic music for the piece but interwoven it with the English translation.


US-based dancer, Aparna Ramaswamy speaks about how the traditional teacher disciple relations defined her art
Aarti Bhanushali, Asian Age, Mumbai
January 4, 2015


Aparna Ramaswamy was born in Calcutta and raised in the United States. A senior disciple of dancer-choreographer Alarmel Valli, Aparna joined her mother’s Ragamala Dance Company, based in Minneapolis, as an artistic director and choreographer. All set to perform at NCPA’s Umang on January 6, she shares her thoughts about her guru, excitement of performing in India and what Bharatnatyam means to her.

“The crowd in India is eclectic, they are a wonderful audience and my performances have been received well. Indians have music and dance in their blood, they can tell what is good and what is not. So doing justice to an art form so rich before Indian masses is always an honour,” Aparna exclaims about her visit to India.

A teacher is never a giver of truth, she is a guide, a pointer to the truth each student must find for himself, this adage by Bruce Lee holds completely true as Aparna reflects on her relationship with her guru. “She has been a force of inspiration, throughout my life, she taught us that dance is about miming the subject, I was fortunate enough to learn under her as she directed me towards unwavering dedication and teaching me that art is bigger than a person always, and when one realises that, self becomes less important.” Adding that one of her most memorable moments was sharing the stage with her master at ICRR, Japan.

Shedding light on her school of dance style Pandanallur, Aparna elaborates, “Each school has its own hallmarks, Pandanallur is one of the oldest and authentic dance styles in Bharatnatyam, with headlined by geometry and balanced by grace. The subtle shades of emotions inter-connected by music are reflected in this form. We come from a great teacher and carrying her lineage forward is a responsibility,” she says. Talking about evolving over the years as a dancer, she says “Each art form has an interpretation which grows and lives with the dancer. It’s like an endless treasure trove. Keeping the lineage intact and putting your own stamp to it, is what every dancer tries to do over a period of time and understand the forms dynamic evolution, it’s a never ending process.” To the students learning the eloquent dance form, the artiste advises, “Students these days are interested in hundred activities, when I was learning Bharatnatyam it was just my dance and college. Bharatnatyam is an ocean in itself, students involved in learning the art form must explore it to its full potential and have a single minded focus at what they learn.”