The Washington Post - Ragamala Elevates Snakes and Ladders

Dance Company Ragamala Elevates Snakes and Ladders to Spiritual Heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Abney, Broadway World
Nov 3, 2018
Original Article

Just because a work is new doesn't mean that it isn't able to honor the classic sources that paved the way for its creation. This idea is underscored in the Ragamala Dance Company's elegant and well-executed performance of Written in Water, which relies on the ancient Indian board game Paramapadam (a precursor to Snakes and Ladders) and Hindu mythology to craft the performance's three movements. Even though the performance could benefit from more dynamic shifts in tonality, the overall effect is gorgeous and precise.

Written in Water is a dance show in three movements. The first (and my personal favorite) explores our journey through life through the game Paramapadam. A giant game board is projected under the dancers which helps to underscore the constant climbing of ladders and succumbing to snakes through the movement. In the second movement, the dancers explore the human quest for the divine while underscoring the chaos that surrounds. Finally, we reach the journey toward transcendence in the third movement. The movements can often blend together tonally but thankfully the first and third movements are stronger than the middle movement, allowing the show to begin and end on truly high notes.

With a five-person company, the production often feels like there are many more than that on stage at any given time. All five dancers, led by Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, work well with one another-complimenting each other's moves throughout the performance. Even while executing similar moves, all five ladies flow through their actions in distinct ways which helps provide an additional layer of depth to the performance. Toward the beginning of the first movement and at the top of the second, the action drags a little as movements appear to become more repetitive. Thankfully, the show breaks this cycle before it is bogged down for too long-allowing for the avoidance of some missteps.

Some of the evening's success can surely be attributed to the skillful musicians who accompany the dancers throughout. Preethy Mahesh anchors the majority of the vocals for the performance, and she does so beautifully. Every note she sings is filled with beautiful emotion and helps to craft a more cohesive narrative for the performance. Similarly, Amir ElSaffar lends his own stunning vocals for the evening, often emulating a sound that seems to land somewhere between classic Arabic music and jazz tunes.

The rest of the instrumentalists are quite impressive as well. Arun Ramamurthy is a dutiful violinist who serves as the backbone for the small music ensemble on stage. On the mridangam (a percussion instrument), Rohan Krishnamurthy does excellent work with providing intensity to the performance. All of the instruments are anchored by two stellar standouts. Kasi Aysola lends his skills for rhythmic recitation (nattuvangam) to the evening-leading to one of the performative highlights during a particularly fast-paced and frantic section at the end of the second movement. Amir ElSaffar also demonstrates his ability to steal the show through an impressive trumpet solo at the first movement's conclusion.

Overall, the production's designs are executed well. The visual art displayed throughout the night, provided by V. Keshav and Nathan Christopher, help to illustrate the action being performed. Many elements are projected on the floor to give the dancers more graphic areas to move on (such as an actual game board) which provides an interesting element. Unfortunately, it seems like more harsh lighting is then used to avoid having the projections displayed upon the dancers themselves, which often washes out the dancers and their costumes during the evening. All in all, Jeff Bartlett has skillfully designed the lighting. But many of the brighter sections lose some of the beauty of the show's other aspects.

Written in Water isn't the kind of show that requires extensive knowledge or appreciation of dance to grasp. Much of the performance's effectiveness rests on the ability for the audience to understand the emotions being portrayed on stage. This show doesn't ask for you to understand every movement on stage-but instead to feel the emotions from the performance wash over you. And, sometimes, that's the most powerful kind of production.

Incredibly Emotionally Evocative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Tribune Review - Body, the Shrine

Ramaswamy family brings nuance, mood to Ragamala Dance Company's 25th anniversary show
Review: Ragamala Dance Company celebrated its golden anniversary with a new piece honoring Indian poets. 

Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune
April 27, 2018
Original Article

Ranee Ramaswamy once had a simple goal — to share the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam with Minnesota audiences.

Twenty-five years later, her Ragamala Dance Company, which she directs in partnership with daughter Aparna Ramaswamy, has far surpassed its modest beginnings and now enjoys international acclaim. On Thursday night Ragamala celebrated the world premiere of “Body, the Shrine” at the Cowles Center by demonstrating yet again why the troupe is so vital to the Twin Cities dance scene.

“Body, the Shrine” represents a first in Ragamala’s history. Senior company dancer Ashwini Ramaswamy joined her mother and sister in choreographing the evening-length work, which features sections created and taught to them by their guru, Alarmél Valli. They were inspired by the Bhakti Movement, a transformational religious and literary era in India, with roots dating back to the 6th century.

“Bhakti” is a Sanskrit term defined as both “devotion” and “participation.” Ragamala’s homage reveres the male and female poets whose soaring words contrasted with times of protest, conflict and violence. The Ramaswamys, as well as company members Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala, wear vibrant red, orange, blue and green traditional costumes, and this colorful energy carries over to the evocative vocals and music (drums and violin) performed live by Preethy Mahesh, C.K. Vasudevan, Sakthivel Muruganantham and Ramanathan Kalaiarasan.

The Ramaswamys each bring different moods to the work, as evidenced in solos and duets. Ranee’s “Vazhi Maraittirukkude” (choreographed by Valli) is about persistence, referencing not only an untouchable’s desire to glimpse a deity but also 19th-century hopes for independence from Britain. Ranee illustrates her challenging quest through flowing hand gestures and gently entreating stances.

With “Call Him to Me,” Aparna embodies the symbiotic relationship between nature and the divine, owning the stage with her exquisite precision and attention to the tiniest detail of expression. When she and Ashwini perform “Shankara Sri Giri” (choreographed by Valli with staging by the sisters) as an ode to cosmic rhythms, they not only present breathtaking synchronized movement but also the sort of unspoken communication so unique to family.

The program quotes Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, a 19th-century king of the southern Indian state of Kerala who also was a composer. “If you dance and sing, then it is indeed Heaven,” he said. And if so, then there’s a slice of heaven to be found in “Body, the Shrine.”

 

CBS Minnesota - Mother, Daughters Celebrate 25 Years Of Ragamala Dance Company

Mother, Daughters Celebrate 25 Years Of Ragamala Dance Company
Ali Lucia, CBS Minnesota
April 24, 2018
Original Article

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company is set to celebrate its 25th anniversary season with the world premiere of “Body, the Shrine.”

In this milestone year, Ashwini Ramaswamy joins her mother, Ranee Ramaswamy, and sister, Aparna Ramaswamy, in an intergenerational partnership to create a one of a kind work.

“It’s an art form. It has rhythm, it has body movements, it has facial expressions. It’s almost like being an actor,” Ranee said, describing the dance. “It’s almost like being an actor but also dancing with it.”

Ranee is the co-artist director along with her daughter Aparna.

“I always say I go to work with my children. I think every parent wants to have their children with them for a long time and I am blessed every single day,” Ranee said.

It’s an art form she has been practicing since she was 7 years old in India. Then her daughter Aparna expressed that same passion at the same age. Together the two traveled back and forth to India, visiting family and staying dedicated to dance, learning from one of the best teachers in the world: Alarmel Valli.

The company’s work explores the tension between the ancestral and the personal.  For the first time Ranee will create a piece not just with her daughter Aparna, but with Ashwini as well.  The three have been practicing for hours as they prepare for the world premiere of “Body, the Shrine.”

“It eliminates the idea that the divine lives within us. If we choose to dedicate ourselves to someone or something, and not within a particular structure, and idea it does exist with ourselves,” Apara said.

“It’s a very intricate style of dance that you have to learn for a lifetime, and you’ll still never be an expert,” Ashwini said, adding this particular performance is special as it really allows her to reflect on her heritage. “Even though I was born in the United States I travel to India often, these kinds of experiences and learning about history is more of what I’m looking for with this work.”

The commitment to their craft as taken them all over the world and their mother says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m tremendously happy and I think I want to keep doing this forever, because if my kids were not there I probably wouldn’t have that,” Ranee said.

If you are interested in attending the performance this weekend, tickets are $25.  There are performances this upcoming Thursday and Friday.  All performances at the Cowles Center are accompanied by a musical ensemble from South India.

Brainerd Dispatch - Preview - Sacred Earth

A Blend of Exotic and Familiar: Ragamala Dance Company presents 'Sacred Earth'
Brainerd Dispatch
January 18, 2018
Original Article

Combining ancient dance form with familiar ideas about the earth and the stewardship of it, the world renowned Ragamala Dance Company will present "Sacred Earth" at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 in the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

The performance is part of the Central Lakes Community Performing Arts Center's Cultural Arts Series.

"We're very pleased to be able to present this company," CLC series producer Patrick Spradlin stated in a news release. "They are a fabulously talented group, and their work is of such high artistic merit."

Ragamala Dance Company was founded in Minneapolis in 1992 by Ranee Ramaswamy. Now under the direction of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (mother and daughter), the company is in its 25th season of creating intercultural, collaborative performance works that forge together ancestry and continuity. In this milestone year, long-time Ragamala soloist Ashwini Ramaswamy has joined her mother and sister in their intergenerational creative partnership.

The company has been recognized with awards from numerous grants organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Japan Foundation/New York, USArtists International, New Music/USA, MAP Fund, American Composers Forum and two Joyce Awards from the Joyce Foundation.

Ragamala tours extensively, highlighted by the American Dance Festival, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Music Center of Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, the Just Festival in Edinburgh, U.K., the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai and the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai, among others.

Ragamala explores the myth and spirituality of the members' Indian heritage to engage with what they see as the dynamic tension between the historical, the ancestral and the personal, the release stated. They approach the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam as a living, breathing language with which to speak about the contemporary human experience.

"'Sacred Earth' aims to explore the interconnectedness between human emotions and the environments that shape them," Aparna Ramaswamy stated. "The piece honors and celebrates the natural world and the interconnectedness of man and nature.

"At a time when the environment is front and center—climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution and a host of other issues are front-page news—this piece was not created as a pointed social statement. But rather, we created the piece to underscore the enduring relationship between man and nature in ancient cultures. The interdependence between the two has existed since time immemorial, and is reflected through daily ritual, artistic practice and social thought."

Tickets are available from the CLC Theatre Box Office at 218-855-8199 or online at

www.clcperformingarts.com.

"Sacred Earth" is sponsored by Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes. The CLC Performing Arts Center season is made possible in part by an operating grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.