Ragamala’s Minneapolis concert marking the company’s fifteenth season opens with “Ardhanareeshwara Stotram,” a dance of the dual creation divinity, Shakti/Shiva. A statuette in a delicately curved posture, draped in colorful silk and adorned with gold bangles and flowers in her hair, Aparna Ramaswamy also shows a coiled, grounded strength in her stamping feet and flashing eyes. The dance follows a hymn, showing Shakti’s bracelets in one line and Shiva’s live snake jewelry in the next, Shakti’s mercy and Shiva’s dreaded power. Ramaswamy is alternately rose and diamond; the weaving, playfully darting dance of her head and eyes contrasts with her sudden jumps and lunges.
Classical dances (such as Native American fancy dance or ballet), if not ossified, embody a culture’s ideas of beauty and divinity. Watching this new creation in the classical Indian tradition of bharatanatyam, choreographed by Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (mother and daughter cofounders of Ragamala), it’s hard not to wonder how differently Western history might have turned out if we had imagined our gods this way, or dared to represent them in the body of a young woman dancing (Western classical dances show royal couples or noble abstractions rather than gods). But while the classical ideals of other cultures might have immediate appeal, only deep education can bring us inside those ideals, showing us their roots and their dark side. So we might envy bharatanatyam’s curvy, swaybacked stance, so different from ballet’s ramrod uprightness, or covet the dancers’ bright clothes and red-painted feet, but it’s hard to know the meaning or true cost of those items.
The Ramaswamys aren’t primarily interested in showing the dance of another place and time, though. Their work is firmly grounded in Indian classical tradition, but the result could be called American contemporary dance in the truest sense—dance of the multicultural America, the meeting-ground America. This is best seen in the other two pieces in the concert. Here we see Ragamala’s trademark crosscultural collaborations—sometimes unlikely combinations that turn out, under the Ramaswamys’ intelligent guidance, to have deep sympathies. “Yathra (Journey)” joins bharatanatyam with Indian music played by a sitar and cello duo, with projected motion drawings by Terry Rosenberg in the background.
Along with fusion, kaleidoscopic complexity of composition is another contemporary element in Ragamala’s dance. Dancers come in from all corners of the stage, meeting and joining in a unity splintered by a new dancer’s sharp entrance. The part speaks for the whole: a brief frieze of women with longing hands stands in for a history of grief. “Yathra” is a quietly moving, beautifully oblique piece, one that any American audience can grasp intuitively.
“Sva (Vital Force)" yields an even more immediate connection. Here, Ragamala’s stellar dancers perform alongside the Tokara Wadaiko Ensemble. Japan’s Taiko drumming does not partake of the tradition of drummers as crazy guys who lurk in the corner: this is unapologetically buff, bare-arm, samurai drumming, played on big drums whose hits reverberate in all the empty spaces of the body (my heart is still echoing). And here, Ragamala joins bharatanatyam’s classical style to a certain modern force. I’m not sure what to call it—democracy? women’s rights? freedom under the law?—but whatever it is, it had opening night’s sold-out crowd straining forward. It’s not that bharatanatyam alone needs this modernity—more that any classical dance needs this modernity to reach today’s American audience. Ragamala shows a way into the twenty-first century for all classical forms. The thrill that the dancers feel in their own strength and grace rolls across the audience; their happy and powerful beauty is one we understand and aspire to.
This concert’s vital choreography, skilled collaborators, and outstanding dancing all make it easy to see why Ragamala’s been on national and international tours for the past eighteen months, and why they’re booked well into next year. It’s also a reminder of how lucky we are to have Ragamala here in the Twin Cities.
Sva (Vital Force) continues at the Southern Theater through May 4.
Photo credit: Ed Bock