On Saturday at Kingsbury Hall, Utah Presents hosted an evening with Ragamala Dance Company. Directed by the mother-daughter team Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, the internationally touring company holds a venerable reputation as purveyors of the traditional Indian form, Bharatanatyam. During a time where the world is brimming over with unrest and antipathy, the evening felt like finding the calm sacred eye of a storm. Ragamala opened up space to share a blooming enthusiasm for life and to examine the threads that tie us together at the heart of it all.
Performances by two local companies preceded Ragamala. The dancers of Salt Lake City based Nitya Nritya Dance Company started the program with a traditional offering to the space known as Pushpanjali. Although not always in total synch, the Nitya Company radiated youthful energy and charm in dances inspired our very own Utah mountains and the god Lord Shiva. Chitrakaavya Dance performed next, another local project that aims to use the tradition alongside new collaborations to explore inter-cultural commonalities. They presented one piece fusing Bharatanatyam with the movements of modern dance, and another where Indian dance was meshed with English poetry. Chitrakaavya’s performance expressed themes related to the shared joy of moving and our connection with each other and the earth across generations.
The second half of the program was devoted to Ragamala’s Sacred Earth. Conceptualized and choreographed by Renee and Aparna Ramaswamy, the piece mingles Bharatanatyam with two other great Indian traditions: the poetry and song of South India’s Tamil Sangam people, and paintings in the style of the Warli of West India. Sacred Earth is designed to “explore the interconnectedness between human emotions and the environment that shapes them.” The extensive program notes on the different cultural aspects at play were a welcome supplement, as they helped to further contextualize the musical and visual aesthetic. The symbiosis of these elements was even clearer knowing that the Warli people painted to celebrate the spirituality they found in a balanced coexistence with nature, and that the Tamil Sangam poets created characters to explain and teach us about the human condition by linking different landscapes of the natural world to specific emotions.
Although Sacred Earth contains eight clearly defined segments, it really draws a single golden line from the musicians’ first breath to the last dancers’ last. Never truly pausing, variable combinations of dancers, songs, and poems shift together and apart to embody distinctive feelings and stories. As they navigate these complex ranges of emotions, the dancers ultimately gravitate to a central tenor of harmony. Even when the emotional tone dips towards the negative they don’t stay there for long, choosing to re-center on joy instead. Bharatanatyam is extroverted and overtly presentational; the dancers engage in direct conversation with the audience and an emphasis on animated facial expressions is an integral part of that communication. The dancers also rely on a highly gestural movement vocabulary and literal interpretations of lyrics to convey their stories. Yet, it never feels pedestrian or cheap, and there are no “filler” steps. Every flutter and twitch of muscle is precise and dense with meaning.
The five women of Ragamala showed absolute mastery of technique and control over the body. Whether imperceptibly slow or whirlwind fast, each movement was made razor sharp. Their ability to concurrently move each part of the body, at such dizzying speeds, to distinct and independent rhythms is mind-bending. At one point Aparna Ramaswamy’s limbs were flying and contorting so quickly, I’m almost sure I caught a glimpse of her transformation into one of the many-armed Hindu deities.
I also noticed that in Bharatanatyam the torso appears to remain largely calm and suspended upright, and everything else then unfolds and revolves around a manipulation from a midline at the heart. This centering force present in each body provides a complement to the overall shape and directionality of movement, which is more so created by groups moving and flowing together rather than contained separately in each individual. Bells around the ankles became another tool for interconnection as the dancers playfully added up an intricate game of sub-rhythms and accents that bounced from one body to another.
I found the duets where mother and daughter or the two sisters danced together powerful as well, feeling in the choreography a subtle acknowledgement of their familial ties. Often times on stage a dancer exists as an isolate blank, their identity and relationships totally subverted. Allowing their personal and performative identities to coexist was yet another way the Ramaswamys illustrated deep connection and a sense that all are part of a whole.
To tie the work together, the Warli paintings were projected in vivid monochrome behind the dancers. Depicting images from differing natural settings, they shifted to match the dawn of each new segment. As the piece drew towards its conclusion the scenes began to repeat and recombine, ultimately zooming out to reveal that all are connected as one.
With a furiously joyful meditation on our shared place in this world, Ragamala Dance produced one of the most finely articulated performances I’ve seen in a long time. It feels extremely rare and precious to see a work realize its intentions so absolutely and plainly in presentation. The message of these classic traditions is ageless, and the reminder that our personal inner world is really part of something larger we must all share and protect together is more vital and compelling than ever.
Emily Snow is a new contributor to loveDANCEmore. A graduate of University of Utah's Ballet Department, she most recently spent several seasons dancing with Central West Ballet in CA.
Photo (top) courtesy of Utah Presents