Aparna Ramaswamy Receives Doris Duke Artist Award

Twenty-one Performing Artists Receive $275,000 Each as Recipients of Doris Duke Artist Awards, A Landmark Program That Has Supported 101 Artists With a Total of $27.7 Million Since 2012
May 3, 2016
Press Release
Aparna's Artist Profile


NEW YORK, NY — The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) announced today the recipients of the fifth annual Doris Duke Artist Awards. Appointed in recognition of their creative vitality and ongoing contributions to the fields of dance, jazz and theater, awardees will each receive $275,000 in flexible, multi-year funding as well as financial and legal counseling, professional development activities and peer-to-peer learning opportunities provided by Creative Capital, DDCF’s primary partner in the awards.

With the 2016 class, DDCF will have awarded approximately $27.7 million to 101 noteworthy artists through the Doris Duke Artist Awards.

This year’s Doris Duke Artists are:

  • Kyle Abraham (Dance)
  • Sharon Bridgforth (Theater)
  • Dave Douglas (Jazz)
  • Faye Driscoll (Dance)
  • Janie Geiser (Theater)
  • Miguel Gutierrez (Dance)
  • Fred Hersch (Jazz)
  • Wayne Horvitz (Jazz)
  • Taylor Mac (Theater)
  • Dianne McIntyre (Dance)
  • Jason Moran (Jazz)
  • Mark Morris (Dance)
  • Lynn Nottage (Theater)
  • Thaddeus Phillips (Theater)
  • Will Power (Theater)
  • Aparna Ramaswamy (Dance)
  • Matana Roberts (Jazz)
  • Jen Shyu (Jazz)
  • Wadada Leo Smith (Jazz)
  • Morgan Thorson (Dance)
  • Henry Threadgill (Jazz)

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Aparna Ramaswamy Featured on Cover of Dance Teacher Magazine

An Indian Dance Matriarchy in Minneapolis
Rachel Rizzuto, Dance Teacher Magazine
February 1, 2016
Original article


It’s a Sunday morning at the Gibney Dance Center in New York City, where Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughters Aparna and Ashwini are preparing for a photo shoot. Chattering and interrupting each other, they flit about as they text, drink coffee and appraise one another’s appearance. Ranee proudly shows photos of her grandsons, “Aparna’s boys. Twins. Such big eyes!” This could be a friendly group of women, anywhere. But once in front of the camera, the members of Ragamala Dance Company instantly snap into focus—they are consummate performers who take the spotlight with grace and authority.

Ranee and her older daughter Aparna founded the Minneapolis-based Ragamala in 1992 as co-artistic directors, and it’s that intergenerational factor that gives the company its unique dynamic. The women perform in the classical South Indian dance form, bharata natyam, that Ranee studied as a child growing up in India. But theirs is not a story about a mother passing on a cultural tradition to her daughters. In fact, it was Aparna who paved the way for her mother to have the kind of career Ranee never dreamed possible.

A Return to Her Roots

Despite her upbringing, Ranee assumed dance would have no place in her new life in the U.S. Back in South India, her parents had denied her the traditional recital at the end of her bharata natyam training. “At 17, I was engaged to be married—an arranged marriage,” she says. “They said, ‘All that money we can spend on dowry.’” But once she and her husband arrived in Minnesota in 1981 (she was 26), she was asked to perform at a community ballet function. She cobbled together what steps she could remember and played a tape of Indian music. “I found that I still had a big love for the artform.”   

After the concert, several families asked if she could teach their children. “Aparna was a young child,” says Ranee. “I wasn’t teaching her. Because these people were paying me, I thought, ‘I owe it to them, not my daughter.’ Then one day I looked—she knew everything I was teaching the other children!”

Aparna’s natural talent was confirmed when famed bharata natyam dancer and teacher Alarmél Valli (“She’s like the Baryshnikov of India,” says Ranee) performed in Minneapolis, and both mother and daughter took her advanced master class.

“Nobody could do anything,” says Ranee. “But Aparna was able to learn everything Valli taught. At the end, Valli said, ‘Aparna’s like a computer.’” When she suggested that Ranee bring Aparna to India for further instruction, Ranee didn’t hesitate. “Two months later, Aparna and I were already landed in India,” she says. “I said, ‘Can I also learn? I’ll work so hard.’ So I started from step A with Aparna—we became colleagues.” That partnership eventually grew into Ragamala, founded when Aparna was only 17.

An American Influence

Ranee’s second daughter, Ashwini, followed a strikingly different path. Twelve when her sister and mother formed Ragamala, Ashwini danced in many of the company’s productions through college but never approached it with the drive of her mother and sister. “I did dance as one activity among many,” she says. “I’m very much an American kid.” But after working after college as a publicist for Penguin Books, she realized something was missing. “There was something not fulfilling that I couldn’t put my finger on,” she says. “So in 2007 I returned home. Every year, I get more pulled in.”

A talented soloist in her own right (“Now I’m meticulous; I’m practicing hours a day”), Ashwini also handles the company’s publicity. Though she admits she sometimes regrets not focusing on bharata natyam as a child, she thinks developing an interest later in life has made her a better performer today. “All those experiences have made my dancing what it is,” she explains. “What we’re always taught is to bring our personalities onstage, using the choreography, because bharata natyam is an externalization of internal emotion.”

Blending Cultures

When the Ramaswamy women describe their artform, the rigor and training sound similar to ballet, despite the obvious visual differences. Though bharata natyam precedes ballet by about 2,000 years—it’s taken from the four scriptures that exist in the Hindu religious tradition—it shares with ballet a dual focus on rhythm and expression. “From your eyebrows to your toes, every part of the body integrates the rhythm,” says Ranee. “It’s very complex.” But one difference is an element of personal interpretation. “When a dancer has fully absorbed the technique, the musicality, the spirituality, she is then able to internalize the idiom and make spontaneous decisions onstage—especially with live music,” says Ashwini. “If you practice, practice, practice with your musicians, you have the freedom to use different steps or rhythmic choices or explore different nuances of expression. It happens in the moment, but only after years of practice and confidence.”

And because they live in America, the Ramaswamys bring a new dimension to the traditional bharata natyam form. For instance, Ranee and Aparna have taken what is primarily a solo form of dance and expanded it for a group, often including other Western influences, like jazz music and improvisation“If the link is perfect—if there is a connection between these things—we try to bring it all together in a conversation,” she says. “We keep bharata natyam very pure. But it has to change in ways, because it’s meeting with other music and cultures.”

The Next Generation

Though their particular way of interacting with one another—interrupting, offering unsolicited opinions—might suggest otherwise, all three women insist that there’s rarely discord among them. Ranee credits this to the time she and Aparna studied together in India with Valli. “Even though I am the mother, we became students at the same time,” she says. “I have never dismissed her as young, and she has never dismissed me as old.” Though Aparna agrees with her mother about their rapport, she admits the dynamic can be challenging. “The line between family and work has always been blurred for me, because my mom and I started this journey when I was very young,” she says. “Sometimes it can feel overwhelming,” adds Ashwini. “But it’s also extremely satisfying and emotionally enriching to work together.”

One of Ranee’s favorite things to say is that she gets to take her kids with her to work every day. “Continuing this lineage through my children is tremendously meaningful to me,” she says. Aparna, on the other hand, says that because her children are boys (6-year-old twins), she doesn’t have the same need to pass the bharata natyam torch to them. “I was so happy that they weren’t girls,” she says, “who would have to carry on the tradition. I feel like I’m experiencing a real childhood through my kids.”

All three women do pass on the bharata natyam tradition via their school, where they teach class to 40 dancers, ages 7 through adult. Having studied under and with one another for so many years, none of them takes this responsibility lightly. “In India, the teacher is one of the most important people in your life,” explains Ranee. “It’s mother, father, teacher, god. Mother gives you birth; father educates you; teacher shows you the path to knowledge. That’s the highest.” 

Chicago Tribune names 'Song of the Jasmine' a Top 10 dance event of 2015

Dance Top 10 for 2015: Women had an outsized role on this year's list
Laura Molzahn, Chicago Tribune
December  10, 2015
Original article


With shows by Wendy Whelan in January, Carrie Hanson in March, Onye Ozuzu in August, Twyla Tharp in November, and the female choreographers of Hubbard Street's winter program this weekend — well, 2015 has proved the year of the woman. That shouldn't be remarkable, because women predominate in dance, but it is. You'll find an unusually high number of additional picks by women in my chronological list below of the top 10 dance works of the last year — along with some fine representatives of the other sex.

"Song of the Jasmine," Ragamala Dance, April at the Museum of Contemporary Art: Minneapolis-based mother-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, collaborating with innovative composer-saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, commingled jazz, carnatic music and bharata natyam dance in this synergistic, utterly contemporary evening-length piece. As a performer, Ramaswamy elicited the essence of the feminine; moving precisely, delicately, she used her hands and face so wholeheartedly you could smell heavenly jasmine yourself.

"A Streetcar Named Desire," Scottish Ballet, May at the Harris Theater: In a brilliantly structured reimagining of the Tennessee Williams classic, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, aided by theater and film director Nancy Meckler, wasted not a moment or a step as she created empathy with Blanche (no easy task) and with the story's gay lovers (unseen in the play). In this lush, emotional work — Lopez Ochoa's first full-length narrative ballet — the sparing use of point work gave it all the more impact. The Scottish Ballet dancers, making their Chicago debut, were wonderful.

"Clover," The Cambrians, June at the Preston Bradley Center: In the decayed grandeur of a 1926 Masonic hall, Chicago artists Benjamin Holliday Wardell, Michel Rodriguez Cintra and Melinda Jean Myers presented the charismatic final version of their jointly created and performed "Clover." In a departure from earlier "Nexus Project" works, this piece had more structure, more dancing, and fewer spoken texts and jokes. The result was a stronger connection between the dancers and with the audience — and a real emotional wallop.

"Don Quixote," Royal Ballet, June at the Auditorium Theatre: Carlos Acosta's boisterous 2013 staging proved marvelously comic, carrying its three hours with ease and concluding with a sunny, beneficent vision of the good and beautiful. The Royal Ballet, which hadn't performed here in 37 years, met all expectations, and on opening night Acosta as goodhearted, rowdy Basilio and Marianela Nunez as his eager lover were at once convincing flesh-and-blood people and superhuman dancers. Thankfully, this 19th-century ballet lived and breathed.

"Supreme Love," Tapman Productions and M.A.D.D. Rhythms, September at the Athenaeum Theatre: This 50th-anniversary tribute to John Coltrane's album "A Love Supreme" featured live music by the Rajiv Halim Quartet and some stirring, nuanced tap dancing. One of the great joys of the true-blue American forms of jazz and tap is what they reveal of the individual artist, revelations fostered here by the intimate space and well-balanced sound. Though the slim narrative was a bit clumsy, its heart was in the right place.

"Bloodlines," Stephen Petronio Company, October at the Dance Center of Columbia College: A program of three works, including Merce Cunningham's "RainForest" and Trisha Brown's "Glacial Decoy," provided the absolute best kind of education — that is, the fun kind. Though Petronio's troupe struggled a bit with the Cunningham dance, it was good to see the leap from this pathfinder's work to that of Brown and her successor, Petronio. His "Non Locomotor," however, proved the most delicious of the bunch. Generous use of the spine and an experimental hip-hop score by Clams Casino suggested an intelligent night at the club.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago,October at the Harris Theater: It was a feat (and a treat) to present three William Forsythe works on one bill, only one of which, "Quintett," was already under the company's belt. The other two required vastly different skill sets: While the 14 dancers of "One Flat Thing, reproduced" had to be acrobats, basically, to negotiate a grid of 20 large steel tables, the four dancers of "N.N.N.N." needed to be quiet, to listen, to respond sensitively, all while maintaining a sense of humor. As wonderful as Gustavo Ramirez Sansano's new "I am Mister B" was in March, the Forsythe program was the year's most astonishing feat.

"Jewel Tones: Spectrum," October at Links Hall: You didn't have to be a Buddhist to love the concluding performance of Jessica Marasa's improvised "Jewel Tones" series, mining the Buddha's teachings on light. The eighth and final show, "Spectrum," brought together three of Chicago's top experimental jazz musicians — Mike Reed, Jason Roebke and James Falzone — with four marvelous dancers: elegant mischief-maker Ayako Kato, sly Adriana Durant, powerful Onye Ozuzu and joyous Marasa. Getting seven distinctive improvisers to come to a conclusion was like herding cats, with no one to do the herding, but the end proved thrilling, satisfying.

Jessica Lang Dance, November at the Harris Theater: This exquisite company made its Chicago debut with a program distinguished by Lang's strong sense of design, extending to both the look of the stage and the crisp lines of her choreography. Her intellectual curiosity — evident in "Tesseracts of Time," a collaboration with architect Steven Holl, and in the moving "Thousand Yard Stare," for which she did extensive research on veterans — added depth and interest to a smart, unique evening.

"The Nutcracker," Joffrey Ballet, December at the Auditorium Theatre: Earlier in the year the Joffrey gained some terrific new repertoire with the company premieres of Stanton Welch's "Maninyas" and Justin Peck's "In Creases" as well as a world premiere by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, "Mammatus." But the final run of Robert Joffrey's "Nutcracker," concluding Dec. 27, made me fall in love, finally, with what has become, over 20 years, Chicago's sweetheart. Maybe the set and costumes are disintegrating, but we can't tell. And maybe its air of self-indulgence is a little cloying. It's also sweet. And year after year, no matter the cast, the dancing is top-notch.

Ragamala Dance Company receives Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's Leadership in Dance Award

August 18, 2015

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) announced today the 18 outstanding dance companies and presenters receiving grants through the first- ever Leadership Grants Program for Dance. This all-new initiative supports the self-defined, long-term goals of organizations that have demonstrated excellence in and sustained commitment to the field of dance.

Grantees distinguished themselves by the quality of their choreography, the impact of their touring on communities across the country, and the successful expansion of their own initiatives and educational programming. DDCF is now providing each organization with flexible funds that encourage them to build upon the unique courses they have already charted and to continue to pursue their vision for the long term. This new support will enable grantees to realize their plans to increase organizational capacity, execute new artistic initiatives, strengthen data and evaluation systems, or other strategies that they have determined will best lead them to continued success.

Ben Cameron, program director for the arts at DDCF, said, "These grants support dance companies and dance presenters that have been leaders, both artistically and organizationally, thinking creatively about reaching audiences in exciting new ways. We are honored to support their work with these flexible grants, designed to help them achieve their self-defined, long-term goals."

The 18 organizations are:

  • Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (New York, NY), with a grant of $500,000

  • Alonzo King LINES Ballet (San Francisco, CA), with a grant of $500,000

  • AXIS Dance Company (Oakland, CA), with a grant of $200,000

  • Ballet Hispanico (New York, NY), with a grant of $500,000

  • Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) (Brooklyn, NY), with a grant of $500,000

  • Danspace Project, Inc. (New York, NY), with a grant of $200,000

  • Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (Chicago, IL), with a grant of $500,000

  • Jacob's Pillow Dance (Becket, MA), with a grant of $500,000

  • The Joyce Theater (New York, NY), with a grant of $500,000

  • Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (San Francisco, CA), with a grant of $200,000

  • Mark Morris Dance Group (Brooklyn, NY), with a grant of $1,000,000

  • ODC (San Francisco, CA), with a grant of $500,000

  • Stephen Petronio Company (New York, NY), with a grant of $200,000

  • Ragamala Dance Company (Minneapolis, MN), with a grant of $200,000

  • STREB (Brooklyn, NY), with a grant of $400,000

  • Paul Taylor Dance Company (New York, NY), with a grant of $500,000

  • Urban Bush Women (Brooklyn, NY), with a grant of $200,000

  • White Bird (Portland, OR), with a grant of $200,000

The Leadership Grants Program for Dance responds to the ongoing and dynamic evolution of the dance field in which many nationally celebrated companies may face future challenges or changes. The initiative acknowledges the various ways grantees may choose to embrace the years ahead, whether through artistic and/or organizational means. (Potential uses of the grant exclude physical capital investments and bricks-and-mortar projects.) DDCF has offered small organizations $200,000, mid-sized organizations $400,000 and large organizations $500,000 in grants that span up to four years. A single grant of $1 million goes to the Mark Morris Dance Group in recognition not only of the company but of its extensive efforts in education and outreach, including its dance program for Parkinson's disease patients. DDCF has also offered additional planning grants, ranging from $25,000-50,000 each, to provide several organizations with long-term strategic planning assistance.

About the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

The mission of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is to improve the quality of people's lives through grants supporting the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research and child well-being, and through preservation of the cultural and environmental legacy of Doris Duke's properties. The Arts Program of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation focuses its support on contemporary dance, jazz and theatre artists, and the organizations that nurture, present and produce them. For more information, please visit www.ddcf.org

Aparna Ramaswamy Awarded a National Dance Project Production Grant for They Rose at Dawn

July 27, 2015

The New England Foundation for the Arts announced their support of the creation of 18 new dance works that will tour the United States, including Aparna Ramaswamy’s newest solo work, They Rose at Dawn.

These awarded works will be created by choreographers and companies with exceptional artistic voices and at different stages in their career, all of whom have a track record of professional production and touring. Eighteen projects were selected out of 124 competitive applications by a panel of national dance leaders who serve rotating three-year terms.

NEFA Executive director Cathy Edwards noted, “The impact of the National Dance Project in the creation and distribution of new dance works in the United States is extraordinary. This sustainable model, supported by visionary funders at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has been critical to the choreographic landscape in the United States.”

They Rose at Dawn will premiere October 6-8 at The Joyce Theater in New York. Confirmed presenting venues include NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center (UAE), The Cowles Center (Minneapolis, MN), The McCarter Theater (Princeton, New Jersey), The Weitz Center at Carleton College (Northfield, MN), and Maui Arts & Culture (Maui, HI).

Since 1996, NDP has been a primary system of support for the contemporary dance field, supporting the creation and touring of new dance works.  In a field that has been historically under-funded, NDP remains the only national program dedicated to supporting individual dance artists and companies in a broad range of genres, whether established or emerging.  To date, including these awards, NDP has supported the creation of 359 new dance works, partnering directly with more than 350 U.S. presenting organizations to bring high caliber dance projects to all 50 states, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Each year, 20 to 25 different dance projects are featured in engagements in an average of 250 communities across the country. These touring engagements create new connections between community members and artists, offer unique opportunities for artistic growth, and increase access to the arts and the creative process. NEFA's National Dance Project Production and Presentation grants are generously supported with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Written in Water In Development at Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

March 17, 2015
Original article

Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy came to MANCC to develop a multi-media production, Written in Water, that employs elements of chance and improvisation. As a child in India, Ranee played the board game Paramapadam—“game of destiny”—that takes players on a symbolic journey through life, highlighting concepts of action and consequence, philosophy and psychology, will and fate, chance and destiny. Ranee and Aparna chose Paramapadam as the physical space and metaphysical framework of Written in Water. The game (later adapted by the British as Snakes & Ladders) takes players on an allegorical journey, encountering twelve vices (“snakes”) and five virtues (“ladders”) on a search for ultimate wisdom.

The building blocks of the work are seventeen choreographic segments rooted in the gameboard’s seventeen vices and virtues, which unfold upon a projected gameboard. To bring these abstract concepts to life, Ranee and Aparna have drawn ideas and texts from the 12th-century Persian epic The Conference of the Birds and the Sangam literature of classical South India (c.300 BCE-300 CE). Conference’s allegorical quest for ultimate truth parallels the dancers’ progression on the gameboard, while the Sangam authors’ intimate reflections on internal emotion elaborates on the personal, human elements of the vices and virtues. A commissioned score from Amir El Saffar and Prema Ramamurthy intertwines Iraqi Maqam and South Indian Carnatic vocals and instrumentation. The choreographers directly translate the uncertainty of the game to the action of the work. Governed by chance rolls of a die, dancers and musicians move freely between composition and improvisation; no two performances are the same.

While at MANCC, Ranee and Aparna explored movement creation with the dancers and worked with musicians to develop the musical approach. They spent time investigating the projection of the game board on to the stage floor and considered how the dancers will navigate the board.  Additionally, they met with FSU Associate Professor in Classics, Dr. Svetla Slaveva-Griffin and Dr. Claudia Liebeskind, Associate Professor of History to discuss the text Conference of the Birds and make connections to the Sangam literature of classical South India that the work references.

Previous to their Spring residency, Ragamala‘s newest work, Song of the Jasmine, came to Tallahassee as part of Opening Nights, December 3 - 4, 2014.

This residency was supported, in part, by the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Choreographers, a program funded by The McKnight Foundation and administered by Northrop that supports Minnesota individual artists.