Ann Arbor News Review

Ragamala Dance casts an artful spell in Power Center performance
Susan Isaacs Nisbett, The Ann Arbos News
August 25, 2013
Original article


It is autumn for the 6 women dancers on stage, adorned in pleated silks of russet and gold, scarlet, olive and saffron. But there are flowers in their hair, and there is nothing autumnal about the hour-long “Sacred Earth,” presented by Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Wednesday at Power Center by the University Musical Society. On the contrary, it’s joy and serenity—the very opposite of fading light and waning days—that radiate from these exquisite dancers, trained and performing in the style of Indian classical dance known as bharatanatyam.

The dancers of Ragamala, directed by 2 of the 6, mother and daughter Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, who also choreographed “Sacred Earth,” dance with every fiber of their bodies, from the top down and to the tips of their fingers. Eyes dart, teeth flash, bells jangle at their ankles, feet and hands are tinted red to read all the more vividly.

They are pictures of grace and balance, centered and upright, but also supple in their movement. And they dance in harmony with, well “Sacred Earth,” revealed here through Tamil poetry, tribal Indian art and live music.

Bharatanatyam is traditionally a solo art, but in “Sacred Earth” the Ramaswamys artfully employ an ensemble—not just to echo and amplify the movements of soloists (the two of them plus Ashwini Ramaswamy and Tamara Nadel), but to mesmerize through unison movement and accumulation of gestures.

In the opening, the ensemble circles Ranee Ramaswamy, rice powder streaming from their outstretched hands as she crouches at their center, making a rice-powder design on the floor, an offering to Mother Earth. It would have been nice to see that pattern projected on the backdrop, but what is there instead—projections of chalked wall paintings commissioned from a Warli artist from western India, Anil Chaitya Vangad —seems the very incarnation of the dance’s theme of harmony between the elements of nature and all who inhabit it, human and animal.

Stick-figure humans spiral across the space in expanding arcs at the dance’s beginning. Trees of life spring up, monkeys climb them; rivers flow, fish swim; horses graze and are groomed; birds nest among grasses and whole villages materialize against smoke and mauve skies.

The dancers bring these pictures—and those of the poems, with their metaphors of love and nature—to life in narrative sections of the dance; the excellent musicians (Lalit Subramanian, Suchitra Sairam, Rajna Swaminathan and Anjna Swaminathan) contribute their voices with expressive melismatic singing, and with violin, tabla and cymbals. They follow and lead and call out the rhythms in the animated pure-dance sections that showcase the dancers’ technical skills.

Aparna Ramaswamy made a particularly strong impression with her vivacity and precision and musicality, but all the dancers—as befits a dance about harmony—worked together with a sort of luminous sympathy that was itself a meditation.