Aparna Ramaswamy, Living and Breathing The Stories of the Gods
Trina Mannino, The Dance Enthusiast
October 2, 2015
Tromping through the mud, eating candy till your stomach hurts and getting into mischievous fun are childhood memories for many of us. Classical Indian dancer and choreographer Aparna Ramaswamy, by contrast, was “adult-like” since she could remember. By the time she was eight, she was studying several hours a day, splitting time between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chennai, India where she trained with legendary Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher, Alarmél Valli. This rigorous schedule was not thrust upon her, rather it was a discipline that Aparna fiercely desired.
The upcoming world premiere, They Rose at Dawn, at The Joyce Theater marks the fruition of Ramaswamy’s years of study, fastidious nature and strong familial influence. Like many creatives of her ilk, there is no line dividing between her artistic and personal life. Dancing is a family affair. “I started from the beginning with her,” says Aparna’s mother, Ranee Ramaswamy, referring to their side-by-side training with Valli.
Today the mother and daughter team co-direct the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company. “In our creative partnership,” says Ranee. “I bring a familiarity of languages, cultures and rituals from India as well as candid excitement and a deep desire to experiment. She brings reverence, exactitude, thoughtfulness, brilliant performance skills, and the great ambition to embody all that is excellent in Indian traditions.”
Even Aparna’s sister, Ashwini, is involved; she dances and manages the marketing and publicity for the company. “It’s very special to share something that you love and spend so much time doing with your family. It’s not for everyone but it works for us. Only our husbands get a little tired of it,” Aparna chuckles.
They Rose at Dawn deviates slightly from the usual collaborative process of mother and daughter. Aparna and Ranee often develop material in tandem. Together they choreograph, coach their dancers, and closely work with musicians to bring their visions to life. For this production, however, the dances and the ideas behind them are Aparna’s; except for one choreography created by Valli, with whom she continues to study. Ranee’s role has been to offer feedback and guidance.
Leading up to the premiere, Aparna carefully refines her movements in order to demonstrate the essential relationship of classical Indian dance to music. Aparna selected each raga (a series of five to nine musical notes upon which a melody is constructed) and worked closely with an Indian music ensemble to build a complex rhythmic score. “It’s my responsibility to bring that all to life," the soloist explains as she recalls the words of her maser teacher Alarmél Valli, "You must see the music and hear the dance. "
Aparna aims to reveal how the ancient and contemporary intersect. “I want to explore ritual and culture. I am especially interested in how we transmit ideas across space and time. What happens when individuals from cultures, like India, move to a different part of the world? What do we choose to leave and what do we carry forward?”
Looking to poetry from the 3rd century AD as well as age-old Indian stories, Aparna found connections that are relevant to contemporary times. In They Rose at Dawn, she personifies complex female characters such as the “Divine Goddess," not only presenting the deity’s nurturing side, but also bringing to light the ferocious tenacity of the goddess figure. In another section, Aparna explores human recklessness and its effects on the natural world. “In India, we have mythological figures, but they’re not relegated to temples and faraway times.” She reminds me how the stories of the gods still live and breathe within India’s people. “The power of iconography and metaphor is strong.”
Aparna may not have had a traditional childhood, but she approaches her art with the exuberance of a child. “The beautiful thing about this artform, even if you’re in an ensemble, is that there’s room for each person to express their individual personality.” She describes dancers on stage as unique paintings of various colors and hues. Breathing life into the tradition while respecting its foundation, Aparna plays with her own palette to share stories that resonate today.