Review: Downtown Performing Arts Series get South Indian flavor with Ragamala Dance Company

By Susan Pena

Reading, PA

Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company, brought her mesmerizing evening-length solo work, "They Rose at Dawn" to the Miller Center for the Arts Friday evening as part of Reading Area Community College's Downtown Performing Arts Series.

Ramaswamy uses the vocabulary of the ancient and highly refined South Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam - which originated in Hindu temples - to explore contemporary issues, both sacred and secular.

Performed without an intermission, "They Rose at Dawn" explores various aspects of being a woman in four sections. Using ancient and modern poetic texts and original musical compositions, the piece is a perfect confluence of past and present, music and dance.

For the musical portion, Ramaswamy brought four musicians: C.K. Vasudevan, the nattuvanar, who plays the small cymbals and keeps everyone together with the dancer; vocalist Preethy Mahesh; Sakthivel Muruganantham on the mridangam (double-headed drum); and Carnatic violinist Anjna Swaminathan.

In their instrumental prelude to the first section, "Om Kara Karini," which focused on the various attributes of the goddess Devi, the musicians (the first three from India) proved to be consummate artists. Mahesh, particularly, used her warm, generous voice to pour out streams of intricately ornamented lines and a variety of timbres.

Swaminathan, in her solos, produced yearning, insinuating tones, always expressive and as fluent as Ramaswamy's arms.

Pulled onto the stage by the violin, Ramaswamy, in an exquisite violet traditional costume, projected images of Devi, the creator and destroyer, who maintains equilibrium in the world. The dancer's precise, clear rhythms and fluid arms, her radiant presence and energy, gave thrilling life to the ultimate female.

She is a strong, fierce dancer, whose feet never stopped moving, and whose every body part stayed fully engaged with the music, down to the last finger and toe. The final image of this section was the child's pose, utterly tranquil.

The music for this part was composed by the renowned South Indian vocalist and composer M. Balamuralikrishna, now 86.

In "Varnam," the longest piece on the program, with choreography by Alarmel Valli, her dance guru, Ramaswamy delved far into the longing of a woman for her lover, and of a devotee for the spiritual. In this work, Vasudevan added impressive percussive vocals. The work was set to a composition by the Tanjavur Quartet, a 19th-century ensemble of brothers.

A beautiful violin and mridangam duet provided a brief interlude, and then Ramaswamy danced "Two Scenes from the Mullai Tinai," based on ancient Tamil poems, full of kneeling postures and images of walking through a forest. Ragamala commissioned the music from vocalist/composer Prema Ramamurthy.

She finished with "Nalinakanthi," a happy, vigorous dance, performed with incredible energy after everything that went on previously. The music was another commission from Ramamurthy, with collaboration from Ramaswamy, Vinod Krishnan and Swaminathan.

It was a thrilling evening for anyone who loves South Indian music and dance, and a wonderful introduction for first-timers.