Ragamala's ambitious 'Written in Water' at the Cowles
Pamela Espeland, CBS Minnesota
January 26, 2017
Ragamala Dance Company’s new work, “Written in Water,” is its most ambitious yet and potentially most moving and satisfying. Which is saying a lot for a company whose path has been always upward, and whose henna-tipped toes have stepped surely since Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughter Aparna co-founded the company in 1992.
Four years in the making, “Written in Water” combines an ancient Indian board game, a 12th-century Sufi poem, a Hindu myth, an original score melding traditional Iraqi Maqam and Indian Carnatic music, and large-scale projections with the intricate movements and gestural storytelling of Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance form the company practices.
It’s a journey through life to enlightenment, told through movement, music and paintings. A reviewer who saw “Written in Water” in Tallahassee, where it had its world premiere, called it “mesmerizing” and raved that the evening “unfolded like a dream.”
“Written in Water” comes to the Cowles this weekend for three performances. We asked Ranee Ramaswamy to walk us through it.
“We have three movements,” she said in conversation earlier this week. “In the first, we explore human life, with love and struggle, through the board game.” The board game is “Paramapadam,” a precursor to “Snakes and Ladders” (itself a precursor to our own “Chutes and Ladders”). In the dance, it’s a metaphor for life’s ups and downs. “The second movement is the story of the churning, dynamic tension between good and evil,” Ranee continued. Its inspiration was the Hindu myth “Ksheerabthi Madanam,” which tells of the churning of the seven seas. It’s a metaphor for a world in chaos. “The final movement is the union with the Divine, toward transcendence,” Ranee said. The epic Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” which frames the entire dance, tells of birds who travel through seven valleys to achieve immortality. Not all of them make it, but some of them do.
Choreographed by Ranee and Aparna, “Written in Water” is danced to live music, an original score commissioned from Iraqi American trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar and Indian composer Prema Ramamurthy. ElSaffar, whose performance last year at the Walker was joyous and electrifying, draws on Iraqi Maqam, a vocal tradition included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. ElSaffar went to Baghdad to study it from the few remaining living masters. Ramamurthy is one of India’s greatest living composers of Carnatic (South Indian classical) music. Ranee believes this is the first time Maqam and Carnatic have joined in a single work.
The projections – of the board game and other imagery – are original paintings by Keshav Venkatraghavan, an artist based in Chennai, India, also commissioned by Ragamala. The images will be projected on the floor and on a screen. “They take your eyes up, like you’re in a church, cathedral or temple,” Ranee said. She compared them to stained glass windows.
Something else from Ranee to ponder, if you go: “When you write in water, it’s not concrete. It’s something that is constantly changing.”