Family Run: The Dance Company Promoting Cultural Diversity Through Unfamiliar Performances
The Ragamala Dance Company sheds "light on the cultural diversity that is the backbone of current human life."
Claire Peltier, A Plus
March 20, 2017
Family Run is an original A Plus Lifestyle series: Every month, we profile amazing families who work together in some capacity. From starting businesses, inventing products, collaborating artistically, and beyond, these family members are making positive contributions to the world together, and strengthening their family bonds in the process.
This month, we spoke with the Ramaswamy family, a mother-and-daughter trio running a dance company that promotes cultural diversity through choreography and performance. Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughters, Aparna and Ashwini, aim to connect viewers with the unfamiliar and, thus, create an experience that will move audiences everywhere.
In 1978, Ranee moved from India to the United States. In 1992, she founded the Ragamala Dance Company and has been running it alongside Aparna and Ashwini for the last 25 years. In addition to their roles as co-artistic directors and PR and marketing director, respectively, they are all performers, too.
When Ranee founded Ragamala, she and Aparna were "singularly focused on introducing and educating audiences unfamiliar to Indian dance, and showing them how dynamic, complex, yet universal Bharatanatyam could be," Aswini tells A Plus in an email. Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance with its origins in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu.
"Over the past 25 years, the company has become known for thoughtful yet unexpected artistic partnerships that shed light on the cultural diversity that is the backbone of current human life."
The family believes that their performances can help people of different communities and cultures connect and understand one another. In fact, experiencing this unfamiliarity is a necessity.
"If a person allows themselves to encounter the unfamiliar, to seek out new experiences, they will contribute to a more tolerant and, ultimately, evolved society. We believe that art is a vital, non-threatening way for people to understand other cultures and perhaps gain empathy for immigrants," Ashwini says.
"I believe that a lot of the problems that exist in the world stem from being uninformed — from an inability to communicate across boundaries of culture and geography ... Attending performances is a way to stand up against ignorance and intolerance, especially if the performer(s) are from another country or culture. History teaches us how important it is to listen to our artists because they are the ones who put a mirror to society. The art within a civilization is often what lives on."
Aparna adds that their company's work aims to make people feel empowered, and it takes years of thought, research, and reflection to put together one of their projects.
Through their collaborative efforts and various generational experiences, the family has built a longstanding company — celebrating its 25th anniversary this September — and a unique family bond.
Of course, working with your family can create disagreements, but such personal issues don't stop these women from accomplishing their goals, Aparna explains. In fact, their different personalities benefit their work.
"We continue to learn and figure out how to balance our work lives and personal lives, and it all comes down to the fact that we are doing what we love with people we love. That is very special," she adds.
When asked what they admire about each other's work ethic, it's clear that they're all inspired by the tireless commitment and intense passion they share for their art.
"We learned from our guru [the legendary dancer-choreographer Smt. Alarmél Valli, in Chennai, India] that the art is bigger than us, and we need to respect the lineage we come from," Aparna says. "Practice doesn't just mean doing the same thing day in and day out — it means exploring the depth of poetry, philosophy, musicality, theatricality that is the bedrock Bharatanatyam. There is an ocean of knowledge and we are humbled to only stand at its shores."
As for he future of Ragamala, Ranee believes that if you set your goals, and believe in them, you will get to where you want to be. And she's living proof — her company has performed in top venues throughout America, touring at places like the American Dance Festival, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, among others. Ranee says she hopes to expand into Europe and South America in the coming years.
As an added bonus, she can say that she gets to take her children with her to work every day.
"There is not much more I would wish for, though," she says. "If you told me 25 years ago that I would be where I am today, I would be thrilled!"