The Washington Post Review

Song of the Jasmine divinely blends movements with South Indian melodies
Celia Wren, The Washington Post
January 30, 2015
Original article


Like a lover yearning for her beloved, the human soul longs to unite with the divine. That idea comes into play in “Song of the Jasmine,” the bharatanatyam dance work scheduled to visit the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Feb. 7.

Choreographed by Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy of the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company, in collaboration with saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, the piece takes inspiration from the writings of the Tamil mystic poet Andal, known for her devotion to the god Krishna.

“In Andal’s poetry, and in bharatanatyam — and on a much deeper level as part of the Indian psyche — the sensual and the sacred are one. There doesn’t have to be a disconnect between those two concepts,” Aparna Ramaswamy said, speaking by phone from Minneapolis.

Aparna and her mother, Ranee, are co-artistic directors of Ragamala Dance, which Ranee founded in 1992. Both women were born in India; both have trained with Alarmél Valli, a celebrated performer and choreographer in the Indian classical dance form of bharatanatyam.

Mother and daughter are among the five dancers who interpret “Song of the Jasmine,” a roughly hour-long work set to music inflected with jazz and South Indian music. (Ashwini Ramaswamy, Aparna’s sister, is also among the dancers.) In a version of the piece performed at New York’s Lincoln Center last year, the dancers drew on bharatanatyam’s physical vocabulary in ways that seemed now seductive, now jaunty, now rapt.

One side of the stage featured the five-person band, including composer Mahanthappa on alto saxophone. Other instrumentalists played the guitar, the mridangam (a two-sided hand drum), the Carnatic (or southern Indian) flute and violin. (The band will also perform live at the Feb. 7 performance.)

“Song of the Jasmine” began to bloom after the Ramaswamys attended a concert by Mahanthappa, who is known for fusing elements of South Indian music with jazz. Aparna Ramaswamy says she immediately connected with the musician’s sound.

She resolved to come up with a project that would involve the composer-saxophonist. Discussions about such a collaboration intensified in 2011, when Ragamala Dance performers and Mahanthappa were among the artists participating in the Kennedy Center’s Maximum India festival.

Eventually, the Ramaswamys proposed building a joint venture around the poetry of Andal, who lived in the 8th century or thereabouts. In India, Andal is “a household name,” Ranee said.

Ranee was raised in India. Aparna grew up primarily in the United States, but she spent a few months in India every year, and was familiar with Andal’s legacy. Mahanthappa, raised in Colorado, didn’t know Andal’s writing, but he found the source material fruitful. The Ramaswamys “would send me pages and pages of poetry and their thoughts about the direction of the piece,” he recalled, speaking by phone from his base in Montclair, N.J. Often, he “would latch on to two or three lines [of verse], and that would be the big inspiration for the musical narrative.”

Early on, the collaborators agreed on the instruments that would supply the accompaniment. Subsequently, the music and choreography fell into place roughly simultaneously: The Ramaswamys and Mahanthappa typically drafted sketches on their own, but then, in regular joint workshopping sessions, they significantly revised those drafts.

Mahanthappa, who had never collaborated with dancers previously, found the process exciting. “Dancers hear music differently,” he observes. The dancers’ needs, and the specifics of the ensemble, led him to an approach in which “it’s melody and rhythm that are the guiding forces, and not necessarily Western ideas of harmony and chord progression.”

Eventually the piece grew to encompass several sections based on different ragas (a raga is an Indian musical concept somewhat akin to a scale) and rhythmic structures.

As South Indian dancers, “it’s important that we have a raga-based music. It pushes the spirituality of the work,” says Ranee, whose credits include being appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Arts.

Both score and choreography would ultimately include sections of improvisation, including sequences where the musicians and dancers are essentially reacting to each other.

“That was one of the intentions when we created the piece, to have that freedom on the stage between music and dance, and to really underscore that relationship,” says Aparna.

Co-commissioned by the Clarice Smith and other entities, “Song of the Jasmine” premiered last year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The collaboration with Mahanthappa was a new line of inquiry for Ragamala Dance, but the mystical motifs that surface in “Song of the Jasmine” speak to the company’s broader interests, Aparna Ramaswamy says.

“Dance and music evoke the feeling of transcendence and spirituality,” she says. “I’m very interested in weaving that thread through any work that we do.”