Ragamala Dance Company
Caroline Palmer, Big Dance Town
January 29, 2017
“Chutes and Ladders” is a familiar childhood game but few who grew up in the west are familiar with its origins. Originally called “Paramapadam,” among other names, the Hindu morality game was first played centuries ago in India, then re-conceptualized as “Snakes and Ladders” during British colonization, and finally given its less evocative title by board game maker Milton Bradley in 1943.
Ragamala Dance Company chose this story as inspiration for their latest full-evening Bharatanatyam work, “Written in Water,” performed this weekend at the Cowles Center. The troupe, led by the mother-daughter team of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, perform what may be the artistic directors’ most artistically daring creations in its 25-year existence.
The dancing takes place amidst projections onto the stage floor depicting the board game, showing different versions from the ancient to the more abstract. There are also beautifully detailed visual images on the backdrop, created by Keshav and Nathan Christopher. The dancers include Ranee and Aparna, plus Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala.
The work came into being as the performers played the game repeatedly, internalizing its messages and exploring possible life metaphors. The Sufi epic “The Conference of Birds” provides a narrative framework. Snakes and ladders can represent everything from fear to transcendence, earth to heaven. The Sufi guidance points the way to life’s balance between good and evil, a tenuous and rarely achieved, yet aspirational, state of being.
Ragamala creations sparkle with crisp, exacting energy and “Written in Water” is no exception. There are unique elements to the movement – a serpentine set to the arms and backs, a rubbing of hands like throwing dice in a game, a sense of sliding and gliding, as if traveling along the back of a snake or a slippery chute.
Ashwini and Aparna represent different aspects of animalistic nature within the work – fierce and vulnerable, wary and carefree. Ranee’s movement offers a sense of steady ethos, she is not easily seduced by the game but she sees the effects of its unpredictability on others. Nadel and Fiala are strong presences as well, steadfast and focused in their precise movement, navigating their way along an uncertain path.
“Written in Water” is built upon a particularly strong partnership of music and movement. A live ensemble led by Iraqi-American jazz performer Amir ElSaffar, and including Preethy Mahesh (vocals), Rohan Krishnamurthy (mridangam – percussion), Anjna Swaminathan (Carnatic violin) and Kai Aysola (nattuvangam – cymbals), fills the space with a kaleidoscopic sound, made particularly vibrant by ElSaffar’s soulful command of the trumpet and santur (Iranian hammered dulcimer). ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy’s composition is evocative and particularly poignant for the existential subject matter of the performance.
This creation is yet another fine example of Ragamala’s ever-evolving artistry. As the troupe continues to gain national and international exposure, I am reminded how fortunate we are to have this accomplished company in our midst.