Why I Dance: Aparna Ramaswamy - Dance Magazine

Why I Dance
Aparna Ramaswamy; Dance Magazine
November 30, 2016
Original Article

Co-artistic director and dancer with Ragamala Dance Company

Dance connects me to my ancestry. Raised both in India and the U.S., I relish finding a balance between two cultures and feeling the irresistible pull of both countries. I see parallels between the evolution I have undergone as a dancer and choreographer, and the personal transitions I have experienced as a product of the diaspora. 

For me, dance and family are inextricably linked. For the last three decades, I have worked in a collaborative partnership with my mother, Ranee Ramaswamy. It began in 1984, when we both started training with my guru—the legendary dancer/choreographer Alarmél Valli, in Chennai, India. When I first saw her perform, I was forever changed. I never knew that one person could embody a myriad of emotions with such grace and brilliance. I was a quiet, introspective child who felt much more at home conversing with adults than playing with children my own age. Bharatanatyam was my outlet to focus my energy and express my emotions.

Ranee and I—although from different generations—underwent intensive training side by side, living and breathing this timeless, poetic art form. We practiced together, challenging and supporting one another. Today, when we create a new work, our conversations are rapid-fire, fluid and undisguised. My younger sister, Ashwini, is a beautiful dancer in her own right and a key member of my company. I feel so proud that the three of us have recently begun to create work together.

Bharatanatyam holds a significant place in Indian culture, as it is a multi-dimensional art form, integrating elements of music, movement, theater, philosophy and psychology. I am committed to circumventing notions that culture-based forms are impenetrable. My form transcends classification to tap into an inner spirituality that is universal.

As a co-artistic director, choreographer and principal dancer with Ragamala Dance Company—and the mother of twin 7-year old boys—my life has always been rigorous. The balance of family, performing, running an organization and creating new works is joyful, exhausting and truly rewarding.

Dance has never been a job, nor a hobby, but is intrinsically linked to who I am. My guru, a voracious reader, has taught me to look for inspiration in great works of literature. One of her favorite quotes, by William Butler Yeats, perfectly expresses how I feel: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

The Salt Lake Tribune - Sacred Earth

Dance company makes a connection with ‘Sacred Earth’ and classic Indian form Bharatanatyam
Daisy Blake, The Salt Lake Tribune
November 10, 2016
Original Article

The classical dance form Bharatanatyam from India will be in the spotlight at the University of Utah this weekend as movement, music, visual art and poetry combine to celebrate connections between humans and nature.

Minnesota-based Ragamala Dance Company, formed by mother-daughter duo Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, will present "Sacred Earth" on Saturday at Kingsbury Hall as part of the new UtahPresents season.

Their work explores the dynamism of Bharatanatyam, from its ancient roots to its contemporary possibilities.

"Sacred Earth" aims to explore the interconnectedness between human emotions and the environments that shape them, says Aparna Ramaswamy, the daughter of the duo. " 'Sacred Earth' honors and celebrates the natural world and the interconnectedness of man and nature," she said. "At a time when the environment is front and center — climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution and a host of other issues are front-page news — this piece was not created as a pointed social statement. But rather, we created the piece to underscore the enduring relationship between man and nature in ancient cultures. The interdependence between the two has existed since time immemorial, and is reflected through daily ritual, artistic practice and social thought."

Bharatanatyam, she said, has a history that goes back two millennia and is one of the six classical dance forms from India. "Each of these forms reflects the rich diversity, of history, language, music, etc., of the different regions of India. Being a classical form, Bharatanatyam has a codified language of technique. This language is just that — a foundation or physical vocabulary upon which a dancer or choreographer may build. But the essence of the form lives within its practitioners and lineage she/he carries, making the form a dynamic, living tradition. What makes the form most intriguing, complex, and a beautiful reflection of life itself is its multidimensionality, integrating music, movement, theater, philosophy, psychology and spirituality."

Aparna grew up in the U.S. and India and says dance connects her to her ancestry.

"I relish finding a balance between two cultures and feeling the irresistible pull of both countries," she said.

"During our time in India, we were fortunate to spend each day studying with the legendary dancer/choreographer Smt. Alarmel Valli. During our time in the United States, there was a great pressure to maintain the lessons learned in India and to be ready to return the following year. However, during this time we were also able gain valuable experience in performance and cultivate those skills. This also meant our presentation of Bharatanatyam to Western audiences began very early and laid the groundwork for an educated and appreciative audience in the years to come."

She said that in her world, dance and family are inextricably linked, as for the past three decades, she has worked in a collaborative partnership with her mother. "It began in 1984, when we both started training with our guru, Valli. As Valli's only two private students, we spent countless hours practicing in our guru's home studio, filling notebook after notebook so that every step, gesture and emotion fulfilled the promise of this rich form.

Her younger sister, Ashwini, also "is a beautiful dancer in her own right and a key member of our company. I feel so proud that the three of us have recently begun to create work together."

The evening of dance will begin with a showcase of Salt Lake's own Bharatanatyam dancers, including ChitraKaavya Dance, founded by Srilatha Singh and Jyothsna Sainath's Nitya Nritya Dance Company.

Sainath also started practicing Bharatanatyam as a child.

"I was born and raised in Bengaluru, India, and Bengaluru is one of the south Indian centers for Bharatanatyam," she said. "I started learning it just as little kids start to learn ballet here. Over time, however, I developed a love for the sophistication of its technique and narrative vocabulary."

Sainath said her family moved to Utah about two years ago from Lincoln, Neb., for professional reasons. "On moving here, and starting Nitya Nritya Dance Company, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Salt Lake Valley has a rich and long history of supporting the arts in general," Sainath said. "This combined with a fast-changing demographic has contributed to building an appetite for a wide variety of artistic experiences in the valley."

ChitraKaavya Dance founder Srilatha Singh said her husband's job originally brought the family to Salt Lake City from Atlanta, and the Bay Area before that. "I started ChitraKaavya Dance in 2012 to explore my passion for this ancient art form that I learned in my youth," she said. "ChitraKaavya translates to 'visual poetry,' and we at Chitrakaavya dance visualize movement as visual poetry. We are interested in performing our traditional repertoire as well as collaborating to create new and interesting dance items that can be relevant, accessible and add to the rich tapestry of dance in the Salt Lake Valley."


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.

McCarter Theatre Center Preview - They Rose at Dawn

From Bill's Desk: The Big Berlind Week
William W. Lockwood, Jr. , McCarter Theatre Special Programming Director
October 11, 2016
Original Article


Finally, our “Big Berlind Week” winds up on Sunday afternoon with another McCarter debut—our first ever presentation of Bharatanatyam, the classic dance of South India. In her acclaimed soloThey Rose at DawnAparna Ramaswamy (the “Baryshnikov” of this form of world dance), will reveal how the dancer’s body becomes an interlocking puzzle of pieces to create other worldly grace in which women are depicted as carriers of ritual. And to add to the sense of occasion, she will be accompanied by a live five-piece Carnatic music ensemble.


Mesmerizing Indian dance launches musical weekend
Kati Schardl, Tallahassee Democrat
October 6, 2015
Original Article

Grounded in the ancient Indian texts called the vedas, the classical South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam was once the exclusive province of the gods, particularly Shiva, the Lord of the Dance. Thousands of years ago, it came down to earth and was gifted to humankind when the sage Bharata wrote his great treatise on Indian music, drama and dance.

Bharatanatyam is considered the embodiment of the eternal cosmic dance, and dancers who devote themselves to the art approach performance with an attitude of reverence and ritual.

The universal became personal when Ragamala Dance Company performed the world premiere of “Written in Water,” a work co-commissioned by Opening Nights Performing Arts, Wednesday night at the Nancy Smith Fichter Dance Theatre.

Opening Nights Ragamala Dance Company 2016 performed Wednesday featuring Aparna Ramaswamy.

One didn’t need to know the specific narrative arc of the story being told onstage to get swept up in its drama. The work’s power and the company’s artistry created a lexicon of sound, vision and movement that allowed each audience member to project their own story onto the stage.

The piece is based on the ancient Indian board game of Snakes and Ladders, which served as a metaphor for the tension between earthly longing and divine ecstasy. The five dancers of the company — troupe founder Ranee Ramaswamy and daughters Aparna and Ashwini, with Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala — performed on a stage ornamented by projections of original paintings by the Chennai-based artist Keshav, to music composed by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy. ElSaffar also led the superb musical ensemble on santur, trumpet and vocals.

A minor lighting glitch at the beginning halted the performance but once it was sorted and the dance began in earnest, “Written in Water” unfolded like a dream — a feast for the eyes, ears and heart. Tightly choreographed ensemble passages flowed into improvisational movements that gave each dancer a chance to add her personal vocabulary of gesture and motion to the overall narrative.

In an ensemble performing a form as defined as Bharatanatyam, the individual blends into the whole with synchronized movements and beautifully expressive gestures. But Aparna Ramaswamy in particular riveted the eye and stirred the heart with steps and gestures that were by turn assertive and exquisitely delicate. With sinuous waves of her hands, she embodied the naga, or serpent, of the game, or summoned the motion of water; with lovely fluttering fingers, open arms and a radiantly expressive face, she was the essence of jubilance and gratitude.

The musical ensemble’s seamless mind meld with the dancers sealed the spell cast by “Written in Water.” ElSaffar’s vocals wove in and around those of singer Preethy Mahesh, whose warm, emotive voice was mesmerizing — she anchored the sound with her pure, limber alto tone.

It was coincidence that this wonderful new work was performed in the middle of the nine-day celebration of Navaratri, one of the most significant festivals on the Hindu devotional calendar. It honors the divine feminine in the form of the goddess Durga and her avatars. As Ranee Ramaswamy said in a Q&A session following the performance, when you practice an art such as Bharatanatyam, every day is Navaratri — a spiritual celebration illuminating a secular world.


Star Tribune Review

Indian dance performance conveys beauty through mastery of technique
Sheila Regan, Star Tribune
February 21, 2016
Original article

Aparna Ramaswamy has spent a lifetime devoted to the perfection of Bharatanatyam, an ancient South Indian dance form. Tapped at a young age to become the protégé of master choreographer and soloist Alarmél Valli, Ramaswamy has split her time between Minneapolis and India, deepening her knowledge of Bharatanatyam while nurturing her own voice as a dancemaker and performer.

With "They Rose at Dawn," an evening-length solo performance presented over the weekend by Ragamala Dance Company at the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts in Minneapolis, Ramaswamy soared as a soloist in her prime of life, channeling her deep understanding of technique in a captivating performance.

Even in the tiniest movement, Ramaswamy's whole body was engaged. A flick of her finger corresponded completely with what happened with her neck, her stomach or toe, and this was true for every single moment of the evening. Never did Ramaswamy lose her complete focus and control.

At the same time, she showed a mastery of shifting rhythms. With her feet acting as a percussion, Ramaswamy used her body as an instrument in harmony with the four musicians on stage. One moment she'd be articulating her wrists in quick small swirls and then suddenly she'd break out into large, sweeping gestures in a kind of attack.

While she was the sole dancer on stage, Ramaswamy was not alone.

Performing with her were four musicians, including Ranee Ramaswamy, the soloist's mother, with whom she co-founded Ragamala. Playing the nattuvangam, a percussive instrument, Ranee Ramaswamy occasionally did vocals, showcasing her deep, articulate voice, which sounded a bit like scatting in the jazz tradition, fast and urgent. Vinod Krishnan, the main vocalist, propelled the complicated score forward, along with Rajna Swaminathan on the mridangam (another percussive instrument) and Anjna Swaminathan on the violin.

"They Rose at Dawn" drew on spiritual themes, with a particular focus on the feminine as a vessel through which to reach the divine.

Stylistically, the feminine was presentational, meticulously sculpted and shaped. Emotions, too, were curated, refined and demonstrated.

Ramaswamy's work moved not away but toward tradition, allowing the technique to stir the audience. Breathing new life into a centuries-old form, "They Rose at Dawn" evoked a spirituality and emotion that comes through rhythm, shape and precision, which ultimately transfixed the audience.

Star Tribune Preview

Twin Cities dancer Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala steps into a new 'Dawn' as solo artist
Rohan Preston, Star Tribune
February 18, 2016
Original article

On a recent bright, cold morning, dancer Aparna Ramaswamy stepped into her company’s airy studio on Lake Street in south Minneapolis. As she rehearsed “They Rose at Dawn,” her most important solo show to date, she filled the room with power and energy.

Her face had the serenity of Mona Lisa, while her feet, decked with ankle bells, laid down a volley of stomps. Her mother, accompanying her on percussion, struggled to keep up. “Aparna keeps going faster and faster,” Ranee Ramaswamy said.

Chalk it up to confidence and passion, traits that have won Aparna Ramaswamy admirers across the country.

Minnesota fans finally will get to see “Dawn” on Friday and Saturday at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis. The show made audiences and critics swoon when it premiered in New York City in October, with the New York Times gushing over her “impeccable technique and incandescent beauty.”

For most of her life, Aparna Ramaswamy, 40, and her mother have been artistic partners. They are co-artistic directors of Ragamala Dance Company, which has become the nation’s leading purveyor of Bharatanatyam dance, the millennia-old Indian style that has the same roots as yoga.

But with “Dawn,” her first full-length solo show in three years, Ramaswamy is stepping out and owning the spotlight.

“This is part of my evolution as an artist,” she said. “Every step to me is a challenge and a responsibility. And as someone who takes everything very seriously, this is a major step.”

“They Rose at Dawn” is anchored in Bharatanatyam’s ancient themes of humans seeking to connect with the divine.

The dance form arose in ancient Tamil temples and was often paired with poetry and music to celebrate beauty and fire. Over the centuries it developed a set of gestures and a movement vocabulary that Ramaswamy and her family — including younger sister Ashwini — express with lyrical authority onstage.

“Dawn” celebrates female energy and force, said Aparna Ramaswamy, who did most of the choreography. “I was interested in exploring ideas of cultural transmission, and how women carry our rituals and culture.”

The opening section pays homage to the feminine in a divine state. Ramaswamy depicts Devi, the beautiful, fearsome and benevolent Hindu goddess who takes many forms. “She embodies the intimate and the infinite.”

That is followed by a “Varnam,” a type of Bharatanatyam dance done in tribute to Ramaswamy’s teacher, Alarmel Valli, who choreographed the piece. Ramaswamy has been studying with her since she was 8.

Next up is “Two Scenes From the Mullai Tinai,” a nature-set piece with poetry that includes themes of motherhood. “Dawn” ends with a joyous finale.

Ramaswamy, known for her technique, precision and commanding rhythm, said that whatever praise accrues to her belongs to the dance itself, which can transform a person’s mood.

“Really, Bharatanatyam is form that gives joy, that gives you release,” she said as sweat dripped through her makeup following a rehearsal. “I might be having a bad day, but as soon as I start [dancing], it transforms my moods, my feeling.

“People don’t have to know what any of the gestures mean as long as they can feel what we’re feeling,” she said. “Sure, they can read about it in the program, but that’s not necessary for them to understand a mother’s joy.”

The mother of twin boys (age 6), Ramaswamy has done full-length solo shows before, including “Sannidhi (Sacred Space),” which she took to New York in 2013. What’s new about “Dawn” is that it gives her more of a chance to interpret the form in a contemporary way.

In essence, “Dawn,” which she will take on a 12-city national tour after the Twin Cities (and to Hawaii next winter), extends the Ramaswamy brand.

A different vision

When Ranee Ramaswamy started Ragamala 23 years ago, she saw it as a way to root herself in a tradition with a storied history and to give her daughters a sense of cultural connection. Neither the dance company, nor much of her life, fit with what was expected of her.

“My father was a medical doctor, but he visited a seer who saw different things for my future — a different profession, a son and a daughter instead of my two beautiful girls,” she said. “Oh, well.”

She raised her daughters differently, giving them the space to explore and to become what they wished.

Aparna took to Bharatanatyam immediately. Ashwini branched out on her own, including working as a publicist in New York for five years. But she’s returned to the fold, and fiercely, winning critical praise of her own. (She will have her own solo show this year.)

One aspect of Ranee Ramaswamy’s upbringing that has stayed with her is a tireless work ethic that has reaped rewards. Ragamala, which recently performed in India and Dubai, has become the nation’s foremost Bharatanatyam company. She was appointed by the president to sit on the National Council on the Arts.

Her example has influenced her children. Aparna Ramaswamy is known to rehearse as early as 7 a.m. (“They Rose at Dawn,” for real.)

Being global means the company isn’t home much. Yet “everything we do springs from here,” Aparna Ramaswamy said. “We feel lucky to be able to bring things to this place where we have all our support systems, where we have been able to grow, develop and expand.”

In other words, the show is a metaphor for the company’s new day.