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.