Indian dance troupe honors secular and spiritual life

Indian dance troupe honors secular and spiritual life

Aparna Ramaswamy of the Ragamala Dance Company performed at The Yard last weekend. Photo by Sally Cohn — Sally Cohn

Like a Hindu goddess come to life, Aparna Ramaswamy of the Ragamala Dance Company enchanted a sold-out house at The Yard this past Saturday night. In two weekend performances, the master of Bharatanatyam dance presented four intricate dances each with a different theme — the Divine Feminine, the Ganges River, a love poem, and a celebration of life.

Dressed in traditional costume comprising a sort of sari/pants/pleated skirt combination, with a jeweled headdress, belled ankle cuffs, and eyes made up in an exaggerated cat eye style, Ms. Ramaswamy expertly combined a series of statuesque poses with fluid dance moves and mimed actions. Accompanied by a singer, a chanter, and two musicians (all female), the accomplished dancer utilized every part of her body — from her eyes, head, and neck to her very supple fingers — to achieve a program that was in equal parts a spectacular display of dance and a very moving and spiritual experience.

Ms. Ramaswamy, along with her mother and co-choreographer Ranee, her musical accompanists, and a small troupe of dancers were in residency at The Yard in Chilmark for two weeks before presenting their work Sannidhi (Sacred Space) to the public on Thursday and Saturday nights.

Aparna Ramaswamy.
Aparna Ramaswamy. Photo by Sally Cohn

The Minneapolis based Ragamala Dance Company was founded by Ranee Ramaswamy in 1992. The mother and daughter are co-artistic directors and choreographers. Their work has been performed at venues all over the world and they have received commissions from a number of prestigious organizations including, most recently, Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

The New York Times gave a rave review to that performance of Ragamala’s Song of the Jasmine, which featured five dancers in a music/dance collaboration, calling it, “a soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious collaboration with the superb jazz composer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.”

Bharatanatyam is a classical form of Indian dance that dates back to ancient times when it was performed as a form of devotion to the gods in the Hindu temples. Since enjoying a revival in the 19th and 20th centuries, Bharatanatyam has become very popular throughout India and elsewhere. The music — called Carnatic music — is an integral part of the dance. As the younger Ms. Ramaswamy explained in a Q&A after Saturday evening’s performance, the Ragamala musicians work very closely with the choreography team in creating the dances. Bharatanatyam is said to be the embodiment of music in visual form.

The musicians, who also performed an intro and an interlude unaccompanied by dance, were fascinating to watch. Sitting on the floor to the side of the stage, along with Ranee who at times read from classical Indian poetry and chanted, were vocalist Ramya Sunderesan Kapadia and sisters Anjna (violin) and Rajna (percussion) Swaminathan. Both highly skilled, the sisters improvised a good deal, demonstrating both their prowess and the level of connectedness they have attained in the years spent performing together.

Ms. Ramaswamy stressed the amount of training that each of the members has gone through. Although the younger troupe members, including Aparna, were born in the U.S., they have all spent years studying under masters in India.

“Each of us comes from a very well known, well respected teacher in India,” said Ms. Ramaswamy. She and her mother both studied under one of the world’s greatest living Bharatanatyam dancers.

However, as Ms. Ramaswamy explained to the Saturday audience in a knowledgeable and articulate manner, the Ragamala dancer’s work is very much a product of the member’s experience living in this country as well as their roots in India.

According to the Ragamala website (ragamaladance.org), “We draw from the myth and spirituality of our South Indian heritage to make dance landscapes that dwell in opposition — secular and spiritual life, inner and outer worlds, human and natural concerns, rhythm and stillness — to find the transcendence that lies in between. Together we craft every moment to create intricate and complex worlds that convey a sense of reverence, of unfolding mystery, of universal celebration.”

The quartet of dances enjoyed by Yard audiences last weekend were both aesthetically pleasing and emotionally gratifying. There was something mesmerizing about watching the fluid movements and marveling at Ms. Ramaswamy’s grace and strength that provided a soothing, meditative experience. Although the lyrics would have been unintelligible to most Western audiences, the poems were read by Ranee in English and the stories and themes of each dance were obvious. In particular, the dance that dealt with the relationship that Indians enjoy with the sacred river, the Ganges, was very literate and beautiful as Ms. Ramaswamy used her expressive hand movements and postures to full effect.

Both informative and exhilarating to watch, the Ragamala performances were a great example of the spectrum of dance that The Yard brings to Vineyard audiences every summer.

“This summer we’ve had an overarching theme of artists who have clearly dedicated themselves to the past but are not trapped by the past,” said David White, in his introduction to Saturday’s performance.

After the performance, Mr. White said that he hopes to have a continuing relationship with the Ragamala dance troupe.