The Sanjusangendo Temple is a marvel, a sight not to be missed in Kyoto, Japan. But if a trip halfway across the globe isn’t in your future, the next best thing can be found at Minneapolis’ Cowles Center this weekend. Ragamala Dance’s “1,001 Buddhas: Journey of the Gods” celebrates the famed landmark with a stunningly beautiful production created and choreographed by the mother-daughter team of Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy.
Inspired by the temple’s treasures, 1,001 Buddhist figures “guarded” by 28 Hindu deities, the artists made a work combining elements from their area of expertise — south Indian music and dance, specifically Bharatanatyam — with soul-stirring Taiko drumming performed by the impressive Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara of Nagano, Japan. The collaboration had its world premiere on Friday night before a rapt audience.
Relationships are important to this work. The first is among the Ragamala dancers (Amanda Dlouhy, Jessica Fiala, Tamara Nadel and Ashwini Ramaswamy, in addition to Ranee and Aparna). Their reverent movements evoke the gods and demons in Hindu traditions — from the gentlest to the most fearsome — accounting for every element of symbolic expression. Sisters Aparna and Ashwini are particularly divine in a lengthy duet, their eyes conveying different personalities from one moment to the next. They dance as if two halves of a single being.
Next is the coordination between the members of Wadaiko (Art Lee, Yukari Ichise, Dean Havixbeck and Takafumi Onozawa). They play their massive drums with masterful precision, proving that power and grace are compatible concepts. They are partnered with the soaring sounds of an Indian orchestra featuring Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan (Chenda drum), Rajna Swaminathan (Mridangam drum), Anjna Swaminathan (violin) with vocalist Lalit Subramanian, whose singing casts a spell. Prema Ramamurthy also contributed to the musical composition.
And finally there is Jeff Bartlett’s lush lighting, imbued with golds and reds. The dancers seem to flicker like flames.
All of these elements come together in a seemingly effortless manner to produce a singular and transformative work. “1,001 Buddhas” shifts the viewer’s relationship to space and time. Within just one hour it feels possible that we were spirited away to Sanjusangendo to witness its carved statues come to life, perhaps during the magical darkness of a late night. And then we return, forever changed by — and grateful for — the experience.
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.