On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon the walls of Ragamala Dance’s studio in south Minneapolis reverberated with the thunderous sounds of taiko drums played with a combination of raw power and disciplined grace by the Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara of Nagano, Japan. Ragamala members Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel, Jessica Fiala and Amanda Dlouhy moved with assured deliberation and regal poise in striking counterpoint to the rhythmic fury. They became a quartet of statues animated by the exquisite breath of life.
And that is precisely what Ragamala artistic directors Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy intended when they set out to create “1,001 Buddhas: Journey of the Gods,” premiering this weekend at the Cowles Center. The choreographers (who were named the Star Tribune’s 2011 Artists of the Year) work primarily in the south Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam and found inspiration from the uncommon pairing of 28 Hindu carved deities with 1,001 Buddhist figures in the famed Sanjusangendo temple in Kyoto, Japan. After being awed firsthand by the impressive sight of the temple and its spiritual lore, the mother and daughter team began to delve further, eventually merging their artistic perspectives with information gleaned from extensive research.
The resulting evening-length work unites mythology, iconography and history with the practice of honoring the past by finding new relevance and expressive possibility in the present day. This is the sort of delicate balance between the ancient and the innovative that Ragamala has managed so successfully over the company’s two decades in existence.
“We are not trying to make statements about Buddhism, that’s not our goal,” Aparna said during a rehearsal break. Instead, both she and Ranee explained, the piece is a deeply personal response to the power, grandeur, beauty and fearsomeness of the Hindu sentinels, gods and demons alike. It is also an exploration of the deep-seated connections between Japan and India established through thousands of years of cultural interchange, including the new ones forged through this particular project.
Everyone involved in “1,001 Buddhas” has been challenged to stretch the boundaries of his or her particular artistic form while staying true to its integrity. The musicians, for example, come from both Japanese and Indian rhythmic traditions, and yet have found ways over just a few short weeks to seamlessly meld the two so they become like one in the piece. “We’re building not just in blocks, but in layers,” said Aparna.
“All of us are keeping our information correct while experimenting amongst each other,” added Ranee.
The explosive Tokara (Art Lee, Yukari Ichise, Dean Havixbeck and Takafumi Onozawa), which first worked with Ragamala locally in 2008’s fiery “Sva (Vital Force),” has expanded upon the basic elements of the taiko drumming tradition. “We’ve come up with something completely new,” said Lee, referring to the increasingly fluent musical conversation that occurs over the course of the performance between his ensemble and Ragamala’s south Indian orchestra featuring Rajna Swaminathan (mridangam drum), Anjna Swaminathan (violin) and Lalit Subramaniam (vocals) plus guest Chenda drummer Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan.
“What I play is usually in close dialogue with footwork. Now there are new things to rearrange, it’s more abstract,” said Rajna, who has also considered ways to give voice to her much smaller drum in response to the larger ones played by Tokara.
The sense of abstraction has opened up an opportunity for the Ramaswamys to approach their own work differently. While classical Bharatanatyam technique and tenets still underscore the dancing in “1,001 Buddhas,” longtime Ragamala watchers will note that many of the gestures, poses and movement elements have a different sense of rhythmic freedom, characterization and flow. The varied personalities of the Hindu deities are represented through alert bird-like stances, gnarled hands, shuddering arms and piercing stares. The dancer’s bodies remain very upright and they perform even more closely together as a unit, emanating the sort of regimentation befitting supernatural beings tasked with the role of zealous protectors.
Aside from this latest endeavor the increasingly in-demand Ramaswamys are keeping busy with other commitments both on and off the stage. Last year Ranee was nominated by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Arts. She was also named a United States Artists Fellow. And Aparna, who has received international recognition as a soloist, recently scored a National Dance Project Touring Fund to tour an evening of her own choreography.
So today Ragamala Dance and the Ramaswamys are taking on the United States, India and Japan. Which corner of the globe will find its way into their next project? Wherever it may be, when these artists act as guides the journey is always a delight.
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.