Artists of the year 2011: Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy

  • Article by: CAROLINE PALMER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2012 - 5:44 PM

The artistic directors of Ragamala Dance use their art form as a prism to refract both the ancient and the modern.

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Ragamala Dance exudes radiant beauty.

When the Minneapolis troupe opened the inaugural season of the $42 million Cowles Center this fall with "Sacred Earth," the world premiere united three timeless art forms. There was majestic Bharatanatyam dance (rooted in 2,000 years of history), the haunting music of a live South Indian orchestra and projected images inspired by indigenous wall paintings. The dancers shimmered with an energy that comes from inner passion, technical mastery and cultural pride.

It was as if the artists directed a golden light from India into the eyes of a Minneapolis audience.

This memorable moment was among many for Ragamala artistic directors Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy in a year that included the creation of substantial new work, national touring, a showcase at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and rave reviews from all over.

The choreographers, ages 59 and 35, continued to advance their dance form into the 21st century, winning kudos for a vibrant modern-day vision born out of ancient Indian tradition. This is why the Star Tribune has selected these impressive women as Artists of the Year.

"Somehow, two people make one voice." That's how Ragamala dancer Ashwini Ramaswamy describes the close creative connection between her mother and sister.

Ragamala preserves custom, but with a contemporary twist. "That's really important, because if you're saying you're from a tradition, you have to be true to the tradition -- but you can't be bound by your tradition," said Aparna.

Overcoming discouragement

The artistic bond grew soon after the 26-year-old Ranee and toddler Aparna arrived in the Twin Cities in 1978. Although trained in childhood, Ranee was discouraged from dancing as an adult and was expected to focus on her family. But opportunities kept arising, as if fate were testing her.

In 1983, when Ranee and Aparna met Alarmél Valli, a renowned Bharatanatyam soloist, they found a guru.

"I think one reason we work so well is that we studied together," said Aparna in a recent interview at Ragamala's studio in the Lyn-Lake area of Minneapolis. "I was a young child, and she was an adult, but it was a joint venture." Through Valli they immersed themselves in the poetic form that finds expressive possibility in every gesture and step, from the hands to the eyes to the feet.

Now confident in a shared mission, the two riff off each other like jazz musicians. "We manipulate each other's movements and ideas. I say 'How about this, how about that?' and she'll say 'I got it, I'll change it, I'll do this,'" said Ranee.

Beyond the studio, the close-knit Ramaswamy family spans four generations. Ranee's parents (Dr. T.N. and Menaka Ananthakrishnan) now spend half the year in Minnesota. Aparna and attorney husband Tim Nelson have 2-year-old twins. Ashwini, 30, is active in the company as a performer and administrator.

Ranee founded Ragamala in 1992, when she was 40. She has overseen its growth into a thriving company and school with a $688,000 budget this year and five dancers in addition to the choreographers.

Maximum India

Among highlights of 2011 was Ragamala's selection as one of only two companies from the United States to perform at the Kennedy Center's Maximum India Festival in March.

"They definitely brought their A-game to Washington, D.C.," said Alicia Adams, the center's vice president of international programming and dance. She called Ragamala an "exceptional" troupe: "If it were a competition, they could compete with the best of them. We had all of the top companies from south India."

While there, Ragamala earned praise for its performance of "Yathra" from the notoriously hard-to-please New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay. He singled out Aparna as an "enchantingly beautiful dancer" for her solo work.

"Yathra," a lush journey through the life cycle, had its Twin Cities premiere later that month at the O'Shaughnessy.

Frequently on tour

The Kennedy Center wasn't Ragamala's only tour stop in 2011. "Sacred Earth" has been performed in five different venues since the Cowles premiere in September, with 20 more bookings coast-to-coast set for 2012. In an honor just announced, Ragamala will perform at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., in July.

Ben Johnson, who runs the Northrop Dance program at the University of Minnesota, said this "is an amazing amount for any company in one season. That helps put other dance from Minnesota on the radar nationally and internationally."

Ranee won the McKnight Foundation's 2011 Distinguished Artist award. She is the first dancer and youngest person to win this lifetime-achievement recognition.

"She has worked with choreographers and musicians from just about every genre, as well as writers and visual artists -- always, somehow, creating work that is transformative," said Vickie Benson, McKnight's program director for the arts. "The Distinguished Artist panel saw all of this and more in her work and life as an artist who decided to stay in Minnesota even though she could have gone anywhere."

"My mom's been doing this for so long and she's getting recognition for her work and innovation," said Aparna, who expects that she and Ranee will inspire each other into the future. "Every once in a while she says, 'I need to take some time off, I'm going to retire,' and I say, 'You can't retire. I did this in my childhood, you can do it in your old age. You retire when I retire!'"

In other words, anticipate many more good years from the remarkable Ramaswamys.

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