"Written in Water," by Ragamala Dance Company, is not intended to be a political work, but the latest actions by our new president make it political. In the piece, which was performed at the Cowles Center this weekend, ancient Hindu and Persian traditions were woven into a fabric that illuminated their similarities and brought out the beauty of each, with music blending Indian and Iraqi sounds with hints of jazz.
In light of President Donald Trump's executive order (which was immediately stayed) banning even those with green cards and valid visas from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States, Ragamala's gesture of collaborative art-making with Middle Eastern aesthetics evoked a meaningful gesture of solidarity with those communities.
A projection of the board game "Snakes and Ladders" grounded the work, literally. Projected onto the floor, cleverly designed by Nathan Christopher, the board game provided a structure on which the dance unfolded. As the piece began, the five dancers appeared to be like live board game pieces, journeying along the board squares, all the while executing the intricate movements of the Bharatanatyam dance form.
Later, the "Snakes and Ladders" board changed into its earlier iteration, the ancient Hindu game of Paramapadam, which, unlike the modern version, is black and white. Meanwhile dancers carried out the emotional journeys that resulted from their moral choices symbolized in the game.
The impassioned moments were contained within the dance's overall precision, even at their most heightened demonstration. A gesture of despair, a body fallen to the ground and hands clenching the face in grief, were all done with absolute control.
Woven into the journey of the board game was imagery drawn from the ancient Sufi poem "The Conference of the Birds," through the choreography as well as a series of colorful paintings by the Chennai-based artist, Keshav. The movement, created by mother and daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, along with choreographic associate Ashwini Ramaswamy (Aparna's sister), conjured the flight of birds through the flourishing movements of the dancers' arms, hands and fingers. The way that the Ramaswamys were able to intertwine the abstraction of the fluttering wings within the tight architecture of the Bharatanatyam form was truly magical.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.