Ragamala Dance, led by the mother-daughter team of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, never has shied away from exploring new ways to perform the ancient Indian dance form of bharatanatyam. “Song of the Jasmine,” which premiered Thursday night at Walker Art Center, may be their most audacious experiment to date.
Created in collaboration with composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, an alto saxophone player who combines progressive jazz with South Indian classical music, the work challenges us to re-imagine the role of tradition in the 21st century. It’s disorienting when the stately dancers first encounter the lively circular rhythms generated by Mahanthappa and his ensemble. The internal pulses of each form seem incompatible.
But this initial uncertainty makes sense — sometimes we need a moment to adjust expectations away from the familiar to something groundbreaking. That’s when the magic of “Song of the Jasmine” reveals itself — the relationship between the music and dance in this work is not only meant to be, it exemplifies what happens when artistic boundaries (real or artificial) are radically tested, if not knocked down all together.
“Song of the Jasmine” draws inspiration from the writings of eighth-century Tamil poet Andal. Her words of longing for the god Vishnu are intimate and sensual, and those are the feelings Mahanthappa summons in his composition. Joined onstage by Rez Abbasi (guitar), Raman Kalyan (Carnatic flute), Anjna Swaminathan (Carnatic violin) and Rajna Swaminathan (drum), Maranthappa leads his tight ensemble on a musical journey of joy, bliss and contemplation.
The dancers respond in kind by staying true to the storytelling gestures of bharatanatyam while simultaneously adjusting their technique to reflect a different sort of spiritual longing.
Aparna Ramaswamy is particularly effective in this role, her vibrant movements lingering just a bit longer than usual, her fluid arms arcing through space as if playing an invisible instrument. In one section, Aparna, Ranee and Ashwini Ramaswamy slowly shift from one pose to another, their facial expressions transitioning between emotions with languid ease.
The set features dozens of hanging bells, but they are rarely rung. When one is struck, the clarity of its tone serves as a reminder of how deeply human beings respond to rhythms, both old and new. “Song of the Jasmine” pays homage to this universal truth.
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.