Ranee Ramaswamy once had a simple goal — to share the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam with Minnesota audiences.
Twenty-five years later, her Ragamala Dance Company, which she directs in partnership with daughter Aparna Ramaswamy, has far surpassed its modest beginnings and now enjoys international acclaim. On Thursday night Ragamala celebrated the world premiere of “Body, the Shrine” at the Cowles Center by demonstrating yet again why the troupe is so vital to the Twin Cities dance scene.
“Body, the Shrine” represents a first in Ragamala’s history. Senior company dancer Ashwini Ramaswamy joined her mother and sister in choreographing the evening-length work, which features sections created and taught to them by their guru, Alarmél Valli. They were inspired by the Bhakti Movement, a transformational religious and literary era in India, with roots dating back to the 6th century.
“Bhakti” is a Sanskrit term defined as both “devotion” and “participation.” Ragamala’s homage reveres the male and female poets whose soaring words contrasted with times of protest, conflict and violence. The Ramaswamys, as well as company members Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala, wear vibrant red, orange, blue and green traditional costumes, and this colorful energy carries over to the evocative vocals and music (drums and violin) performed live by Preethy Mahesh, C.K. Vasudevan, Sakthivel Muruganantham and Ramanathan Kalaiarasan.
The Ramaswamys each bring different moods to the work, as evidenced in solos and duets. Ranee’s “Vazhi Maraittirukkude” (choreographed by Valli) is about persistence, referencing not only an untouchable’s desire to glimpse a deity but also 19th-century hopes for independence from Britain. Ranee illustrates her challenging quest through flowing hand gestures and gently entreating stances.
With “Call Him to Me,” Aparna embodies the symbiotic relationship between nature and the divine, owning the stage with her exquisite precision and attention to the tiniest detail of expression. When she and Ashwini perform “Shankara Sri Giri” (choreographed by Valli with staging by the sisters) as an ode to cosmic rhythms, they not only present breathtaking synchronized movement but also the sort of unspoken communication so unique to family.
The program quotes Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, a 19th-century king of the southern Indian state of Kerala who also was a composer. “If you dance and sing, then it is indeed Heaven,” he said. And if so, then there’s a slice of heaven to be found in “Body, the Shrine.”
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.