How do you reach the divine? How do you let the entrapments of the baser elements of humanity — jealousies, war, anger and hatred — fall away and allow for a more pure, spiritual awakening? That’s the central question and journey of “Written in Water,” Ragamala Dance Company’s sumptuous piece that debuted at the Cowles Center back in 2017. The work has since been performed all across the U.S. and beyond, including the Kennedy Center, Jacob’s Pillow and the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. Saturday’s performance was Ragamala’s first time performing at the Ordway, and the piece’s return to the Twin Cities was sublime.
So many cogs worked together to make this performance impactful. Conceived and choreographed by mother and daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy with choreographic associate Ashwini Ramaswamy, the dance, performed by five women dressed in elaborate ensembles of saris, hair jewelry and jingling anklets, was supported fully by an incredible fusion sound score, and immersive visual elements.
The music, composed by Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy, mixed Carnatic instruments and vocals with jazz and Arabic sounds, resulting in a lively soundscape. ElSaffar’s trumpet solos soared.
The story’s narrative — about the strife and trials that characters must overcome to reach the divine — was told not only through dance but via a series of paintings created by V. Keshav that were projected onto a scrim. These works, filled with blue-skinned figures and dreamlike birds, danced themselves with expressive color. The paintings offered clues to the story being told onstage, one that drew from the 12th-century Sufi text “The Conference of the Birds” and a Hindu myth, Ksheerabthi Madanam.
The other source for the piece, the Indian board game Paramapadam (a precursor to Snakes and Ladders), was visually projected on the floor and was also used as inspiration for the movement. In the first section, the dancers moved as if on a grid, like they were pieces being played in a game. One dancer’s move would act as a catalyst for another, and so on.
The second section included a magnificent solo by Aparna Ramaswamy. Her fingernails seemed to reach out to infinity when she danced, her dexterous fingers used with nimble playfulness to weave a story in gestured images.
Ranee Ramaswamy adeptly carried much of the emotional weight of the piece. It was her sole figure that emerged at the end, transcendent in the vibrant light created by lighting designer Jeff Bartlett. It was a moment that offered chills.