"Bharatanatyam is an old dance language but when we use it, it's to express new ideas and new things -- just like people use English every day," said Aparna Ramaswamy last week as she sat in the lobby of the Cowles Center.
Ramaswamy is principal dancer and co-artistic director with her mother, Ranee Ramaswamy, of Ragamala Dance. For 20 years, the troupe has been expressing bharatanatyam on stages in the Twin Cities and nationwide. They have revivified this ancient Indian temple form, combining it with jazz and spoken word, sign language and myriad other influences to create work that is often fresh and, as the New York Times wrote earlier this year, "transcendent."
Now, they are taking it home. The company's latest creation, "Sacred Earth," premieres today in Minneapolis as the first engagement at the $42 million Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis. It will go on a national tour following its Twin Cities run.
The piece, one of the biggest and most complex in the troupe's history, draws inspiration from peoples in south and western India. It takes off from the holistic art and philosophy of the Warli, a tribe in southern India whose runic paintings show humans co-existing in nature.
Ragamala has been developing this for two years, and the premiere comes after a month of workshops in drumming, art and philosophy.
'Unity of worlds'
"In the Warli world, the external and the internal are in perfect harmony," said Aparna Ramaswamy. "Their art celebrates the animals and people and plants. That's what we're seeking in this work, a unity of worlds."
"Sacred Earth" also draws on the kolams, or rice-flour paintings in sand, that some women in southern India compose outside their homes. The paintings, done daily, are invitations to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. The folk artworks also serve as announcements about the health and well-being of a family, said Ranee Ramaswamy.
Big kolams mark important occasions, such as upcoming weddings. No kolam for a few days could mean "that the woman is in her cycle," she said. Longer absences of rice-flour paintings might suggest illness or worse.
"The paintings are a way to communicate with the wider community," she continued. "And what's so nice is that they're passed on from mother to daughter."
Two years in the making
"Sacred Earth" is performed by a company of seven dancers and four musicians against a projected backdrop of large-scale Warli paintings. After the Ramaswamys were first inspired by Warli art, they had to figure out how to bring their ideas to reality. The company sought funding for the project while Ragamala was collaborating with the Children's Theatre on "Iron Ring" several years ago.
"It's not that exciting to write grants, but that's a big part of what we have to do," said Ranee Ramaswamy. She and dancer Tamera Nadel stayed behind in India after a tour there and went in search of Warli artists. They found one: Anil Chaitya Vangad, whose work is incorporated into the show; photographs of his paintings are used as large-scale backdrop projections and examples of his work adorn the Cowles lobby. There are also examples of kolams being created in the lobby.
The matrilineal legacy of kolams fits neatly into the narrative of Ragamala, which is a thriving family affair.
Two decades after she founded the company, Ranee Ramaswamy has two daughters deeply involved in it. Ashwini Ramaswamy does marketing for the company. As we sat in a circle in the Cowles lobby, Aparna Ramaswamy was bursting with excitement about the discoveries she and the company were making in "Sacred Ground."
"In bharatanatyam, the main styles are the expressive and the rhythmic," said Aparna Ramaswamy. "In Warli art, there are many finer gradations. It's a whole philosophical construct by a people who don't read and it's so complicated and deep, it's thrilling."
The Warlis celebrate many ceremonies that we recognize, including weddings. The choreography of "Sacred Earth" takes off from their approach but is not limited to it, said Aparna Ramaswamy
"Bharatanatyam is a way of speaking with our bodies," she continued. "We are very fluent in it."
The company also makes it sing.