Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists, produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire podcast here.
I’ve heard the saying, in one form or another, that you should never mix business with family, but that is exactly what Aparna, Ranee, and Ashwini Ramaswamy are doing. When I sat down to interview Aparna Ramaswamy about her family’s dance company, Ragamala, and their upcoming premiere of Song of the Jasmine, I was particularly curious to hear about what its like to make art with family. I’m married to an artist (a theater director), and we’ve collaborated a few times. Though we both survived the experience, we’ve learned that although we highly value the others feedback, we do our best work on our own. There are many examples of partners making art together – even a handful in the Minneapolis dance community (BodyCartography Project and Chris Yon + Taryn Griggs to name two) but the examples that come to mind are couples who have chosen each other as life partners. However, collaborating with someone you didn’t get to choose seemed unique to me. When I asked Aparna about her choreographic partnership with her mother, Ranee, she was very direct: “we create almost every movement together … our bond is so strong, it works for us, and we feel we create much better work together.” I was also inspired by the family bonds within the company, which includes dancers Jessica Fiala and Tamara Nadel (everyone does more than dance, including grant writing and marketing work); as Aparna says, “to this day, when we tour, we eat every single meal together. We really like hanging out together.”
A primary inspiration for Song of the Jasmine is the work of 8th century mystic poet, Andal, whose poetry casts the creator god, Krishna or Vishnu, as her lover to signify her deep desire to achieve a spiritual union with the infinite. Aparna spoke of how Andal’s poetry is a guiding inspiration for this piece, “this idea of the human soul wanting to unite with the divine or the cosmic consciousness, we use that. We use human love and sensuality as an allegory [...] so its a very contemporary feeling that all of us can understand, but really, its this feeling of transcendence and soaring and spiritual union.”
Aparna and Ranee create their work using the vocabulary of the classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam. “For us, tradition is something that we hold very closely. We are very proud of the tradition we come from, and when we say tradition its a very specific thing. We come from an ancient form that is codified but within that form we come from a certain school and within that school we come from a certain teacher who comes from a very specific lineage and we are the next part of that lineage.”
I was curious to hear Aparna speak about how, as a contemporary dance company working within this centuries-old tradition, Ragamala stays true to form while creating work that resonates with contemporary audiences. She likened their years of study of the form to learning a language, “its like having a dictionary. Its all this information that you have embodied because you have done it for so long […] poets use language very freely to create new work and we create work with many different dimensions and layers that use Bharata Natyam, but that will look very different and feel very different, because of the music and all of the different strategies we’re employing.” It seems that their collaboration with avant jazz composer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is taking their explorations at the edges of tradition to new places: “he’s so grounded in jazz and [jazz musicians] have all of these different structures and different ways that they approach music that’s very different from our experience. It just makes one push oneself so much more.”
Bharata Natyam is expressed in two ways, as a more abstract and rhythmic dance and, as a narrative form, through the use of facial expressions, costume, emotion, and word-like hand gestures, or mudras. Aparna mentioned that audiences’ desire to understand the specifics of the story and the meaning of the mudras sometimes gets in the way of their enjoyment of the work. Aparna’s response: “When I see contemporary dance I don’t understand all of the inspirations [...] but I find different entry points or different things to appreciate or to be challenged by. It’s the same thing. Just because its rooted in another culture doesn’t mean you don’t understand.”