Ragamala Dance unfurled an intricate, complex, and lovely world last night at the Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University, with the evening-length Sacred Earth. The circular rice flour designs the dancers drew and drizzled on the floor, the glowing gold, orange, and green pleats of the dancers’ skirts, the precise hand and head gestures, and the detailed Warli wall paintings projected throughout the dance—all conveyed a sense of reverence, of unfolding mystery, of celebration.
Trained in the South Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (the directors of Ragamala Dance) understand the dance as a dynamic art form. They do not fuse the classic dance with contemporary dance forms, but rather draw on the tradition to create dances that speak universally, that have relevance for our 21st century world. The sense of tension between tradition and innovation seems to heighten both, rather than take away from either, creating a bridge, not a tug-of-war. A similar tension seems to bind other elements of Sacred Earth, as well: secular and spiritual life, inner and outer worlds, rhythm and stillness, human and natural concerns.
After a slow, meditative opening, in which the 6 dancers walked a slow circle, knees bending softly with each step, rice flour powdering down from each open palm, the live musicians transitioned into a more rhythmically complex and percussive beat. The dancers contributed to the music with each pound and tap of their feet, the bells around their ankles lending a raspy jingle. The performance was structured around sung poems in the Tamil Sangam literary tradition, celebrating mountainous, forest, seaside, and farmed landscapes. The songs were strung seamlessly together, though each section seemed to feature both a soloist and the group. Each soloist told a story through the deliberate, precise, and evocative gestures that are characteristic of Bharatanatyam—a wrist turned just so, the elbow at just this angle, fingers fluttering like the wings of a butterfly or bird. The specifics of the narrative did not always come through, but the essence, the image, was clear.
During the final section, the dancers snaked across the stage, lunged and reached side to side in a low, wide-legged stance, traced their arms in an arc overhead as if describing the sun’s path through the sky. In their multiple passes, they recombined in varied groupings, their satisfying unison modulated by an occasional variation. The ending image was particularly striking. An intricate drawing of a tree was projected upon a translucent screen, behind which Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy could be seen. All the thematic tensions of the dance coalesced in their movements, as they reached down into the roots and up towards the branching limbs—their physical bodies bridging groundedness and mobility, history and new growth.
ADF continues with Vertigo Dance Company this weekend at the Durham Performing Arts Center (7/13-7/14).