The Hopkins Center for the Arts’ 2018-2019 season opens with a luminous multimedia work fusing Indian classical dance, Hindu and Islamic texts, immersive projections and live music. Written in Water by Ragamala Dance Company will be performed Tuesday and Wednesday, September 18 and 19, 7 pm, in The Moore Theater.
Called “soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious” by The New York Times, Ragamala Dance Company combines the sinuous, vivid Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam with a Western aesthetic. Inspired by the second-century Indian board game Paramapadam (the precursor to Snakes & Ladders) as well as powerful Sufi and Hindu texts, Written in Water explores ecstasy, longing and transcendence in Hindu and Sufi thought.The five dancers move through a space transformed by vivid projections, to a score composed and performed by Amir ElSaffar—known for his distinctive alchemy of contemporary jazz trumpet and Iraqi maqam—with a Carnatic musical ensemble. Based in Minneapolis, Ragamala is led by mother-daughter co-artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy.
Critics have praised the work’s beauty and emotional impact. “Written in Water unfolded like a dream—a feast for the eyes, ears and heart,” wrote the Tallahassee Democrat. Wrote The Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Ancient Hindu and Persian traditions were woven into a fabric that illuminated their similarities and brought out the beauty of each. The way that the Ramaswamys were able to intertwine abstraction within the tight architecture of the Bharatanatyam form was truly magical.”
The work begins with dancers moving above a floor onto which a giant version of the “Snakes and Ladders” board game, designed by Nathan Christopher, is project the board game provided a structure on which the dance unfolded. Manifesting the joys and struggles of human life, the five dancers move like live board game pieces, journeying along the board squares, all the while executing the intricate Bharatanatyam movements.
Later, the Snakes & Ladders board transforms to its earlier iternation, Paramapadam, which, unlike the modern version, is black and white. Woven into the journey of the board game was imagery drawn from the ancient Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” through the choreography as well as a series of colorful paintings by the Chennai, India-based artist, Keshav–against which the dancers conjured the flight of birds through the movements of their arms, hands and fingers. Other passages drew on images from the Hindu mythological story Ksheerabthi Madanam, the churning of the seven seas.
Written in Water is only the latest achievement by this company, now in its 25th season. The roots of the company go back to the 1980s in Minneapolis when Ranee Ramaswamy attended a performance by Alarmél Valli, the preeminent choreographer and performer of Bharatanatyam. Ramaswamy and daughter Aparna had moved to Minneapolis from India only two years earlier, when Aparna was 7, and the performance hit home. “The very first day I watched her on stage, the first minute, I knew I had never in my life seen something that has moved me so much,” Ramaswamy told Minnesota Public Radio last year. “It was unbelievable the power she had.” That next year, Ranee and Aparna spent four months in India, studying with Valli. Ranee had studied dance previously but she started over, learning alongside her daughter. They returned, year after year, for months at a time. In the early 1990s, they founded Ragamala.
Despite receiving copious critical acclaim, the Ramaswarmys have just one critical eye in mind, Ranee told MPR. “When we create work for Ragamala we have a standard and the standard is, ‘will Valli like it?’” Valli, in turn, told MPR: “To think that they have built up this company which has made its mark in the mainstream in America—it makes me very proud, like a proud parent.”
Written in Water performances at the Hop are funded in part by the Wetzel Family Fund for the Arts and the Expeditions program of the New England Foundation for the Arts, which is made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the six New England state arts agencies.