On April 9, 2022, the Soraya Center for the Performing Arts and Thor Steingraber: Artistic Director, welcomed the stunning Minneapolis based Ragamala Dance Company with the world premiere commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and The Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Arts at Cal State Northridge.
The mother and daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, internationally known and honored for their work in the contemporary Indian Classic Dance form of Bharatanatyam performed the Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim representing the ancient city of Varanasi, a sacred site for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Fires of Varanasi was created to honor Ranee’s personal experience of her grandfather’s journey away from his homeland. She reimagined it as a ritual evoking the endurance of birth, death, and rebirth, honoring and juxtaposing the immigrant experience in the diaspora with the sacred history of Varanasi.
The audience, upon entering the quiet hall with its reverential atmosphere and incensed-filled stage-space appeared to instantly create an ambience of expectation. Even though the lights were not lowered until a good 20 minutes into the performance, with audience scattered throughout the hall, there was a ritual that began with placing and lighting candles. One was aware that they were entering a spiritual invocation. The ritual, where time was suspended and humanity merges with the divine soon calmed the frenetic noises of the outside world.
As the lights dimmed the artful lighting and scenic design of talented Willy Cessa shown against the pure white backdrops. There were sparse graduated steps, while hanging overhead were a number of various sized bells. Three rectangular shallow white water pools, holding floating candles, were placed carefully during the opening and appeared to bath the stage in ambient light. They reflected off the water where the gatherers waded, stroked and were cleansed by the Varansian waters. The costuming for the dancers were in vibrant reds, oranges and golds against white draped pilgrims making their way.
The origin of the tale Ranee imparts tells of the myth of Gangā falling from heaven and illuminates and mesmerizes the audience. While Aparna’s exacting technical expertise reminiscent of the god Shiva, tells the tale of Shiva waiting below, controlling time and the task of carrying out the process of destruction at the end of creation with the belief that the past present and future lies within. The rhythmic dancers sometimes unison, at other times anarchic, are expertly interwoven inside and outside the pilgrimages of the cast of believers.
All is intriguing, querying and often confusing for the uninitiated. It is clear however, since this is such an intricate tale, it requires a simple fix…program notes. This evening there appeared to be simply a link, a cast list and no way to understand the subtleties of the tale. The audience was expected to have some degree of sophistication and knowledge coming into the program. This can limit the appreciation, without doing ones homework and research prior to the commitment of experiencing the piece. Art is actually quality in communication…and as stunning as this presentation is visually, without background it loses the audience to which it hopes to communicate.
To learn more about Ragamala Dance Company, please visit their website.
To see the full season lineup at the Soraya Center for the Performing Arts, please visit their website.
Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Chronicle.
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Featured image: Ranee Ramaswamy – Photo by Luis Luque