Harris Theater presents RAGAMALA DANCE COMPANY Review – Delicate Intricacy

Harris Theater RAGMALA DANCE
Photo by Grant Halverson

Harris Theater presents Ragamala Dance Company performing Written in Water, classical  Bharatanatyam Indian dance based on the Indian board game Paramapadam, known in the Western world as Snakes and Ladders.

Mother and daughter team and Co-Artistic Directors of Ragamala Dance Company, Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, explain in the program notes that through the lenses of the board game in conjunction with the Sufi text The Conference of the Birds and Hindu mythological story Khseerabthi Madanam, the dance tells the experience of human life, love, and struggle in three movements.

Harris Theater RAGMALA DANCE
Photo by Bruce Palmer

Staying True to Tradition

Although Written in Water, contains many innovative and new age elements such as lighting projections on the floor and backdrop, and live musicians on stage with the dancers, the dance itself is Bharatanatyam, an age-old classical Indian dance form started in Hindu temples. The movements in Bharatanatyam are very delicate, intricate, and small, pairing well with the idea of turning the stage into a real life Paramapadam board. The five dancers glide elegantly across the stage conveying a story using small gestural movements with their hands and tiny, but distinctive, movements of the head and changes in facial expression. Aparna Ramaswamy, is especially mesmerizing with her facial expressions during her group and solo moments. In Bharatanatyam, the dancer’s torsos are always upright focusing the movement on the limbs and head. The Ragamala dancers do an exquisite job of maintaining this posture, always looking poised and calm.

Ranee and Aparna, co-Artistic directors of Ragamala Dance Company said in the post-performance talk back that they pride themselves on their ability to bring what they’ve learned in India with them and carry on this tradition and share it in the United States.

Embodying Music

Written in Water also features a live musical ensemble consisting of a trumpet, violin, vocalists, and Indian instruments santur, mridangam, and nattuvangam. In the post-performance talk back, Amir ElSaffar, who created the composition said that it took over over a year to create the composition for the piece with Ragamala Dance Company, and it shows. There is a masterful pairing of music and dance in this performance.

Harris Theater RAGMALA DANCE
Photo by Bruce Palmer

The dancers wear bells on their ankles which ring and jingle when they step. The musical ensemble’s music matches the dancers movements so well it is as if the music is coming straight from the dancer’s bodies. Each hand gesture and step matches a beat or vocal cue, making the music and dance one entity throughout the performance.

Telling a Story

While this reviewer has never studied Bharatanatyam, and has never played Paramapadam, it is easy to understand the semblance of the story through the dancers and music. The dancers portray sadness and struggle in slower movements and gestures reaching out into the distance for something they can’t attain and joy through faster, more upbeat rhythmic sections of the dance.

Projections on the floor that resemble a cross between a stained glass window and a game board give visual representation to the dancers moving through the game of life. Projections of paintings and other artwork on the backdrop of the stage also speak to the mythological and spiritual themes in the piece, providing the audience with more cultural and contextual understanding.

Written in Water contains a lot of various elements including dance, live music, art, and a story behind the dance. All put together, Ragamala Dance Company presents a beautiful evening of work that reveals something new about Indian dance, culture, and bringing those ideas to new audiences. For more information about upcoming Harris Theater Presents performances visit the Harris Theater Presents website.

Highly Recommended

Learn more about dance by seeing dance through dancers eyes in the Picture This Post series, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”.  Watch this video preview of the story here— 


Aparna Ramaswamy, Ranee Ramaswamy, Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel, Jessica Fiala

Musical Ensemble:

Amir ElSaffar, Preethy Mahesh, Ramanathan Kalaiarasan, Rohan Krishnamurthy, Kasi Aysola

Hayley Ross

About the Author:

Hayley Ross graduated from Ohio University in 2016 with degrees in Dance and Journalism. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Hayley began dancing at the age of four. She has studied Ballet, Pointe, Modern, Jazz, Contemporary, and African dance and regularly can be found taking dance and Pilates at Chicago's Lou Conte Dance Studio. Hayley has completed internships at CityScene Media Group, OhioDance, the Chautauqua Institution, and American Dance Festival. She currently works in the Marketing department at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago as the Marketing Manager. Learn more about Hayley at hayleyross.weebly.com

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