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Ragamala Dance Company

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Sacred Earth, Ragamala Dance Company

Ragamala Dance Company performing Sacred Earth. Photograph by Hub Wilson, 2011. Used with the permission of Ragamala Dance Company.

Founded in 1992 by Ranee Ramaswamy and David Whetstone, Ragamala Dance Company is a leading dance ensemble of the Indian diaspora in the United States. Through original works like Sacred Earth and Song of the Jasmine, the Minneapolis-based institution has made a global impact while maintaining its Minnesota roots.

Under the direction of Ranee and her daughter Aparna, the company creates intercultural, collaborative performance works. Their choreography is rooted in the south Indian classical dance style of Bharatanatyam, a 2,000-year-old art form that originated in Tamil Nadu, India. Highly stylized, with sophisticated technique, Bharatanatyam blends two distinct components: nritta, or rhythmic dance, comprising various complex body movements and rhythmic compositions, and nritya, or narrative dance, which utilizes the language of gesture and facial expression.

Raised in Chennai (Madras), India, Ranee trained in Bharatanatyam from age nine to nineteen. After moving to Minneapolis with her husband and youngest daughter, Aparna, in 1978, she became active in the local Indian community and joined a number of organizations for Indian expatriates. After taking a ten-year break from dancing, she was invited to perform at a festival at the University of Minnesota. The performance led to teaching, and she began making annual trips to India to further her study.

1983 was a critical juncture in Ranee and Aparna’s artistic lives. The internationally renowned dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli came to the University of Minnesota for a teaching workshop and performance, after which Ranee and Aparna become her students. “I had never seen anyone dance Bharatanatyam like she did,” recalls Ranee. “Valli’s dancing was brilliant and soul-stirring.”

From 1983 to 1990, Ranee and Aparna continued their annual studies with Valli while establishing themselves in the Twin Cities dance community through teaching and performing.
The idea to start a company began when Ranee met the poet Robert Bly in 1990. She realized that she could bring Indian poetry, dance, and music to new audiences through his dynamic English translation of the poems of Mirabai, a Hindu writer and mystic who lived in the 1500s CE.

Through Bly, Ranee met sitarist David Whetstone and tabla player Marcus Wise, and the three collaborated with her on a multi-media production called Mirabai Versions. The show’s 1991 premiere was a milestone. “For the first time, I felt like I was really doing my own work,” she says.
“And the poems in English and music by local musicians made Indian dance more accessible to audiences outside of the Indian community.”

Encouraged by the show’s success, Ranee and Whetstone founded Ragamala Music and Dance Theater in 1992 (Whetstone left the company to pursue other projects in 1996). “I was excited to collaborate with other cultures that had something in common and to use my dance language to communicate,” Ranee says.

Aparna became co-artistic director of the company in 2002. Since then, her shared vision with Ranee has brought international visibility to Ragamala. “Our work explores the hybridic perspectives of intercultural life that is omnipresent in today’s world,” says Aparna. “It’s this idea of carrying ritual and culture forward. We’re looking at the way tradition isn’t static; the contemporary and the traditional can co-exist.” A series of national and international tours—the first in 1998—also helped introduce the company to new audiences.

In the 2010s, more tours and original productions like Sacred Earth and Song of the Jasmine brought Ragamala worldwide recognition. As individuals, Ranee and Aparna received such accolades as a McKnight Distinguished Artist Award (Ranee, 2011) and Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards (Ranee, 2014, and Aparna, 2016). National and international venues commissioned the company to create new works, and it received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation, among others. The company performed at Lincoln Center (2014), the Walker Art Center (2014), the Music Center of Los Angeles (2016), and the Just Festival in Scotland (2017), among dozens of other venues.

In early April 2018, Ranee and Aparna were awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in the field of choreography. Later that month, they added the production Body, the Shrine to Ragamala’s repertory, following its debut in Minneapolis. They went on to present six performances of their large-scale work, Written in Water, at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance summer festival in Becket, Massachusetts.

Turning Point: In 1983, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy meet their guru, Alarmél Valli, at a dance workshop and performance in Minneapolis. Valli’s style of Bharatanatyam becomes the inspiration for their creative aesthetic.

The idea to start a company began when Ranee met the poet Robert Bly in 1990. She realized that she could bring Indian poetry, dance, and music to new audiences through his dynamic English translation of the poems of Mirabai, a Hindu writer and mystic who lived in the 1500s CE.

Through Bly, Ranee met sitarist David Whetstone and tabla player Marcus Wise, and the three collaborated with her on a multi-media production called Mirabai Versions. The show’s 1991 premiere was a milestone. “For the first time, I felt like I was really doing my own work,” she says.
“And the poems in English and music by local musicians made Indian dance more accessible to audiences outside of the Indian community.”

Encouraged by the show’s success, Ranee and Whetstone founded Ragamala Music and Dance Theater in 1992 (Whetstone left the company to pursue other projects in 1996). “I was excited to collaborate with other cultures that had something in common and to use my dance language to communicate,” Ranee says.

Aparna became co-artistic director of the company in 2002. Since then, her shared vision with Ranee has brought international visibility to Ragamala. “Our work explores the hybridic perspectives of intercultural life that is omnipresent in today’s world,” says Aparna. “It’s this idea of carrying ritual and culture forward. We’re looking at the way tradition isn’t static; the contemporary and the traditional can co-exist.” A series of national and international tours—the first in 1998—also helped introduce the company to new audiences.

In the 2010s, more tours and original productions like Sacred Earth and Song of the Jasmine brought Ragamala worldwide recognition. As individuals, Ranee and Aparna received such accolades as a McKnight Distinguished Artist Award (Ranee, 2011) and Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards (Ranee, 2014, and Aparna, 2016). National and international venues commissioned the company to create new works, and it received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation, among others. The company performed at Lincoln Center (2014), the Walker Art Center (2014), the Music Center of Los Angeles (2016), and the Just Festival in Scotland (2017), among dozens of other venues.

In early April 2018, Ranee and Aparna were awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in the field of choreography. Later that month, they added the production Body, the Shrine to Ragamala’s repertory, following its debut in Minneapolis. They went on to present six performances of their large-scale work, Written in Water, at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance summer festival in Becket, Massachusetts.

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  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Burke, Siobhan. “Sacred Music and Movement, With An Infectious Beat.” New York Times, August 14, 2014.

Pena, Susan L. “Ragamala Dance Company Blends Past and Present.” Reading Eagle, October 20, 2016.

Post-Performance Talk Back: They Rose at Dawn.
https://vimeo.com/179133204

Preston, Rohan. “Twin Cities Dancer Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Steps into a New 'Dawn' as Solo Artist.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 18, 2016.

Ragamala Dance Company.
https://www.ragamaladance.org/

Ragamala Dance Company and Rudresh Mahanthappa in Conversation with Philip Bither. YouTube. Walker Art Center, June 26, 2014.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHCRT-p4I8E

“Ragamala Dance Performs Nocturne.” Martha’s Vineyard Online, August 8, 2017.
http://mvol.com/events/ragamala-dance-company-dance-performs-nocturne/

Ramaswamy, Ranee. Ranee Ramaswamy: 2011 Distinguished Artist. Minneapolis: McKnight Foundation, 2011.
https://www.mcknight.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf-5-mb.pdf

Rao, Mallika. “Meet the Women Radicalizing One Of The World's Oldest Dance Forms.” Huffington Post, August 11, 2015.
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/an-ancient-dance-form-turns-irresistable_us_55cb512ce4b0923c12bebd8e

Rizzuto, Rachel. “An Indian Dance Matriarchy in Minneapolis.” Dance Teacher, February 2016.

“They Rose at Dawn—The Making Of.” Vimeo.
https://vimeo.com/164771387

Soneji, Davesh. Bharatanatyam: A Reader. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Related Images

Sacred Earth, Ragamala Dance Company
Sacred Earth, Ragamala Dance Company
Ranee Ramaswamy dancing as a child
Ranee Ramaswamy dancing as a child
Seated group photograph of Ranee Ramaswamy, Alarmél Valli, and Aparna Ramaswamy
Seated group photograph of Ranee Ramaswamy, Alarmél Valli, and Aparna Ramaswamy
Arangetram(debut recital) of Aparna Ramaswamy
Arangetram(debut recital) of Aparna Ramaswamy
Aparna Ramaswamy
Aparna Ramaswamy
Promotional photograph of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy for production of Mirabai Visions
Promotional photograph of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy for production of Mirabai Visions
Ranee Ramaswamy and Robert Bly in Portland
Ranee Ramaswamy and Robert Bly in Portland
Production of Sacred Earth in Minneapolis
Production of Sacred Earth in Minneapolis
Sacred Earth
Sacred Earth
Ranee Ramaswamy in Sacred Earth
Ranee Ramaswamy in Sacred Earth
Performance of Song of Jasmine at Lincoln Center, New York
Performance of Song of Jasmine at Lincoln Center, New York
Aparna Ramaswamy
Aparna Ramaswamy
Ashwini Ramaswamy performing in Sacred Earth
Ashwini Ramaswamy performing in Sacred Earth
Ranee Ramaswamy
Ranee Ramaswamy
Performance of Written in Water in Tallahassee, Florida.
Performance of Written in Water in Tallahassee, Florida.
Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy
Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy
Aparna Ramaswamy performing in Body, the Shrine, in
Aparna Ramaswamy performing in Body, the Shrine, in

Turning Point

In 1983, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy meet their guru, Alarmél Valli, at a dance workshop and performance in Minneapolis. Valli’s style of Bharatanatyam becomes the inspiration for their creative aesthetic.

Chronology

1978

Ranee Ramaswamy moves from India to Minneapolis with her three-year-old daughter, Aparna.

1983

Ranee and Aparna meet Alarmél Valli, who becomes their lifelong guru.

1990

Ranee works with poet Robert Bly, inspiring her to begin working to create her own dance company.

1991

Ranee and Bly collaborate on a multi-media production called Mirabai Versions, which combines poetry, music, and dance.

1992

Ranee Ramaswamy and sitarist David Whetsone start Ragamala Music and Dance Theater.

1998

Ragamala gets its first agent, Siegel Artist Management, which leads to the company’s first tour outside of Minnesota.

2002

Aparna Ramaswamy becomes Ragamala’s co-artistic director.

2011

Sacred Earth has its world premiere in Minneapolis during Ragamala’s fall season.

2012

Ragamala celebrates its twentieth anniversary season.

2013

1,0001 Buddhas: Journey of the Gods has its world premiere in March.

2014

Song of the Jasmine premieres

2015

They Rose at Dawn premieres.

2016

Ashwini Ramaswamy, Ranee’s youngest daughter, becomes Ragamala’s choreographic associate.

2017

Ragamala celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary season.

2018

Body, the Shrine has its world premiere in April.