Born in India and nurtured on two continents, Ragamala bears fruit in Midwest

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Growing up in India, Ragamala Dance Company co-founder Ranee Ramaswamy studied classical dance the way many girls in the United States take up ballet or tap. An arranged marriage and her family’s relocation to Minnesota in the late 1970s, though, shelved her childhood dream of becoming an accomplished dancer. But when her oldest daughter, Aparna, showed interest in learning Bharatanatyam, the traditional dance style of southern India, Ranee was reborn.

“If someone had told me and my parents 30 years ago that I would be dancing all over the globe with my daughters in tow, that I would have this amazing dance company, that I would be recognized for my work, we would have laughed our heads off,” Ranee told the McKnight Foundation in a 2011 interview.

Ragamala will bring “Song of the Jasmine," created by Ranee, Aparna and jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, to the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State. The production, inspired by the works of India saint-poet Andal and featuring live music by a group led by Mahanthappa, will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 22 in Eisenhower Auditorium. Audio description is available for this performance at no extra charge to ticket holders. Ragamala also will demonstrate the dance style with a free participatory community dance experience at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 21 on the Eisenhower patio. No reservations are required, but the event is first-come, first served.

Aparna, who was a child when the family moved to the Midwest, said she exhibited an aptitude for Bharatanatyam at a young age. She picked up basic movement techniques by watching her mother, who at that time was teaching and presenting her previously learned forms to groups in Minneapolis. When Aparna was 8, mother and daughter met Alarmel Valli during the Bharatanatyam instructor’s two-week residency at the University of Minnesota.

“(Valli) told my mother that if she brought me back to India, that she would teach me,” Aparna said. “My mother asked, ‘Can I also come?’ And (the teacher) said, ‘But you … have a style, a school that you’re from.’ And she said, ‘I don't care, I’ll start from the beginning again.’ So, like that, we started from the beginning again, as colleagues, 8 years old and an adult.”

Their relationship strengthened with grueling, Olympic-style training sessions with Valli in India. The pair practiced Bharatanatyam 10 hours a day for four-month periods.

“We had to keep up our lessons so we could go back to India the next year and continue,” Aparna said. “Our teacher said that if we came back even an iota less or having forgotten anything, she wouldn’t teach us again.”

In the late 1980s, after years of study, Ranee was awarded her first McKnight Foundation Artist Fellowship and other arts grants. She met more members of the artistic community, which opened doors for her rediscovered passion. In 1990, she contacted poet Robert Bly, a champion of saint-poets of India — Rumi, Kabir and Mirabai — otherwise unheard of in Minnesota.

“For the first time, she took this dance form out of its classical context and performed to English translations of the poetry,” Aparna said. “She found that … an immediate understanding of the work happened. (The audience) loved that ability to understand, and so ... that point of access was opened up to so many more people. ... I think that was a life-changer, eye-opener for her, that this form could even look that way."

Since its inception 23 years ago by co-artistic directors/choreographers Ranee and Aparna, Ragamala Dance Company has performed more than 30 original productions supported by various commissions, arts grants and endowments. Ranee was awarded the 2014 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the newest addition to her growing list of artist fellowships and accolades. Aparna also boasts a list of honors, awards and grants.

Dance Magazine called Aparna a “marvel of buoyant agility and sculptural clarity,” and she has toured her solo works to rave reviews in the United States and India.

While Ranee and Aparna have dedicated their lives to introducing Bharatanatyam to today’s audiences, Ashwini Ramaswamy, Ranee’s younger daughter, only recently made dance a more serious part of her life. Ashwini never exhibited the same level of dedication to the form that her mother and sister did.

“She continued to train with my mother and me, (but) she did not have the discipline to train with my teacher,” Aparna said. “She’s a very different sort of personality. ... You’d ask her and she’d say, ‘I never wanted to do what my sister is doing.’ ... From a young age, she always danced, just not at the intensity that I had. ... (She) was the typical American child — she studied piano and flute and theatre and was good at everything.”

Ashwini graduated from college with a degree in English literature and moved to New York City to pursue a career in publishing. She later returned to Minnesota and joined Ragamala as the company’s director of marketing and as an ensemble dancer. She also started her own training with Valli, the family’s renowned teacher. But Aparna said her sister moved back to dance.

“She’s coming into her own and making a very valuable contribution to the company, so it’s wonderful,” Aparna said.

A recent review in The New York Times testified to Ashwini’s progress. After years of dancing as part of an ensemble, she took to the stage in a solo performance at the Ellen Stewart Theater at New York’s La Mama. “Within each articulation is the sense that there is a breath — or a continual flow of energy — coursing through her limbs,” wrote the critic. Her work also brought her a long list of arts fellowships and grants.

Aparna said her mother, who finally realized her dream of dancing professionally, was happy about Ashwini’s change of heart.

“When she came back and put her mind to it, oh, my mother was thrilled,” Aparna said. “My mother had never forced me to do it, and with my sister, she gave her avenues to do it how she wanted to do it. ... When I was young, they’d go down for class and they’d come out five minutes later screaming and yelling and fighting.”

In the 2011 McKnight interview, Ranee recollected that when she was a child, a town astrologer predicted her life’s path. And it all came true, until she moved with her family to the United States.

“Then America took over. The astrologer’s predictions seemed to disappear into the ground, and I appeared,” she said. “I am no longer married to the man the astrologer predicted, but I have the companionship and love of the one I chose here in Minnesota. The astrologer said I would have a son and a daughter, as having two daughters would be considered a curse in India. I have two beautiful and amazing daughters who are my two hands.”

Ragamala continues to be a blessing for the mother and sisters, Aparna said, and those family bonds manifest themselves in the dance.

“We’re more comfortable with each other, with the work ... and knowing that good improvisation comes with a lot of practice. The three of us work together very well and constantly.”

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Last Updated September 18, 2015