Ragamala Dance Company marked its 25th Anniversary at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis on September 14th and 16th. I attended the Saturday night concert featuring Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli, with musicians C.K. Vasudevan (nattuvangam), Vasuda Ravi (vocal), M. Dhananjayan (mridangam), G.Raghuraman (flute), and Akkari Swarnalatha (violin).
Valli is a legendary figure in Bharatanatyam dance; Ragamala directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, both Minneapolis-based, call her their guru. And Valli calls Minneapolis her second home, describing it as a place where Bharatanatyam reaches mainstream audiences and yet the integrity of the art form remains intact. She credits Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy for this feat.
Saturday’s two hour and fifteen-minute program was, in Valli’s words, “almost the length of a program that would be presented in India.” There was no intermission and the pacing conveyed an overall feeling of honor and ritual. Nonetheless, the healthy pause that followed each piece was usually filled with muffled audience chatter. In between dances, Valli stood downstage left, by a small golden sculpture surrounded by white petals, and addressed the audience, explaining the theatrical elements of the dance about to be performed and demonstrating of the codified hand gestures that would be used to express the tale.
I usually prefer to just enjoy dance, uninterrupted by explanations. But this lecture/demonstration style helped me hear and see details that I otherwise would have missed. Indian classical dance has two central components: Nritta, or abstract, rhythmic dance; and Abhinaya, or dance theatre. All parts of the body, even the eyes, are involved.
Valli describes dance as visual music. Her link between these art forms showed up in the configuration of performers. All of the musicians were onstage, seated on a platform stage right and facing center stage, where Valli danced. The music and movement – intricate and rhythmically varied in their own rights – united as a closely interwoven, multisensory tapestry.
The rhythmic sections are complex and painstakingly precise – in some cases, as Valli pointed out, a single missed beat by a dancer or musician can cause the rest of a piece to unravel! Rhythmic passages alternated with expressive sections during which Valli evoked a story using a codified language of hand gestures. Without her guidance, I would not have grasped the narrative elements. I am unfamiliar with Indian poetry and all of the stories referenced were derived from Indian sung poems – Varnam, Javalis, and Tamil poetry of the Sangam age.
She was the only dancer and prefaced each dance with an overview of the story and accompanying gesture for each. Though she carried a large part of the show, Valli never seemed to get winded. Her speaking sections were poised, with easy breathing throughout.
Was this like dance I might have seen in a Bollywood film? No. My impression is that Bharatanatyam is to Bollywood as classical ballet is to the Swan Lake reference in Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” music video.
I left the Cowles contemplating the power of deliberate expression, meditative observation, and patient focus.