Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Sacred Earth: Ragamala’s Spellbinding, Breathtaking Embodiment of the Eternal
by Rev. Dean J. Seal
Artistic Director, Spirit in the House
The Cowles Center was wise enough, and fortunate enough, to bring the Ragamala Dance Company in to inaugurate this long-awaited dance space in downtown Minneapolis. This is a significant dance city, with many small jewels of companies, but Ranee and Aparna Ramaswami are in another dimension. The work is drawn from Bharatanatya, a two thousand year old methodology that needs more explanation than I can give it here. Suffice this excerpt from the website:
“In Bharatanatyam ... Every song or poem is re-created by the dancer, becoming her personal statement. Unlike a completed painting, the dance grows and changes and is re-interpreted with every presentation. “ — Smt. Alarmel Valli
In other words (mine) you are presented with an infinity of infinities. This may take a while to unpack.
Sacred Earth: The Show:The music begins, and it plays throughout in an unbreaking wash of ever-changing soundscapes. There are innumerable rhythms, melodies, harmonies, different speeds, backbeats, driving beats, and counter beats. The dancers emerge, slowly, behind a screen, and they paint on the floor, in white rice flour, traditional forms like all-white sand paintings. They slowly, painstakingly make the designs, and then walk over them in bare-footed concentric circles across the stage, evaporating the snowy dust. The dance slowly hooks into a tighter relationship with the music, being a part of it and being apart from it, sometimes flowing closely, sometimes unrelated to the music. But the swirling motion in a room of light and sound begins to transport the audience into a zone that carries us through space and time, very corporeal, yet outside of time and place. Everything works; everything is intentional; nothing is left to chance, except exactly how much wonder the audience will be capable to absorb.
The dancers are all women. They are committed to beauty. They have beautiful clothes and make-up that takes about two hours to put on. They look like a vision of the infinite past, but they dance with a strength and power that is solidly present. Their bare feet slap on the floor with a corporeal presence that is immediate and satisfying. They dance with strength and a sense of detail that makes slack-jawed bumpkins of us who think we’ve seen very detailed, complicated dance. Think you’ve seen it all? Not until you have seen this.
Regardless of spirituality, see if you can suss out the motivation of these artists, tied to generations of dancers and devoted to connect places, audiences, and generations. But remember that each dancer is taking this collection of discipline and artistry and making it her own. Ranee and Aparna, mother and daughter, partners and collaborators, have described each other’s yin/yang relationship thusly: Ranee’s attitude of seriousness and devotion, with Aparna’s exhibition of joyousness, as the differentiation between them, the two sides of the same spiritual coin. Ranee’s spirituality is a strong, grounded sense of sharing, of a spiritual connection to the ages of women who have preceded her, but with the expectation that things are going to be really cool, really amazing, just keep watching. Her expectation of the unfolding of the work is anticipatory; her confidence born of the knowledge that this work has been working for a long time. Alternatively, Aparna’s bounce, the Aparna walk of pleasure, of radiating the satisfaction and delight of the present-tense, of sharing this beautiful thing that they have created, is again a sense of generosity that climbs beyond doing us a favor; she is taking us to a beautiful place, she is sharing her gratification in the joy of this work. Her devotion has moved her into a realm of enjoyment , and that her pleasure in sharing it only multiplies her own joy.
What makes the cascade of female beauty different from so much other stuff out there? They seem to be from a place where feminine strength is not confused with erotic power. They are beautiful, they are sometimes spelling out a romantic story, but they instead exert a disciplined feminine strength that seems infinite, ageless, timeless – as it is intellectual, athletic, and four dimensional. It exists in this place of upper consciousness that honors infinite tradition, melded to the dancers in the here and now, and executed with the discipline of years of sweat-filled training; made with the full intention of bringing joy, delight and a spiritual presence to the experience of their audience.
How much training? Let me give you a tiny snapshot. An non-flexible, overstuffed reporter has been allowed into the beginner’s class, because they are merciful people. On the wall outside the studio is a list of finger gestures, which are as choreographed to the same detailed degree as any western steps or leaps. There are 60 of them. That does not include choreography of the eyes, arms, head or legs. The first few lessons focus on legs and feet; “training of the arms does not begin until the second year.” So, a year on the legs, then maybe you get to work on the arms- and don’t even ask about the fingers yet.
Protestant Problems of Perception: This cascade if joyous celebration may be more than some people can absorb. I grew up in a Protestant community, the proverbial Norwegian Lutherans, who preached against the pleasures of the body, in fact preached against even acknowledging having a body, except in the pleasures of coffee and dessert. Otherwise, beauty was a temptation consuming the mind with the earthly pleasures instead of saintly virtues. There is scholarly analysis demonstrating how Catholics have a much better of appreciation of art and beauty than do Protestants. So it’s not even a Christian thing, it’s a Protestant thing. Art and beauty and pleasure are a waste, the training says.
Ragamala goes against all my training in dourness, the denial of joy, the theology of scarcity. In focused concentration, existing once and never again, the magnificence and uplifting generosity of the work opens the horizon to a spirituality of abundance, and rewards me for all my training in spiritual diversity and interfaith dialogue and for being alive, and it fires my imagination in realms of illumination that was unavailable to me before. Simply put, a lived revelation.
The Uplifting Matriarchy: So this is a feminine strength played out in a way that some western peoples are not accustomed to. I grew up in the dawn of Feminism, where women are being recognized as being human, not property or domestic animals or cheap labor or houseminders. The second wave of feminism optioned the reminder that some women want to be more than one or the other- office worker with a family, homemaker with a brain, career gal with offspring. The third wave was, to the outside observer, the reassertion that women’s power is through sexual power, of dominating men through the senses, and that women have the choice of being sex objects and sexual predators as a means of self-expression on a on a socially significant scale. Madonna Via Marilyn into Gaga = Same as the Old Boss.
And this whole discussion becomes a western-world of child’s play, or beside the point jibber-jabber, when brought into the arena of Ragamala. They are women, powerful and disciplined, beautiful and sensual, but not charged with erotic domination or conquest. This is a Matriarchy that men can love, that women can point to and be proud of. Women who are equal partners in the work of life, in the creation and passion and decision-making of art, in the sharing of joy, in the passing on of knowledge to the next generation, in the mindfulness of being in one place in one time and connected to all places in all times. This is a Matriarchy the Patriarchy can learn from. I for one am chopping at the crumbling supports of the Patriarchy if I can live in a Matriarchy like this one.
Transcendence on a Saturday Night: How can a show transport us so? What you experience is a cascade of exquisite movement, motion, the slapping of feet on the floor, the swooping into and out of view, in solo and in pairs and in trios, in bunches and in groups, in speed and in languid fluidity. A choreography of arms and legs, of dresses and hair, of gold and silk, of eyes and faces and fingertips, of timelessness and of time, of pleasure and of work. Finite? No. Specific. A demonstration of the infinity of joy, the evidence of a universe of love, played out for our pleasure, at this moment and in this place. How rich we are to share this gift. How sweet is the life that includes these artists; how joyful is the evening that encompasses this love. The work of Ragamala Dance is a singular act of generosity, a spiritual gift for any faith tradition, a blessing to experience and a blessing of existence. I wish this blessing upon you.
Sacred Earth is touring through February 2012. Aside from Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, the astonishing dance company includes Amanda Dlouhy, Jessica Fiala, Tamara Nadel, Ashwini Ramaswamy and Bria Borcherding. See http://www.ragamala.net/ for details.
Posted by Dean J. Seal at 5:29 PM