I just saw something beautiful, although I had to forget myself to see it.
Ragamala Dance, a company of six women under the artistic direction of mother-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, opened a three-night run of their evening-length work Sacred Earth at the American Dance Festival in Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater. Thematically, Ragamala portrays man’s inextricable connection to nature through a rich combination of traditions such as Indian classical dance and music, Tamil Sangam poetry, Warli mural painting and Kolam floor painting.
OK. That’s the straight reporting of what happened, when, where and by whom. But it comes off as a list of names, which bespeaks how I began watching the performance. Once I dropped my need to know those names and the significances of all the individual movements, sounds and images I was seeing, I actually experienced the performance for what it was: a lovely, hypnotic celebration of the interconnectedness and oneness of all living things. Save the program notes until after the show, so information doesn’t interfere with the experience of Sacred Earth.
The notes (spoiler alert!) describe the traditional practices that Ragamala incorporates. Projections of Warli paintings—roughly patterned, white-on black mural scenes of people at harmony with the natural environment rendered in simplified forms—changed on the backdrop throughout the performance. Sangam poems were occasionally read, rhetorically rolling human life and natural landscape in with a pervasive sense of the divine.
And the opening image, of five dancers posed in a circle, offering their tilted palms to a central sixth, immediately became a Kolam floor painting as the dancers began to move. Drizzling a fine stream of white rice powder from their palms, the five women stepped in a spiral pattern that mimicked a Warli projection on the curtain before the show: a flock of flying birds forming a shape roughly like a numeral 6. After moving to the rhythm of the live accompaniment of vocalist Lalit Subramanian and violinist Anjna Swaminathan for a few minutes, the rice powder formed an internally curlicued circle, which was subsequently trodden into a white, depthless blur.
For the first third of the performance, I found myself thinking like a Westerner, trying to interpret each gesture and form as if they were words. I know that each mudra—the hand and finger positions made by the dancers—has a literal meaning, but I didn’t know the meanings so, for a while, I saw the movement as a text in an unfamiliar language, conveying a message I couldn’t get. There’s a kind of anxiety in that.
The stage is constantly changing as well. Soloists take the stage for a short series of phrases. Quickly, the rest of the company enters in unison, describing a spiral around the soloist, who blends into the group. As this choreography develops, the Warli image changes. A scrim periodically comes down across the middle width of the stage, creating a dim lane behind it for spot-lit dancers to move within the Warli image.
The music is equally placid and restless. Sitting on a low platform on one side of the stage, Anjna Swaminathan’s violin echoed Subramanian’s melismatic chant. Eventually Rajna Swaminathan’s mridangam percussion injected a faster pulse. The images, poetry and choreography all respond with increasing degrees of complexity.
Sacred Earth lacks any commentary on the schism between post-industrial man and the natural world. Disharmony is not shown in any sense. But the sheer benevolence exuded by the dancers effectively trumps considerations of naïveté.
This warm, unified world Ragamala Dance summons onstage doesn’t carry an escapist, everything’s-gonna-be-all-right message—in fact it carries no message at all. It merely is. And it’s beautiful, in that.