To be fair, everything at ADF is new and different. But Ragamala Dance stands out as a truly unique cultural experience. With subtle head movements and the lift of an eyebrow, the beautiful dancers of the cutting edge classical Indian dance company charmed audiences this week. Sacred Earth, choreographed by Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, was an expressive and generous performance about the relationship between human emotions and the environment, a dance bringing “both internal and external landscapes to life.” Full of repetition and literal movements it was sometimes like watching a game of charades. It was so apparent that the hand movements and facial expression were meant to represent very specific actions or sentiments (which I often didn’t get) that it was a little like watching a foreign film without subtitles. But the dancers’ kind and giving demeanors encouraged patience.
The dancers began by walking slowly, dropping sand with one hand in spirals that merged and eventually became a large dance space. After the sand had been slowly dropping in quantities great enough to cover the stage for what must have been 5 minutes, I wondered where it was coming from. They seemed to hold an endless supply in the palms of their hands. This was one of the repetitive actions that had gone on too long, until it continued longer, and by the time it ended it had become exactly the right amount of repetition.
The music and dance were dynamic and the dancers complimented the music with the rhythmic sounds of their feet hitting the floor. The lights lifted and dropped and seasons seemed to change as the artistic backdrops changed from trees and birds to a beautiful mural sized cave-like drawing of a village (designed by Anil Chaitya and Ranee Ramaswamy). So even if the smaller detailed movements weren’t clearly understood, the full image on the stage was a visual pleasure.
The smallest finger movement matched perfectly the sounds of the live orchestra of 4 musicians seated chairless on a side platform. A vocalist, violinist, and 2 percussionists played impressively and non-stop for the full show.
With the live music, beautiful artwork and reading of ancient Tamil Sangam poetry, this dance was bigger than the dancers. It was a full experience, a collaborative microcosm of human activities in the natural world.