Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 25, 2018

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Ragamala Dance Company

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through June 24, 2018
by Josephine Sarnelli

Photo by Bruce Palmer
Ramagala Dance Company is committed to both preserving the ancestral integrity and evolutionary life of the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam. In their 75-minute program of two performance pieces, the five-piece musical ensemble and five dancers successfully linked the past and the present.

The opening routine, “Om Kara Karini,” speaks to the worship of the Devine Feminine and was dedicated to Tanjore Balasaraswati, the performer who first brought this style of dance to Jacob’s Pillow in 1962. Aparna Ramaswamy, Ramagala’s co-director, performed her own choregraphed solo with both athleticism and grace. As with all classical styles of Indian dance, Bharatanatyam relies heavily on symbolism. Facial expression and mudras (hand gestures) were beautifully executed and communicated energy and strength.

The second work engaged all five dancers, similarly dressed in costumes with a pleated cloth that opened like a fan when the performer bent her knees. Each had their eyes lined and ringed, so as to accentuate their eye movements. Leather anklets (ghungroos) wrapped to their legs added a percussive element to their dance movements. The dancers’ palms and feet were partially colored red with traditional kumkum powder to assist the audience in distinguishing hand gestures and footwork.
The original music score for this work, entitled “Written in Water,” was composed in part by Amir ElSaffir, the trumpet player in the ensemble. The trumpet seemed to breathe new life into this ancient dance form. The changing projection of visual arts on the floor and backdrop gave dimension to the nearly hour-long set and again characterized this as a living dance form.

The set could best be characterized as hypnotic. Except for breaking the spell for a round of applause for the singer after a particularly haunting solo, the audience was completely engaged. All five dancers were onstage for most of the set, but some occasionally “froze” to allow others to perform.

The stationary upper torso of the Bharatanatyam style permits the viewer to focus their attention on the bent leg and spectacular footwork, the sophisticated arm and hand gestures and the facial movements. Of particular note was the mourning expressed in the dance by Ranee Ramaswamy, by her soulful eyes and sorrowful body language. The dancers successfully brought the audience through periods of chaos, longing and, finally, unification with the divine.