Ancient and innovative, profound and joyous, Dhvee (Duality) is an intensive collaboration between the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance and the Balinese ensemble Çudamani. While both groups are rooted in traditional forms—Ragamala in classical Southern Indian Bharatanatyam and Çudamani in Balinese music and dance—they’re equally committed to creating contemporary works.
Their meeting ground for Dhvee is the Ramayana, the Hindu sacred text that originated in India and multiplied over the centuries into numerous versions as it spread throughout southeast Asia. “It’s such an old epic, but it’s quite relevant today,” says Ragamala artistic director Ranee Ramaswamy. “In India, people refer to the stories in their lives every day—there are cartoons, comics, plays, and movies. It’s the same way in Bali. It’s integrated into daily life.”
In some ways, Dhvee is an outgrowth of the overwhelming success the two companies had with Sethu (Bridge), which the Walker commissioned in 2004. But where that grand spectacle made a point of touching on stories from each of the Ramayana’s seven main books, Dhvee aims to go deeper, delving into just three scenes. With that narrowed scope, Ramaswamy and Çudamani artistic director I Dewa Putu Berata bring a groundbreaking structure to the ancient epic. “The story doesn’t change—that is why it is so important in both India and Bali. But our approach to this work is quite contemporary,” says Ramaswamy.
Traditionally, the Ramayana begins with the birth of its namesake, the hero/god Rama. Dhvee opens with a story from the second half, when Rama’s wife, Sita, has been abducted and imprisoned on an island by the demon god Ravana. By moving backward from that point and using flashbacks, Dhvee has performers from both Ragamala and Çudamani playing up and off of the marked distinctions between characters in the Indian and Balinese stories. Ramaswamy talks about “connecting the characters so they have to converse, through dance,” noting the different takes on Hanuman, the monkey king who helps find Sita: “In Bali he’s an adorably entertaining and funny character, but in India he’s very serious, known for his strength, and can only be worshipped by men.”
Another unique characteristic of this performance is its forest setting. In Indian philosophy, the forest has no ending, but is cyclical in nature, like the Ramayana itself. As Dhvee unfolds, characters emerge from and then recede into the forest, reflecting the continuity of this epic. Where Sethu paired Balinese gamelan with Bharatanatyam, Dhvee intermingles the music and dance from both cultures with 25 performers, a 10-member gamelan orchestra, and a four-piece Indian orchestra led by Prema Ramamurthy, a noted choreographer from India who has based her music and lyrics on the ancient Tamil Kamba Ramayana. As Ramaswamy puts it, “Dancers sing, singers dance, and the audience will see the music and hear the dance. We’re looking at the duality of two styles of art, two traditions.” That is just one reference to the piece’s title, however. She says that the idea of the internal conflict in man, between his animal and divine selves, is also at the heart of the Ramayana. Dhvee itself has a dual nature: characterized by innovation, ultimately it’s a quite timeless exploration of ways that myth touches humanity, from the personal to global.