“Ragamala’s forays into crosscultural dance are increasingly fascinating, drawing connections between the elegantly sumptuous, percussively expressive style of its classic dance and the dances of other cultures.” —Star Tribune
Inspired by the overwhelming success of the 2004 Walker Art Center-commissioned performance of Sethu (Bridge), Ragamala Dance partners again with the masterful Balinese gamelan music and dance group Çudamani, this time bringing a 10-member ensemble to the Twin Cities for the world premiere of the dance-theater spectacle Dhvee (Duality) on October 1–4, Thursday–Saturday, at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm in the William and Nadine McGuire Theater. Profound and joyous, Dhvee (Duality), commissioned by the Walker, brings together Balinese dance, the otherworldly sounds of the gamelan gendar, and the precise and rhythmic South Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam to explore the nature of myth and its influence on humanity. Drawn from the stories of the Hindu sacred text Ramayana, the piece features 25 musicians and dancers, extravagant costuming, the powerful polyrhythms of the visually sumptuous gamelan orchestra from the village of Pengosekan, Bali, and the soulful melodies of the carnatic orchestra from India.
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, performers from both Ragamala and Çudamani play up and off of the marked distinctions between characters in the Indian and Balinese stories. Ranee Ramaswamy, Artistic Director of Ragamala Dance, 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 Dhvee is its forest setting. In Indian philosophy, the forest has no ending, but is cyclical in nature, like the Ramayana itself. As the story 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 music and dance from both cultures with an ensemble of 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 notes 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.
Ragamala Dance’s Artistic Directors, Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, follow the Indian belief that a guru/sishya (mentor/student) relationship is lifelong. They have returned to India every year for the past 25 years to study with Alarmel Valli and absorb the intricacies, nuances, and aesthetics of her style of Bharatanatyam. Valli, considered the greatest living master of the form, has revolutionized Bharatanatyam, making it her own while maintaining its core vitality, and has carefully given this rich tradition to the Ramaswamys. Their intensive, individual attention with their guru is a tradition that they pass on to the dancers of Ragamala.
Combining artistic virtuosity and aesthetic beauty, Ragamala infuses Bharatanatyam with contemporary ideas and multilevel collaborations and commissions. Ragamala has commissioned several acclaimed U.S.-based and international artists of diverse backgrounds, including poet Robert Bly, Chinese pipa virtuoso Gao Hong, New Delhi-based sitarist Shubhendra Rao, Indian cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas, African dance troupe Ko-Thi Dance Company, jazz musician Howard Levy, Japanese drumming ensemble Mu Daiko, former Alvin Ailey dancers Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands, Western composer/ vocalist Ruth MacKenzie, deaf actor Nic Zapko, Bali-based Kecak artist I Dewa Putu Berata, and Japan-based Art Lee and his Taiko group Waidaiko Ensemble Tokara. Ragamala’s visionary work has taken the company to many prestigious venues throughout the world, including the Miao-Li International Mask Festival (Miao-Li, Taiwan), the Open Look Contemporary Dance Festival (St. Petersburg, Russia), the Bali Arts Festival (Bali, Indonesia), the Nagoya Kita Bunka Shogekijyo (Ida City, Japan), the Festival of Spirituality and Peace (Edinburgh, Scotland), the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall (Sarasota, FL), the Lied Center of Kansas (Lawrence, KS), the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (Newark, NJ), and the New Victory Theater (New York, NY).
(Founder/Artistic Director/Choreographer/Principal Dancer)
Ranee Ramaswamy has been teaching and performing Bharatanatyam in the Twin Cities since 1978. She is a disciple of Alarmel Valli, the world’s leading exponent of Bharatanatyam. Ranee has received many grants and fellowships in recognition of her choreography, performance, and tireless work with Bharatanatyam in the Minnesota area, including numerous McKnight Artist Fellowships in categories of Choreography and Interdisciplinary Art, a Bush Fellowship for Choreography, a LIN (Leadership Initiative Neighborhood) Grant from the St. Paul Companies, and an Artist Exploration Fund Grant from Arts International (New York). Her work is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Minnesota State Arts Board, The National Dance Project, and the Japan Foundation. In 2004, she was named one of the “Artists of the Year” by the Star Tribune. Throughout her career, Ramaswamy has worked with celebrated artists of diverse backgrounds and disciplines, such as poet Robert Bly, jazz musician Howard Levy, jazz vocalist Charmin Michelle, Milwaukee-based African dance troupe Ko-Thi Dance Company, Deaf actress Nicole Zapko, virtuoso music ensemble Speaking in Tongues, and five of the Twin Cities most lauded dancemakers—Danny Buraczeski (jazz), Joe Chvala (tap), Susana di Palma (flamenco), Wynn Fricke (modern), and Lise Houlton (ballet). Her work has been commissioned by Zenon Dance Company, the University of Minnesota’s Interplay Series, composer Jan Gilbert, and the Walker Art Center.
(Artistic Director/Choreographer/Principal Dancer)
Aparna Ramaswamy is a protégé of Alarmel Valli, the world’s leading exponent of Bharatanatyam. She has been featured at prestigious venues throughout the United States and abroad, both as a soloist and as principal dancer with Ragamala. She has been awarded several honors, including a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Dancers, a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Choreography, a Bush Fellowship for Choreography, an Arts and Religion in the Twin Cities grant, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, two Jerome Foundation Travel Study Grants, an Artist Exploration Fund Grant from Arts International (New York), the Lakshmi Vishwanathan Endowment Prize from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (Chennai, India), and the Sage Award for Best Dancer (Minneapolis, Minnesota). Ramaswamy’s choreography is supported by the Jerome Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Dance Project, the Japan Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She is a graduate of Carleton College with a degree in International Relations and a concentration in Political Economy.
In the village of Pengsekan, Ubud, Bali, across the street from the temple, is a family compound that is the home to Çudamani. Comprised of a core membership of 31 young virtuoso musicians and dancers, Çudamani is a professional company with a working philosophy, much like a family temple or sanggar. Members see themselves as a community of leaders who, through their music and dance, positively contribute to the artistic, cultural, and political life of their village.
Çudamani maintains that the vitality of Balinese arts relies on the connection of performance to the religious and social life of the village. The group sees itself as an activist community that responds to the philosophical, practical, and problematic issues that face Balinese artists today. Based on a traditional village model, i.e., not for financial profit or individual gain, the group sets the highest artistic standards in the service of the temple and the community. It is the fusion of artistic excellence with dedication to Balinese traditional values that is Çudamani’s unique hallmark. Members of Çudamani work to achieve a balance of being active creative artists while also preserving ancient and rare forms of Balinese music and dance. The group invites older master artists to Pengosekan to study classic repertoire that is seldom performed. Members of the group also compose new music. Çudamani composers are renowned for their inspired contributions to the repertoire of Balinese music.
Dances performed by the group include the classic Legong, rare pieces in the Kebyar genre, and new choreography. Their outstanding musicianship and dance technique add weight to the revival of classic works. In addition, their efforts demonstrate a respect for and dedication to the senior masters who are too often dismissed as outdated by the young, tourist-oriented artists of Bali.
The dancers’ graceful bodies mirror every musical nuance of the gamelan as they bring to life vivid tales of gods and heroes of Balinese mythology and history. Beyond mere aesthetic entertainment, Balinese arts capture and amplify the shifting dimensions of human emotion, nature, the spirit world, and the cosmos. Of significance is the set of instruments used by Çudamani which is a Semarandana ensemble. This type of ensemble is still quite rare in Bali, and Çudamani is on the forefront of work in this style. The tuning system used contains “extra” notes which allows the group to perform a pieces from Angklung, Semar Pegulingan, and Gong Kebyar (all distinct Gamelan ensembles) on the same set of instruments. This of course allows the group great freedom and diversity in its repertoire, with the numerous modes and tuning systems each having a distinct atmosphere, color, or “mood.”
I Dewa Putu Berata
I Dewa Putu Berata was born in a family of musicians and painters in the village of Pengosekan, Ubud, Bali. The eldest son of a kendang virtuoso, I Dewa Nyoman Sura, Berata was nurtured by the arts since childhood. He went on to graduate with honors from the National High School of the Arts (SMKI) and the National Arts College (STSI) in Denpasar, Indonesia. An accomplished musician, composer, dancer, and visual artist, Berata excels in traditional Balinese genres as well as new creative forms of theater and music. He is profoundly interested in intercultural collaboration and has twice been a fellow with UCLA’s Center for Intercultural Performance’s APPEX (Asia Pacific Performance Exchange). He has been involved in collaborative works with esteemed artists such as Ranee Ramaswamy and Ragamala Music and Dance Theatre (India-USA), Andrea Centazzo (Italy), Tetsuro Koyano (Japan), Chitresh Das (India-USA), Eko Supriyanto (Java), Djaduk Ferianto (Java), and has worked with companies such as Abhinaya, Body Tjak with Keith Terry, and has been a primary collaborator in innovative theater/shadow plays with Larry Reed’s Shadowlight Productions. Berata has taught and performed extensively in Bali and abroad, including teaching and performing with Amrita Studio (Japan), Gita Kencana (Japan), Gamelan Sekar Jaya (USA), University of British Columbia (Canada), University of Hawaii, California Institute for the Arts, University of California, Berkeley, and many others. He spent 2008 as guest music director for Gamelan Sekar Jaya in San Francisco. Berata is the founding director of Çudamani, one of Bali’s finest performing arts ensembles. He is also the director of Sekaa Gong Tunas Mekar, a traditional Balinese ensemble in Pengosekan. Under his direction, Çudamani has received a major grant from the Ford Foundation for their work in arts education and preservation, as well as leadership development and support of young women’s artistic development. The company has toured to Italy, Greece, Japan, United States, and Canada.
Dhvee (Duality) is commissioned by the Walker Art Center with support provided by the William and Nadine McGuire Commissioning Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and made possible by a Joyce Award from the Joyce Foundation. Additional support provided by The McKnight Foundation.
Tickets to Dhvee (Duality) are: Thursday, $18 ($15 Walker members); Friday–Sunday: $25 ($21) and are available at walkerart.org/tickets or by calling 612.375.7600. The McGuire Theater’s Balcony Bar will be open at 7 pm and after the performances.