HOW MUCH EASIER would a love triangle be if you could combine the best attributes of each paramour to create the perfect being? In "The Transposed Heads," an ancient tale of India, Nanda's muscular body becomes host to Sridaman's erudite head to satisfy a young woman's love for the two. Of course, such folly can only lead to philosophical problems. What is more important, after all, physical or intellectual beauty? Or can you really separate the two? Thomas Mann, author of his own classic story of obsession "Death in Venice," was so impressed with this traditional tale that he translated the Indian legend in 1941, giving new generations an opportunity to ponder these questions.
Some may simply pick up Mann's novella for a quick read, but in the case of Ranee Ramaswamy, artistic director of Ragamala Dance Theater, there was greater potential for exploration. The troupe's newest production, premiering this weekend at the Southern Theater, combines the ancient and modern interpretations of the tale into a trilingual performance that employs Bharatanatyam movement and gestures, American Sign Language (ASL), and English translations. According to Ramaswamy, there is great "emotional potential" to be found in "The Transposed Heads," so much so that it only made sense to approach the subject matter from many angles. To this end, Ramaswamy has recruited deaf actor Nicole Zapko, director Zaraawar Mistry, narrator Carolyn Holbrook, and ASL consultants Morgan Grayce Willow and Lisa Zapko (Nicole's sister).
Unlike most Ragamala shows where dance is the primary form of expression, Ramaswamy and her collaborators have created a show where "bhava" (expression) and "rasa" (mood or feeling) emerge through the act of "abhinaya" (the storytelling component of Bharatanatyam) and the hand gestures of ASL. "It's more of a theater piece," explains Ramaswamy during a rehearsal a few weeks before the show. "I don't really run around. I have Carolyn narrate the dance because my hand gestures don't stand by themselves without narration."
Adds Mistry, who adapted Mann's novella for the stage, "My challenge was to compress 100 pages into a 10-page script, and not lose all of his psychological stuff. And, of course, I've added my own flourishes. There are a lot of intellectual ideas being explored that are rooted in Hindu philosophy, but I'm not so well-versed in that. I do keep Kali the goddess. She represents destruction and preservation."
The greatest difficulty presented by this particular production is the simultaneous coordination of three distinct languages. Nicole Zapko, who will perform using ASL, is not parroting Holbrook's English narration or Ramaswamy's Bharatanatyam gestures. Each form of expression exists on its own. "It's a heck of a challenge," laughs director Mistry. "There's no real dramatic action in the conventional sense. We're not seeing any masks, blood, heads rolling off. It's suggestive. We're really creating a mood and tone." Music by pipa artist Gao Hong and vocals by Nirmala Rajasekar will complete the atmosphere.
Nicole Zapko and Ramaswamy ultimately find common ground in those gestures found in ASL and Bharatanatyam. According to Zapko, formerly of the Northern Sign Theater and National Theater for the Deaf, "Even though they are foreign, they are often the same. ASL takes advantage of gestures in other cultures and looks for commonality among gestures. If I travel to Brussels, for example, I would still be able to ask a server for spaghetti and he would understand what I'm trying to order."
Nonetheless, for Zapko, a special approach was required for this project. "I'm deaf, so English is my second language. ASL is my first, and it includes visual images," she explains. "I have the script and I read the English language so I understand the concepts. But I need a hearing person who knows ASL to help [me] make pictures through ASL."
"It's a fantastic experience," says Ramaswamy. "Hearing and non-hearing audiences will completely understand what's going on. "And it's fun," adds Mistry, "We're doing our best to find common expressions, but we don't want people to get dizzy!"