When Aparna Ramaswamy dances Gangashtakam, she virtually embodies the sacred Ganges's flowing currents, the rain that feeds it, the worshipers and mourners thronging its banks. Her pliant torso expands and contracts with quicksilver grace as her feet slap out complex rhythms and her hands sculpt radiant gestures. She shifts effortlessly between attitudes—now celebratory, now solemn, now alluring as a rock star. Reviewing this dance last March in the New York Times, critic Alastair Macaulay wrote that Ramaswamy "seems continually to move between different kinds of being and of thought, and the Western observer is aware of many layers of mystery."
Three things you may never guess watching Ramaswamy perform: that through her dance, which is called Bharatanatyam, she speaks directly to the Hindu deities; that the immediacy and vitality of her dancing has been achieved through a regimen so strict it might sideline a lot of professional athletes; and that this classic Indian beauty performing a 2,000-year-old dance form grew up in Burnsville, Minnesota.
As a wife and mother of toddler twins; co-artistic director with her mother, Ranee Ramaswamy, of the company Ragamala Dance; and internationally recognized choreographer and performer, Ramaswamy wears more hats than Hindu deities have incarnations. She credits her ability to channel her energies to her mentor and longtime teacher, Alarmel Valli. "When she teaches she gives wholeheartedly, focusing as much attention on her students as she does on her own practice. I always understood these qualities from an early age and felt such a privilege to be chosen as her student," says Ramaswamy.
Bharatanatyam is a demanding mistress. The student must master a huge vocabulary of sculptural poses, hand gestures or hastas, complex rhythmic phrases, and movements of the neck, eyes, even eyebrows. Each part of the body functions independently, moving in a different rhythm, or with a different energetic quality. Imagine patting your head sharply, rubbing your stomach in smooth circles, and shifting your neck from side to side while stamping out rhythms worthy of tap phenom Savion Glover with your bare feet.
Originally practiced in Indian temples by female performers to honor the Hindu deities, Bharatanatyam has two strands: abstract rhythmic dances, and expressive narrative ones that tell tales out of Hindu mythology. Because it's a solo form, each dancer must set the scene (landscape, weather) and the mood (romantic, vengeful), often shifting characters and even genders in a beat: One instant she is the strong, implacable god Shiva wielding his bow and arrow, the next a playful, sensual lover.
"I practice as much as I do so I can feel spontaneous onstage, so that the technique takes care of itself," says Ramaswamy, who was born in Chadanagore, India, and moved with her family to Minnesota in the late 1970s. At five years old she began studying dance with her mother. A few years later, the great Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli performed in Minneapolis, and both Ramaswamys had a eureka moment. Here was the artist they had been waiting for, the guru to whom they would dedicate their lives.
Valli was very taken with Aparna, who was then a tiny nine-year-old. "She called me her computer, because I never forgot a single step she taught us," says Ramaswamy. Mother and daughter traveled to India four months of every year to study with Valli, who warned them the first year that if they came back with one ounce less than what she had taught them, she would drop them as students.
In India, Ramaswamy studied the lessons she had gotten in advance from her Burnsville school, then danced through the afternoon and evening. Back in Minnesota, she came home from school and practiced for three hours with her mother every day, working toward a debut recital, or Arangetram. "I knew and valued what I was getting from Valli. Mother and I shared that," she says. "The form has so much depth—I wanted to go deeper and deeper. All I wanted was to be a professional."
At age 12, she presented her Arangetram in Chennai, India, with Valli conducting the orchestra onstage and playing cymbals and vocalizing the rhythms. This arduous two-hour initiation is a series of pieces that demonstrate her technical facility, emotional range, and endurance. For most Indian girls, this recital is a rite of passage that marks the end of their dancing lives. But for Ramaswamy it was the beginning of her career as a dancer and choreographer.
While Ramaswamy identifies more as Indian than American, she appreciates the many opportunities she got to perform in Minnesota (often with her mother) at community events, competitive talent shows, and in theaters like the Ordway. "It was all that performing, which I could never have done in India, that made me a dancer," she says. Attending Carleton College, she experienced for the first time how Americans lived, and met her future husband, Tim Nelson. "Would you believe I had never eaten a salad until I went to Carleton?" Ramaswamy laughs.
Ramaswamy's future looks bright and busy, including a 23-week international tour with Ragamala, and solo concerts in Kerela and Madras, India. She is also working on a collaboration with Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara, a taiko group based in Japan, and with jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa.
This weekend Ragamala will inaugurate the dance series at the new Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts with the premiere of a multimedia work inspired by the philosophies behind two indigenous visual art forms from southern and western India. Ramaswamy describes the creative process of choreographing Sacred Earth as using the classical language of Bharatanatyam—a dynamic, poetic tradition—to convey contemporary ideas. Or perhaps it's like working in sonnet form while speaking in tongues—a feat that Ramaswamy strives to achieve every day of her dancing life.
Ragamala Dance will perform the world premiere of Sacred Earth Sept. 23–25 at Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.206.3636. $15–$25.