Ragamala Dance joins jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa at the Walker

Ragamala Dance may be based in the Bharatanatyam tradition, but the company is no stranger to collaboration. Having previously teamed up with Taiko drummers, Balinese dancers, and an African dance troupe, their current collaboration, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, seems a natural trajectory for the group. This time they're working with jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa, who himself often blends influences from his Indian ancestry and other cultures into the jazz form. 

According to Renee Ramaswamy, who co-directs the company with her daughter Aparna, there's a commonality between Carnatic music, which is used in Bharatanatyam dance, and jazz. Both forms of music have "an amazing amount of rhythm and emotion," she says, "and improvisation is the common point." 

One challenge in collaborating with jazz musicians is figuring out how to make the dances work without verbal language. "From the beginning, it was understood that we couldn't use lyrics," Ramaswamy says. 

While Carnatic music does use improvisation, usually by the time they get to setting the pieces, the lyrics create a fairly firm structure. "We are used to having the music always set for dance," she says, where every movement goes with the same words. Because there are no lyrics with this collaboration, "there is a freedom," she says. "Gestures don't have to hit a particular word." The result is that the dancers have more freedom to move within the phrases. "We don't have to fit it within a particular space. We can elaborate and have visual markers." 

Another difficulty was working with different systems for reading music. With Carnatic, there is no sheet music, but rather rhythmic symbols. For Song of Jasmine, Mahanthappa created written music, but not all of the musicians could read it. South Indian drummer Rajna Swaminathan and violinist Anjna Swaminathan were helpful in bridging the two forms. "It's been very interesting to see these people work," Ramaswamy says. 

While melding the jazz and Carnatic music is itself challenging, Ramaswamy says they had the luxury of working together for a long time. "We brought the musicians in four times, with a week each time," she says. The dances and the music were created simultaneously, so the artists got used to working together. "Every artist is being so giving," she says.

On top of the mix between jazz and Carnatic music, the piece incorporates the poetry of 8th Century Tamil Bhakti poet Andal. "The idea of spirituality is present in our dance and in her poetry," Ramaswamy says. As the title suggests, one of the main themes of the poetry is jasmine, which in the West people think of as a scent, but to an Indian person, it's used as an offering to the temple, as well as something that's worn in a woman's hair. "Andal's poetry goes from spiritual to sensual," says Ramaswamy. "There are all kind of emotions, but the most predominant expression is love, whether that love be in anger, jealousy, or a complex, multilayered emotion." Working with Mahanthappa, Ramaswamy says they were able to create "a beautiful language in which our dance makes the embroidery of this feeling Andal has created in poetry." 


Song of Jasmine

8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Walker Art Center

$25 Thursday; $30 Friday and Saturday

Tickets are available at the Walker's website or by calling 612.375.7600.