Directed by the mother-daughter team of Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, the Ragamala Dance Company came to the Joyce Theater with its extravagant full-evening work Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim.
Joining this strong dancing/choreographing team was Ashwini Ramaswamy (another daughter of Ranee Ramaswamy) as a choreographic associate. Also a contributor to the event was dancer and choreographer Padmabhushan Smt. Alarmél Valli.
Told through the ancient Hindu dance language of Bharatanatyam Fires is, as laid out in a three-page summary, an epic tale of creation, cosmic forces, birth and rebirth and a final journey to understanding. Following the sometimes tragic, sometimes exultant confrontations of the Fire plot closely wasn’t necessary. Just watching these masterful performers—adroit soloists and expert ensemble members—was reward enough.
The opening scene brought the cast onto the stage in a slow-motion ritual so powerfully serene that the audience barely breathed aloud.
As the opaquely complicated plot played out on the stage, the three lead dancers (Ranee, Aparna and Ashwini Ramaswamy) took turns displaying impeccable Bharatanatyam technique: feet adorned with ghungroos (ankle bells), softly pounding out clear rhythms in varied positions, arms, exquisitely expressive, moving in striking patterns topped by constantly changing hand positions (mudras) which communicated character, mood and, to some extent, the story as it unfolded.
Ranee was the warmest of the three leads, a combination of earth mother and piquant sexpot. Ashwini was admirably girlish while her sister Aparna, burdened with most of the solos, was extraordinary in the clarity of her expression, not to mention her endurance which was tested in a very long climactic solo that led to a breathtaking finale, the cast assembled in a tableau on the stairs, the hanging bells ringing to signal the end of the journey.
Willy Cessa’s quietly elegant set, representing the ancient, crossroads city of Varanasi, framed the action with its three rectangular ponds (which figured continually in the storyline), a wide white staircase and, hanging above, numerous brass bells which came into play at the very end. His too bland lighting was not quite as adroit, failing to follow the changing moods. The lack of color in the lighting was more than made up for by the rousing colors of the beautiful costumes by D.S. Aiyellu, Ranee Ramaswamy and Carole Bruns Couture.
The multi-layered, prerecorded score by Prema Ramamurthy, S. Sakthivel Muruganatham and Lalit Subramanian (with additional contributions by Ranee Ramaswamy) created beautiful moods from the worshipful to energetic and epic. The score also provided both subtle and pounding rhythmic support allowing the dancers freedom to express themselves.
Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim was envisioned as a response to the death of a beloved parent/grandparent several years ago. Its progress was stymied by the pandemic but, with the support of a number of funders and some extensive touring, the work finally made its way to New York City.
Ragamala Dance Company (September 22-26, 2021)
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit http://www.joyce.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission