Last week, Ragamala Dance, a United States-based traditional Indian ensemble, debuted a new work, They Rose at Dawn, over three nights at New York's Joyce Theatre. Tonight, they will perform the piece at NYU Abu Dhabi.
When the campus arts centre launched its inaugural programme last month, it promised to shake-up the emirate’s cultural scene – and Ragamala’s appearance so soon after the premiere is perhaps the most concrete proof yet of how quickly it has succeeded.
They Rise at Dawn is a solo work performed and choreographed by Aparna Ramaswamy – Ragamala's co-artistic director alongside her mother, Ranee –which attracted a glowing write-up in The New York Times.
“I’m happy that this show has a continued life here in Abu Dhabi,” says Ramaswamy, who arrived in the UAE on Sunday morning.
“Over the three performances I was able to change things each night, and it feels like it’s going to be the same here. With five performances in a row, there’s so much room for improvisation.”
The result of six months of development, They Rise at Dawn is a 70-minute suite of four pieces set to a specially commissioned musical score.
This music, performed by a traditional four-piece Carnatic ensemble, made up of violin, mridangam (two-sided hand drum), nattuvangam (cymbals) and vocals, offers the building blocks for Ramaswamy’s hypnotic, virtuoso performance.
Ragamala is among the best-known proponents of the classical Bharatanatyam style, a South Indian dance form which dates back 2,000 years, revived in last century, but the company’s work is equally influenced by Ramaswamy’s diaspora experience of growing up in India and the US.
“The dance form we use is a language, it has a technique and aesthetic. It’s beautiful and we stay true to that,” she says. “But when you create with original ideas, this is where the contemporary comes in. The dance is contemporary because we are all living practitioners.”
Ramaswamy’s choreography sees her inhabit different female characters, offering a meditation on the role of women as “carriers of ritual and culture” and “the primordial source of all creation”.
The opening piece is a homage to the goddess Devi, in both “her ferocious form as a destroyer of evil” and as “a divine mother”. The second is a “metaphor for human love and living”, and the interim of “sacred and sensual”. Another piece probes at “the harmony that exists between humanity and nature.”
But despite all these ideals and inspirations, Ramaswamy is keen for her work to appeal beyond the academic and cerebral.
“It’s very important that the audience doesn’t see this as a museum piece or something ancient,” she says.
“It’s a holistic experience, it’s the whole body. It’s not just an art form, it’s something we can all feel. It’s important for people to lose themselves in it.
“In this age people want to make sense of everything. But dance is something that can be deep and spiritual, you don’t have to understand every movement to appreciate it.”
The 11 members of Ragamalla Dance will be in Abu Dhabi for two weeks.
In addition to the two public performances, the company's schedule includes panel discussions, masterclasses and community dinners. Ramaswamy will also use the residence as an opportunity to continue development on of ambitious new conceptual work, of which NYUAD is the lead commissioner. Written in Water is based on Mokshapat, the ancient Indian board game from which Snakes and Ladders was derived.
In this original form – widely dated to the 13th century – instead of reptiles and rungs, it is vices and virtues that decide a player’s ascent or descent on the board. Ramaswamy’s concept is to represent this sense of causality and luck in a semi-improvised dance performance, which would see performers traverse a life-size game onstage, with different musical and dance routines associated with each square of the board.
“The dancers become the players,” she says. “The whole thing is about chance. About realising the different stages in your life.”
The company has brought 100 of the boardgames to Abu Dhabi, and NYUAD students are encouraged to contribute to the creative process by playing and offering inspiration and insight.
By the end of their two-week stay, the team hopes to have finished a 15-minute segment of Written in Water, which will have its premiere in New York in January. A finished 70-minute piece will be developed next year. Given the project's lengthy gestation period in Abu Dhabi, we can expect to see Ragamala return to these shores with the new show in the near future.
• Ragamala Dance perform at NYUAD’s Arts Centre, Saadiyat Island, tonight and tomorrow at 8pm. Free tickets are currently sold out, but standby tickets are likely to be available at the door.