Celebrate at BRIC Brooklyn! on Friday night, the air was stuffy, but occasionally cooled by a breeze. ‘Sacred Earth’, the work Ragamala Dance Company performed at the Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park, felt like the reverse: mostly mild with slightly warmer currents.
Coincidentally, “Holy Earth” is about similarities between human emotions and the natural environment. Like all of Ragamala’s other works – an exemplary group based in Minneapolis, led by Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughters Aparna and Ashwini – the piece is rooted in Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form from South India. More clearly it is based on kolam, a type of decorative art made with rice flour; on Warli murals (some of which have been reproduced in projections); and of ancient Tamil poetry, in which the divinity of the physical world allows images of nature to suggest inner states, especially romantic ones.
For example, a poem is about the vicissitudes of love: a woman once gave her lover bitter fruit and he called it sweet; now she gives him fresh water and he calls it brackish. Another compares the connection between lovers to the mixing of red soil and rain.
In “Sacred Earth” the words of the poems don’t appear – except as sung by one of the four musicians on the side of the stage or translated into English in an online program, but the images do, in a series of solos that are like silent monologues. These are mainly danced by the Ramaswamy’s, who are experts at imagining flowering buds or an abundance of bees with their hands. While the mother sticks to the storytelling, the daughters alternate between mime-like movements and more athletic action, leaping with fencers’ precision, jumping with beautiful lightness.
These solos are in turn interspersed with short group parts with four other dancers, usually in unison. The alternation between group and solo works best for a part in which Aparna performs a poem about being left behind on the coast. The other dancers cross the stage in waves before leaving her alone, washed up.
Furthermore, the group sections are a bit perfunctory and the solos, all a bit on the flirty side of Bharatanatyam, take on an evenness in sequence. The exhilarating group material – rhythmically living winding processions – only arrives towards the end, and its impact is lessened with many entrances and exits, a strangely jerky pattern that leaves audience members repeatedly wondering if the show is over.
However, that’s not quite how it ends. Ranec and Aparna, who choreographed the work, close with a paired prayer, stretching into the branching form of trees and extending their hands as if making a sacrifice – a meditative conclusion to a dance that is softer than the subject .
For me, the strongest connection in “Sacred Earth” was not between man and nature, but between music and dance. How Preethy Mahesh’s voice, closely crossed with KP Nandini’s violin, helped Aparna to suggest the sleeping eyes of lotus blossoms, and how CK Vasude’s rhythmic recitation spurred and sharpened Aparna’s and Ashwini’s bursts of speed. Or how the flutter of Sakthivel Muruganantham’s drumming matched the flutter of Ranec’s fingers to whip up the feel of a storm, even as we sat in the rainless heat.