Vital Force: Caroline Palmer reviews the Southern's latest

Sva (Vital Force)
May 1-4, 2008
Review by Caroline Palmer

Where does “vital force” come from? Is it the relentless pull of gravity, the dangerous whims of nature, or a stubborn interior motivation? In the case of “Sva (Vital Force),” a collaborative work by local Bharatanatyam troupe Ragamala Music and Dance Theatre and Japan’s Wadaiko Ensemble TOKARA, opening tonight at the Southern Theater, it’s all about the energy created by percussive performance drawn from distinct sources. Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, the mother and daughter artistic directors of Ragamala, are no strangers to cross-cultural match-ups but this latest experiment shows just how adept they are at finding commonality without compromising the true essence of either form.

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During a dress rehearsal on Wednesday night the drummers warmed up the stage with fiery precision percussion. Harumi Tamaoki played with flair, shouting out encouragements and rolling her body with the beat while Matt Steitle twirled his sticks and coolly kept the tempo. Leader Art Lee moved so quickly that his arms became a blur. They moved upstage to make room for the dancers but their presence remained strong, especially when the signature big drum was struck. It would have been easy for the seven women of Ragamala to surrender to such a “vital force” but instead they created their own, calmly responding with their own intricate physical gestures and foot stamps, at times ably matching or even attacking the drummers’ rhythms, at others offering complex contrasts. It was a memorable exhibition of virtuosity and concentration on the part of all involved.

Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest dance traditions in India with a history spanning 2,000 years. Music and dance are central to the form but poetry, sculpture and literature also play influential roles. The first half of the Ragamala concert showcases these elements through classical works and in “Ardhanareeshwara Stotram,” Aparna Ramaswamy performs a creation story focused on the interplay between the divine feminine, Shakti, and the divine masculine, Shiva. Every part of her body is engaged, from her eyes to her fingertips, and as she seamlessly moves through pensive to aggressive states, she summons up the ancient duality. Ramaswamy’s interpretation is so confident that her performances always seem effortless but she has been studying the Pandanallur style since an early age and her skill is the result of years of training.

“Yathra” reveals another fine musical experience, this time from sitar player Shubhendra Rho and Indian cellist Saskia Rao de-Haas. Their dynamic live performance drives a group piece illustrating the human journey from birth to the twilight years. As the younger dancers leap through the space, Ranee Ramaswamy offers a subtle counterpoint, using her maturity to show a different side of Bharatanatyam. Her approach is less athletic and emphatic; the edges are smoothed out and her gestures flow with serenity and depth of experience. It is this sort of adaptability that drives the Ragamala spirit of invention and collaboration on display this weekend at the Southern.

$24. Thurs. and Fri. at 8:00 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls.; 612.340.1725; www.southerntheater.org. There will be a gala performance on Sat. at 5:00 p.m. followed by a reception at the Weisman Museum. Tickets are $75. -- Caroline Palmer


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