Ragamala Dance Company Premiers ‘Fires of Varanasi’ at Kennedy Center (photos)


Theatergoers were magically transported to the banks of the Ganges River as the Ragamala Dance Company returned to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. for the world premiere of “Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim.” 

The Ragamala Dance Company is the creation of Ranee Ramaswamy and capably supported by daughters Aparna and Ashwini. Bharatanatyam, the classical dance they practice, is one of the oldest dance forms from India. Its origins date from roughly 2,000 years ago as a religious ritual in Southern India, and lives on in modern times as an expressive dance form performed on stage. According to the program notes: “The name itself combines four Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) words meaning expression, melody, rhythm, and dance. The dancers stamp out complex rhythms with their bare feet and use very detailed movements, especially of the hands and face, to tell narratives inspired by mythology, epics (long poems about heroic deeds), and religious stories.”

Pilgrimage in Hinduism, as in other religions, is the practice of journeying to sites where religious powers, knowledge or experience are deemed especially accessible. The most famous Hindu pilgrimage is the Kumbh Mela, which takes place at the River Ganges in India. “Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim” evokes sacred pilgrimage routes, the Ganges River, and the patron deity Shiva, heightened by the chants of Vedic priests. The Company commits to the idea that “while history is time bound, the stories we share are timeless.”

The 11-person performance concluded with the cosmic dance of Shiva “symbolizing the interplay of dynamic and static divine energy flow, containing the five principles of eternal energy — creation, preservation, destruction, illusion, and emancipation. The ecstatic pilgrimage journey begins and ends at the Kasi Vishweshvara temple — the center of Varanasi, a city where people surrender their earthly bodies to death and receive spiritual bodies like Shiva himself.”

The highly anticipated commissioned work was originally slated for the Eisenhower Theater last April, but as in all pandemic matters, the schedule was reshuffled and the venue shifted to the relaxed atmosphere of the REACH Lower Lawn on the evenings of September 11 – 12 where an estimated 1300 watched. It was part of the Kennedy Center’s 50th Anniversary free programming initiative.

The transfer from the theater to an outside location created its own set of challenges. Ashwini Ramaswamy elaborated: “The indoor/stage version of Fires of Varanasi features an elaborate set designed by French theatrical designer Willy Cessa created in collaboration with choreographers/artistic directors Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy. In early spring of 2021, when we were very unsure about the future of indoor performances, Alicia Adams (VP of Dance and International Programming at the Kennedy Center), suggested a site-specific adaptation for the newly constructed REACH campus. It was an exciting challenge to adapt the stage version to such a unique setting, and the staff and crew did a marvelous job. Ranee and Aparna’s vision was for three stages to be constructed over the reflecting pool so the dancers could dance above the water as well as within it.”

One of the more striking features of Indian classical dance is the use of a variety of hand gestures which, along with facial expressions, provide a poetic element and convey the meaning of the dance. 

The use of costume, jewelry and make-up used in Indian classical dance is a complicated undertaking. “Our costumes are created in India and highlight the various elements of Bharatanatyam,” said Ashwini. “There are various styles/versions of the classical costume. Each dancer/choreographer has their aesthetic preferences. We select the sarees, or fabrics, based on the concept of each new work that we create – whether solo or ensemble – and have them created at tailor shops that specialize in costuming for dance.”

This was the group’s third visit to the Kennedy Center dating back to 2011.  “Each time we feel extremely moved to be in our nation’s Performing Arts capital,” they said. “We love to read [John. F.] Kennedy’s quotes, emblazoned throughout the buildings, espousing the integral nature of the arts to healthy, thriving societies. That message will always resonate – we need artists to reflect, process, and heal our ever-evolving communities.”

Click here for more information about Ragamala Dance Company.

View a slideshow of  Jeff Malet’s photographs of the September 11 – 12 performances from the Kennedy Center’s REACH lower lawn by clicking on a photo below:

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