Review: Keeping the Dance Fires Lit at the Joyce

The Joyce Theater, once again open to the public, has undergone a transformation. I don’t mean by the new seats, which look like bright...


The Joyce Theater, once again open to the public, has undergone a transformation. I don’t mean by the new seats, which look like brighter, cleaner versions of the old ones. I mean by the presence of Ragamala dance company, the Minneapolis-based troupe that kicks off the theater’s fall season in person.

For “Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim”, the stage floor and backdrop are pristine white. Above a set of wide steps in the back, hang bells at different heights. Three shallow rectangular water basins reflect the light. The place is elegant and serene.

Varanasi (formerly called Benares), located on the Ganges, is an ancient city, holy for Hindus, who go there to be purified by its sacred waters or cremated after their death. I have been there myself and although I remember the spiritual light on the steps of the riverside ghats, my memories of being American tourists are mostly sensory overload and crowds.

At the Joyce it wasn’t very crowded – the theater wasn’t half full on a rainy Thursday night. And the staging, with the scenography and lighting of the French sorcerer Willy Cessa, is less a question of sensory overload than of theatrical idealization. What the program notes call “a sacred pilgrimage which seeks the mystical link between the divine and the human”, I approach it as a secular spectator, in search of aesthetic transcendence. At the end of the show’s 90 minutes, I found some.

Ragamala, run by the mother-daughter team of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, is a great company. Their dedication to the Bharatanatyam style and to the treatment of this lineage as a living language is always dazzlingly clear. Even while dancing to a recorded score, like here, they embody the music (of Prema Ramamurthy, among others) with integrity.

Ranee, the mother, is a master of the abhinaya, the aspect of classical Indian dance that most resembles mime. When she takes center stage to silently recount the myth of the Ganges fallen from the sky, you know you are in the eloquent hands of a great storyteller, even if you don’t understand the language. And when she is accompanied by the extraordinary singer of Karnatik TM Krishna, whose lower range carves out underground caverns, his painstaking craftsmanship sparkles with some of the strangeness of the divine.

Aparna Ramaswamy is a dancer of great clarity and precision, and at the end of the show, when she appeared in the dancing form of the god Shiva, she gave me chills. Her younger sister, Ashwini, more flirtatious and resilient, woke up the show in the middle.

At this point, he needed to be stimulated. It’s not just that the first part, a dawn rally, is slow and somewhat static. Throughout production, members of the 11-person smelting plant walk around in pilgrims, doing their ablution and yoga. These naturalistic (but not messy and realistic) actions don’t seem to inhabit the same world as the showcase dance, even when the extras join in the dance, like the townspeople in a Broadway musical or Bollywood movie.

The group sections are beautiful in the way they generate rhythmic joy while avoiding visual synchronicity, but the weaving of the ensemble’s experimentation with the traditional solo sections is too loose or too shy. The fires of Varanasi eventually burn, but the theatrical flame flickers.

Ragamala dance company

Until Sunday, at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: Keeping the Dance Fires Lit at the Joyce
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