Review: Finding Warmth in “Holy Ground”

At BRIC, celebrate Brooklyn! on Friday evening the air was heavy but periodically chilled by breezes. “sacred ground“, the work that Ragamala Dance Company played in the Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park, felt like the reverse: mostly mild with some warmer currents.

In this case, “Sacred Earth” deals with the correspondences between human emotions and the natural environment. Like all other works by Ragamala – an exemplary Minneapolis-based troupe 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 inspired by kolam, a kind of decorative art made from rice flour; on the Warli murals (some of which are reproduced in projections); and on ancient Tamil poetry, in which the divinity of the physical world allows the imagery of nature to suggest inner states, especially romantic ones.

One poem, for example, deals with the fickleness of love: Once a woman gave her lover a 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 mixture of red earth and rain.

In “Sacred Earth”, the lyrics of the poems do not appear – unless sung by one of the four musicians at the side of the stage or translated into English in an online program, but the imagery does, in a series of solos that are like silent soliloquies. These are danced mainly by the Ramaswamys, who are adept at making their hands suggest blossoming buds or an abundance of bees. While the mother sticks to the narration, the girls alternate mimic movements and more athletic gestures, diving with the precision of fencers, jumping with wonderful lightness.

These solos, in turn, alternate with brief group sections that include four other dancers, most in unison. The group-solo alternation works best before a section in which Aparna enacts a poem about abandonment by the sea. The other dancers cross the stage in waves before leaving it alone, stranded.

Otherwise, the group sections are a bit superficial, and the solos, all a bit on the flirtatious side of Bharatanatyam, successively gain similarity. The enthralling group material – rhythmically lively meandering processions – only arrives towards the end, and its impact is muted with numerous entrances and exits, a strangely jerky pattern that can leave viewers repeatedly wondering if the show is finished.

That’s not quite how it ends, though. Ranee and Aparna, who choreographed the work, end with a paired prayer, stretching into the branching form of the trees, extending their hands as if to make an offering – a meditative conclusion to a dance that is gentler than its subject.

For me, the strongest bond in “Sacred Earth” was not between humanity and nature but between music and dance. How Preethy Mahesh’s voice, intertwined with KP Nandini’s violin, helped Aparna suggest the sleepy eyes of lotus flowers, and how CK Vasudevan’s rhythmic recitation energized and sharpened Aparna’s bursts of speed and ‘Ashwini. Or how the beat of the drums of Sakthivel Muruganantham matched the flapping of Ranee’s fingers to stir up the feeling of a storm even as we sat in the heat without rain.