Review: Finding the Heat in ‘Sacred Earth’

At BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! on Friday night, the air was muggy but periodically cooled by breezes. “Sacred Earth,” the work that Ragamala Dance Company performed in the Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park, felt like the reverse: mostly mild with some hotter currents.

As it happens, “Sacred Earth” is about correspondences between human emotions and the natural environment. Like all other works by Ragamala — an exemplary troupe based in Minneapolis, led by Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughters Aparna and Ashwini — the piece is rooted in Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form from Southern India. More distinctly, it draws on kolam, a kind of decorative art made with rice flour; on Warli wall paintings (some of which are reproduced in projections); and on ancient Tamil poetry, in which the divinity of the physical world allows for imagery from nature to suggest inner states, especially romantic ones.

One poem, for example, addresses love’s inconstancy: A woman once gave her lover bitter fruit and he called it sweet; now she gives him sweet water and he calls it brackish. Another likens the connection between lovers to the mingling of red earth 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 imagery does, in a series of solos that are like silent soliloquies. These are danced mainly by the Ramaswamys, who are experts in making their hands suggest blossoming buds or an abundance of bees. While the mother sticks to storytelling, the daughters alternate between mime-like motion and more athletic action, lunging with the precision of fencers, leaping with wonderful lightness.

The exciting group material — rhythmically alive snaking processions — doesn’t arrive until near the end.Credit…Antoine DeBrill/BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!

These solos, in turn, alternate with brief group sections that include four others dancers, mostly in unison. The group-solo alternation works best before a section in which Aparna enacts a poem about being abandoned at the seaside. The other dancers cross the stage in waves before leaving her alone, washed up.

Otherwise, the group sections are a bit perfunctory, and the solos, all a little on the flirtatious side of Bharatanatyam, acquire a sameness in succession. The exciting group material — rhythmically alive snaking processions — doesn’t arrive until near the end, and its impact is lessened with many entrances and exits, an oddly jerky pattern that can make audience members repeatedly wonder if the show is over.

That isn’t quite how it finishes, though. Ranee and Aparna, who choreographed the work, close with a paired prayer, stretching into the branching shape of trees, extending their hands as if making an offering — a meditative conclusion to a dance that’s gentler than its subject.

For me, the strongest connection in “Sacred Earth” wasn’t between humanity and nature but between music and dance. How Preethy Mahesh’s voice, closely crossing with K.P. Nandini’s violin, helped Aparna suggest the sleeping eyes of lotus blossoms, and how C.K. Vasudevan’s rhythmic recitation spurred and sharpened Aparna’s and Ashwini’s bursts of speed. Or how the fluttering of Sakthivel Muruganantham’s drumming matched the flutter of Ranee’s fingers to whip up the sensation of a storm even as we sat in the rainless heat.

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