REVIEW: Three diverse dancers, a crow, and a ritual

photo: maria baronova

Ashwini Ramaswamy charted her own distinct course onstage at the Baryshnikov Arts Center with an experimental Bharatanatyam (classical dance form of South India) work Let the Crows Come. After a two-year pandemic delay, the bold and refreshing work had its New York premiere and it proved worth the wait.  

Ramaswamy, the youngest family member of the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company led by her mother Ranee Ramaswamy and sister Aparna, decided to venture away from the classical Bharatanatyam format and explore her unique hybrid identity as a second-generation immigrant. Working with the idea of a DJ’s remix of a song (keeping its essence while also sending it onto a new trajectory), she invited two other dance artists from different movement styles─Berit Ahlgren, a practitioner of Gaga – the movement language developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, and Alanna Morris, trained in modern and African diasporic dance, to collaborate. 

photo: jake armour

Let the Crows Come takes its inspiration from a Hindu belief that crows are messengers linking the world of the living with that of the dead. The title centers around a Hindu ritual of placing rice outside the house during the mourning period after a loved one has died. When the crows come and consume the rice, it is believed to be an auspicious sign that the soul of the departed has ascended. 

Set upon an empty stage, save for a large brass bowl of rice situated downstage to the audience’s right and the row of five live musicians seated in a row along the left, the piece began as many classical Bharatanatyam performances do, with an overture of unmetered vocal strains. Roopa Mahadevan’s emotive alto voice was soon joined by the defining rhythmic thumps of Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam (double-headed drum used in Carnatic music that accompanies Bharatanatyam dance) beckoning Ramaswamy onstage for her initial solo. Dressed in a royal blue and black dance sari, she approached the rice bowl, arms held as if carrying a vessel, and gestured pouring rice into the brass bowl as an offering to the crows. She continued her dance of invitation to the winged creatures incorporating an array of bird gestures fluttering her supple hands in all directions. Ramaswamy glittered with precision and joy displaying energetic footwork, definitive arm movements, articulate hand gestures, and nuanced facial expression. 

photo: jake armour

Arun Ramamurthy’s soaring violin riffs drew Ahlgren and Morris onstage to join Ramaswamy. The three danced together like attuned instruments in a jazz ensemble intermingling their unique idioms around the initial theme─Ramaswamy’s Bharatanatyam solo. The composition then featured each dancer performing her solo interpretation of Ramaswamy’s original─giving full voice to each dancer’s stylistic qualities. Ahlgren was all hip swivels, arm swirls and ripples, and spine undulations to an electronic soundscape while Morris reveled in bird-like postures and repeated lunges, turns, and leaps of quirky delight, her face emanating pure ecstasy in the freedom of a creature taking flight.  

A major source of the evening’s magic was its music. The commissioned original score by three composers─Jace Clayton (aka DJ/rupture), Prema Ramamurthy (Carnatic), and Brent Arnold (electro-acoustic cello)─was played by a hybrid musical ensemble that organically followed and reflected the three dancers amplifying their unique expressions. 

The three dancers eventually coalesced, moving as a group to various locations onstage like homing birds. Then Morris, left alone in a bath of warm light, blew a kiss to the audience like a departing spirit. The others returned, with arms molded in the initial gesture of carrying a vessel, and converged around the giant bowl. Squatting, they cupped the rice in their hands and stood allowing the grains to rain down in communal offering. 

With Let the Crows Come, Ramaswamy has created a sophisticated, egalitarian conversation among three strong female performers interweaving their individual expressions around a shared theme. The result?  A celebration of beauty in diversity! 

Ashwini Ramaswamy’s Let the Crows Come
Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York 
April 13 – 15, 2021

Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist with a deep passion for the movement and wisdom traditions from the East. A frequent contributor to Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, Natural History Magazine, and Tricycle among other publications, she is the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan.

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