Ragamala’s ambitious ‘Written in Water’ at the Cowles

Photo by Bruce W. Palmer
Ragmala’s “Written in Water”

Ragamala Dance Company’s new work, “Written in Water,” is its most ambitious yet and potentially most moving and satisfying. Which is saying a lot for a company whose path has been always upward, and whose henna-tipped toes have stepped surely since Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughter Aparna co-founded the company in 1992.

Four years in the making, “Written in Water” combines an ancient Indian board game, a 12th-century Sufi poem, a Hindu myth, an original score melding traditional Iraqi Maqam and Indian Carnatic music, and large-scale projections with the intricate movements and gestural storytelling of Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance form the company practices.

It’s a journey through life to enlightenment, told through movement, music and paintings. A reviewer who saw “Written in Water” in Tallahassee, where it had its world premiere, called it “mesmerizing” and raved that the evening “unfolded like a dream.”

“Written in Water” comes to the Cowles this weekend for three performances. We asked Ranee Ramaswamy to walk us through it.

“We have three movements,” she said in conversation earlier this week. “In the first, we explore human life, with love and struggle, through the board game.” The board game is “Paramapadam,” a precursor to “Snakes and Ladders” (itself a precursor to our own “Chutes and Ladders”). In the dance, it’s a metaphor for life’s ups and downs. “The second movement is the story of the churning, dynamic tension between good and evil,” Ranee continued. Its inspiration was the Hindu myth “Ksheerabthi Madanam,” which tells of the churning of the seven seas. It’s a metaphor for a world in chaos. “The final movement is the union with the Divine, toward transcendence,” Ranee said. The epic Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” which frames the entire dance, tells of birds who travel through seven valleys to achieve immortality. Not all of them make it, but some of them do.

Choreographed by Ranee and Aparna, “Written in Water” is danced to live music, an original score commissioned from Iraqi American trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar and Indian composer Prema Ramamurthy. ElSaffar, whose performance last year at the Walker was joyous and electrifying, draws on Iraqi Maqam, a vocal tradition included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. ElSaffar went to Baghdad to study it from the few remaining living masters. Ramamurthy is one of India’s greatest living composers of Carnatic (South Indian classical) music. Ranee believes this is the first time Maqam and Carnatic have joined in a single work.

The projections – of the board game and other imagery – are original paintings by Keshav Venkatraghavan, an artist based in Chennai, India, also commissioned by Ragamala. The images will be projected on the floor and on a screen. “They take your eyes up, like you’re in a church, cathedral or temple,” Ranee said. She compared them to stained glass windows.

Something else from Ranee to ponder, if you go: “When you write in water, it’s not concrete. It’s something that is constantly changing.”

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon in the Goodale Theater at the Cowles Center. FMI and tickets ($29). Here’s a video excerpt.

The Great Northern is here

“We are the North. Let’s celebrate it.” So say the leaders of The Great Northern, the new 10-day, Twin Cities-wide winter festival founded by Eric Dayton of Askov Finlayson (the menswear store behind all those “NORTH” hats) with leaders from the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships and the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival.

Part of the reason for The Great Northern is getting the Cities in shape to strut our winter wonderfulness in 2018, during Super Bowl LII. Like planets in the heavens, the Great Northern’s dates and the Superbowl’s will “align.” Still, it’s not a bad idea to collect all the fun under one umbrella-shaped igloo logo and brand it. Will “The Great Northern” stick? Will it become part of our vocabulary? Can you imagine yourself saying, “I know, Mom, Palm Springs is great, but you and Dad should come home for The Great Northern this year!”

All the events of The Great Northern I – many of which already existed, some of which are new– are listed here on the website. Since this is an arts column, we’ll point you toward the arts-related ones.

•  Jan. 26 (today) through Feb. 5 in Rice Park: Ice Carving Contest (through Sunday) and Ice Carving Displays (through Feb. 5). Especially nice at night, when lit.

•  Now through Feb. 19 at AZ Gallery: “Fire & Ice: A Winter Carnival Art Show.” With work by over 75 local artists.

•  Jan. 26 through Feb. 4 in Rice Park: Pabst Winter Carnival Music Series. Live music by students and local artists.

•  Jan. 27-28 at the State Fair Grounds: Minnesota State Snow Sculpting Competition.

•  Jan. 28-29 in St. Paul: 2017 Winter Jazz Festival. We’ll tell you more about this on Friday.

•  Jan. 29 at 1600 W. Lake Street: B-Lectric Presented by Northern Lights. MN and Barbette. Outdoor projections and film screenings on ice, Art Shanty projects. DJ Jake Rudh and a fire circus.

•  Jan. 30-Feb. 5 on Nicollet Mall: Northern Lights.MN’s “Living Banners and Words for Winter.” A poetry-inspired art installation that “wraps” the Mall between 5th and 12th in words and flashes short poems by local writers across electric road construction signs. Opens Jan. 30 with a sound and light show.

•  Feb. 1-4 at Landmark Center and TPT: Frozen Film Festival. Three dozen films from across the country and around the world. FMI and tickets ($12; $99 VIP pass).

•  Feb. 4 at Lake of the Isles: Luminary Loppet. Hundreds of luminaries, an ice pyramid, fire dancers, and sculptures across the frozen lake. FMI and registration (fees vary).  

MSPIFF returns April 13-29

Film buffs, now’s the time to request those days off work, arrange for child care, hire a dog sitter and whatever else you do during the annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. The dates have been announced: Thursday, April 13, through Saturday, April 29. Seventeen delicious days of nonstop movies, parties and special programming.

Last year, 45,158 attendees saw films from 72 countries. This year, the festival’s 36th, expands MSPIFF’s footprint to include screenings at the Capri Theater. Home base will still be the St. Anthony Main Theatre, with screenings at the Uptown and Metro State University’s Film Space in St. Paul. New this year: a virtual reality exhibition, an experimental film program, and a program of films by African and African American filmmakers supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Plus a selection of Finnish films, because it’s the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Finland. And a showcase of new international television series, since that’s what we’re all watching on Netflix and HBO and iTunes. (Who’s seen “Borgen”?)

The complete schedule will be announced March 23. Meanwhile, passes and 6-packs are on sale now. Individual ticket sales open to Film Society members on March 23, the general public on March 30. Early birds get discounts.

The picks

Tonight (Thursday, Jan. 26) through Saturday: Philippe Quesne/Vivarium Studio: “La Mélancolie des Dragons.” Lucky the Walker’s McGuire Theater has a big loading dock. The final performance in this year’s Out There series requires bringing a car on stage. French artist and director Quesne’s surreal fairy tale about six heavy-metal dudes stranded in a snowy forest is a celebration of absurdity and camaraderie. 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. FMI and tickets ($28/$22.40 Walker members).

Photo by Martin Argyoglo
Philippe Quesne’s “La Melancolie des Dragons”

Opens Friday at the Goldstein Museum of Design: “Global Technique, Local Pattern: Ikat Textiles.” Most of the so-called ikat we see is printed, a pale imitation of real ikat, a textile that can only be created by hand in a series of laborious, time-consuming steps. This exhibition gathers garments and textiles from Thailand, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Japan, the Andes and Indonesia. The opening will include spinning demonstrations by members of the Weavers Guild and live music by Enrique Burga of the Andean band Ecuador Manta, along with light refreshments. 6-8 p.m. Closes May 14.

Courtesy of the Goldstein Museum of Design
An ikat textile

Starts Friday at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: “Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass.” We Minnesotans are a people obsessed with craft brews and distilleries. This documentary feature from local directors Kelly Nathe and Norah Shapiro explores the little-known story of an elite moonshine produced in Stearns County during Prohibition, and the modern-day attempts of a new St. Paul micro-distillery to resuscitate it as a premium whiskey. We’ll drink to that. FMI, showtimes and tickets ($6-$8.50, $5 on Tuesdays). Ends Thursday, Feb. 2.

Sunday at Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center: Sonomento: “Happy Birthday, Mozart!” MacPhail’s premier adult choral ensemble, Sonomento – now 40 voices, all adults over 40 – was formed by Craig Fields to perform the major works of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and other composers. The choir toured Europe in 2015 and won two silver medals at the International Brahms Choral Festival in Germany. Fields, the musical director and a former professional opera singer, insists that Sonomento has a distinctly “UN-Minnesota sound.” Hear for yourself when they perform Mozart’s Grand Mass in C Minor with members of the Kenwood Symphony Orchestra. Mozart will make an appearance and blow out the candles on his cake. Doors at 3:30 p.m., performance at 4. FMI and tickets ($20/$25; under 18 free).

Monday at Magers & Quinn: Fred Minnick presents “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of an American Whiskey.” Minnick is the world’s leading American whiskey critic and author, which sounds like the ideal job. His new book traces the history of bourbon from the New World settlers up to today, exploring the mystery of who really created the sweet brown corn liquor. Was it a Baptist minister or Daniel Boone’s cousin? We wonder if he’ll nod to Minnesota 13 while he’s here. 7 p.m. Free.

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