Dancer and choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy is trained in the ancient classical Indian dance style known as Bharatanatyam, but she grew up in the United States, surrounded by dance styles from many different traditions.
In her new dance piece, "Let the Crows Come," Ramaswamy reworks ancient styles and stories in collaboration with dancers trained in Afro-Caribbean and the Israeli Gaga technique. The Boston premiere of "Let the Crows Come" is January 19, and dancer and choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy joined GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath to talk about the performance. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Rath: So first, before we talk about the dance, let's dive in with a story behind "Let the Crows Come." Mainly because I love talking about crows and in the west, crows have this association with death, as they do in India and for Indians. But it's different from, say, Edgar Allan Poe, where there's a sinister tradition. I know in India it's more reverential but I learned from reading about your dance that you actually have a particular family tradition connected with crows.
Ramaswamy: Well, I think I'll just go back a little bit and say it started with me thinking about, yes, the idea of crows as an ominous figure in a lot of different myths around the world, and then reading articles about how they actually are, and they have really interesting attributes. They're very smart and apparently they recognize human faces that they've seen over and over and they mate for life, some of them. So there are these characteristics that I found fascinating. It's not a tradition in my specific family, but in Hinduism there is a ritual that occurs after the death of a family member or a relative. There are two weeks of rituals and one of the rituals, maybe not practiced by all, but that is practiced is called Petru Paksha, which is fortnight of the ancestors, and one of the rituals is to offer cooked rice to the crows. When the crows come and take the rice, that is a signal to the living that the departed soul has moved on to a better place or where it's supposed to go. As you might know in Hinduism, their belief is reincarnation until you transition into another realm. So it's a beautiful movement of the soul from the material world into the immaterial world and I just really liked that idea of when you see the crow, it's not something bad, but yet it's a symbol or a message from a loved one who has passed.
Rath: Yeah, I love that. I was not familiar with that myself, and I just love that image of the crow then flying off into the sky. So with your dance, you've studied the traditional Indian style, Bharatanatyam, and you have also incorporated modern and Avant Garde styles, right? We'll talk about the mixing of styles, but first, talk about your dance and what led to "Let the Crows Come."
Ramaswamy: Absolutely. So what I want to focus on is it's not really a mixing of styles. I do truly believe that when you train in a form, I've been training in Bharatanatyam for about 27 years, that you really stay true to all that training and all the thousands of years of knowledge that have come before you. It's still new in its new choreography, but my lineage is a beautiful continuation of my history. So I am very much classically trained in Bharatanatyam and I do practice that. But I also am from this country, and I am a huge fan of many different styles of dance and music and so I wanted to be on stage with other styles without compromising any of those styles. So what the piece does is it moves through three bodies and three forms of dance.
I begin with Bharatanatyam and a solo that I choreograph, and then I've worked with two exquisite dancers from here in Minneapolis, where I live. One practices a form of dance called Gaga technique, which is really a modern dance, and the other is trained in modern [dance] and she's from Trinidad and Tobago originally, so she has African diasporic forms as well, interwoven. We work together to translate my solo into their bodies and onto their forms. So you're seeing a repetition of three solos, but that look actually completely different in each style and on each body, so that you can then see how styles are passed, how conversations change, how memories change. It gives you this idea of transformation from body to body and how we can share our different communication styles in this world of globalization and multiculturalism.
Rath: I have to say, from the clips of that, that I've seen of it, it's magical. I've just never seen anything done like this with dance. I can think of musical examples for sure, but to see the communication across the bodies and it's like, well, I guess a musical analogy might be if you're singing the same song in like different national styles, it's wonderful.
Ramaswamy: Yeah, and part of the inspiration is actually the way a DJ takes a song that you might be familiar with, and then they might remix it in a way that's new, but uses the same original song. So you can take that and change it and still keep its core message. So that's another inspiration.
Rath: So tell us about merging these two. So the story of what you're conveying with "Let the Crows Come" and the dance. I'm giving you a hard job because talking about dancing in a non-visual medium is tough.
Ramaswamy: That is a good question though, because in my work it's very textual, so there's always poetry. I was an English literature major in college and very interested in literary influences and how they infiltrate and influence the body and how you can communicate, because dance is, some might say, the original form of communication: movement.
So you can take these texts that have words and then try to hopefully translate that through the body. So the solo that I created has a few different overlapping texts. One of them is a poem from the ancient Tamil Sangam-era of poetry. This is thousands of years old South Indian poetry that is actually very contemporary to this day. It's a form of poetry where the landscapes around us influence the emotions and how we feel. So it's really Earth-centered. Then I have used another ancient text that is astrological. This text that uses the flight patterns of crows to tell the future. There is two Sangam poems. So I've interwoven those texts to create the infrastructure of the dance, that's how I came up with the movements. Then that again is translated through the bodies of the others and also through the music.
Rath: Well, let me say personally, thank you so much for bringing this to Boston. I can't wait to see it and take my family. It's been great talking with you. Thank you so much.
Ramaswamy: Thank you so much, Arun.
The Boston premiere of "Let the Crows Come" is this Friday, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston at NEC's Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre. There's also a matinee show at 2 p.m. on Saturday, which is followed by a Q&A with the artist.