Art Works Blog

(National Council on the) Art Talk with Ranee Ramaswamy

Ranee Ramaswamy is the founder and co-artistic director of Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance. (She shares artistic leadership with her daughter Aparna.) For more than two decades, the company, which has previously received grant support from the NEA, has presented South Indian classical dance throughout the U.S. and abroad, including appearances at venues as diverse as the American Dance Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and India's National Performing Centre for the Arts. Collaboration is a hallmark of Ramaswamy's choregraphic practice and she has created work with artists as diverse as the poet Robert Bly and the jazz musician and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa. Ramaswamy counts among her many honors numerous McKnight Artist Fellowships, two Cultural Exchange Fund grants from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and a 2012 United States Artist Fellowship. We spoke with Ramaswamy earlier this month in anticipation of her first meeting as a member of the National Council on the Arts. (Details on how to join us live or online for the public session of the National Council on the Arts are in our News Room).
NEA: Can you tell us about your most significant arts experience?
RAMASWAMY: I can never forget my first performance here in Minneapolis in 1978. [It was] a really huge change in my life because I had come from India as a new immigrant in 1978. I had gotten married in 1972, and I hadn’t danced since I was engaged in 1970. I never, ever, thought that dance would be back in my life again. [When] I came to the United States, the Indian community here had a need for someone to teach, and since they knew that I had studied Indian dance, they asked me if I would perform at a festival. I  think that I was at that time 26 years old [and] had a child already. [I thought]… dance would never be part of my life so when I had this opportunity, instead of being worried if I can do it or not, I took it…. I've never turned back after that. 
NEA: Our latest issue of NEA Arts focuses on inspiration. What does inspiration mean to you and what role does inspiration play in your own creative practice?
RAMASWAMY: You know, my inspiration I would say comes from my teacher…. I'm always inspired, but she is somebody who just gives me that higher-up inspiration to look at her, her work, and her involvement in keeping the arts in its highest standard. Art comes first, then comes the person. So I think that to me that is my inspiration: always think that art is bigger than you.
NEA: You work in a traditional form of dance that is centuries old. How do keep your work relevant in the 21st century? 
RAMASWAMY: That's a very good question because that's being our life's work… In India a billion people practice the philosophy and mythology and psychology of the arts that we present today. So it's from a living culture. It's carried through over all these years and exists and thrives. So it's not something that's dead that we're trying to give it a new life. It's just a language, a language that is spoken in India, but we take that language and write the poetry in a language that is understood by non-Indian audience… So we put [what we’ve always believed] on stage, with projections and every modern technology that you can use in modern theatre, using English language to translate. You're getting the same message, but maybe our costumes are different, because they're the most relevant costumes for an Indian body, for an Indian dance, but the message is universal.
NEA: What do you hope to accomplish during your time on the National Council on the Arts?
RAMASWAMY: I want to use all of my 35 years of experience of… writing grants, performing and practicing an art form, living, you know, doing it 24 hours a day, to see how my experience will help this process. I'm looking forward to doing anything that I can possibly do.
NEA: I'm sure you've seen our tagline, "art works." What does that phrase mean to you?
RAMASWAMY: Art is something that gives soul satisfaction, physical endurance, you know. You are helping your head and body, and it keeps you young, and it keeps you inspired, and I think art works!
Learn more about our two other new members of the National Council on the Arts: Olga Viso of Walker Art Center and Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses. 

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