Review: Keeping the Dance Fires Burning at the Joyce

The Joyce Theater, open to audiences again, has been transformed. I don’t mean by the new seats, which look like brighter, cleaner versions of the frumpy old ones. I mean by the presence of Ragamala Dance Company, the Minneapolis-based troupe that is inaugurating the theater’s in-person fall season.

For “Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim,” the stage floor and backdrop are a pristine white. Over a set of wide steps at the rear hang bells at various heights. Three pools of water, shallow and rectangular, reflect light. The place is elegant and serene.

Varanasi (formerly called Benares), located on the Ganges River, is an ancient city, holy to Hindus, who travel there to be cleansed by its sacred waters or cremated after death. I’ve been there myself, and while I remember the spiritual light on the steps of the riverfront ghats, my American tourist recollections are mainly of sensory overload and crowds.

At the Joyce, there wasn’t much of a crowd — the theater wasn’t half full on a rainy Thursday evening. And the production, with set and lighting design by the French wizard Willy Cessa, is less about sensory overload than theatrical idealization. What the program notes call “a sacred pilgrimage which seeks the mystical connection between the divine and the human,” I approach as a secular viewer, seeking aesthetic transcendence. By the end of the show’s 90 minutes, I found some.

Ragamala, directed by the mother-daughter team of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, is an excellent company. Their devotion to the Bharatanatyam style and to treating that lineage as a living language is always radiantly clear. Even while dancing to a recorded score, as here, they embody the music (by Prema Ramamurthy, among others) with integrity.

Ranee, the mother, is a master of abhinaya, the aspect of classical Indian dance that’s most like mime. When she takes center stage to mutely recount the myth of the Ganges falling from heaven, you know you’re in the eloquent hands of a great storyteller, even if you don’t understand the language. And when she’s accompanied by the extraordinary Karnatik vocalist T.M. Krishna, whose lower range tunnels subterranean caverns, her careful art glimmers with some of the strangeness of the divine.

Aparna Ramaswamy is a dancer of high clarity and precision, and at the end of the show, when she appeared in the dancing form of the god Shiva, she gave me the shivers. Her younger sister, Ashwini, more flirtatious and springy, woke up the show in the middle.

At that point, it needed some spurring. It’s not just that the first part, a gathering at dawn, is slow and somewhat static. Throughout the production, members of the 11-person cast mill about as pilgrims, doing their ablutions and yoga. These naturalistic (but not messy and lifelike) actions seem not to inhabit the same world as the presentational dancing, even when the extras join in the dance, like townfolk in a Broadway musical or a Bollywood movie.

The group sections are beautiful in how they generate rhythmic joy while shunning visual synchronicity, but the weaving together of the ensemble experimentation with the traditional solo sections is too loose or too timid. The fires of Varanasi eventually burn hot, but the theatrical flame flickers.

Ragamala Dance Company

Through Sunday, at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.

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