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India, Japan and the Midwest meet in new Ragamala Dance show

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Ashwini Ramaswamy
Ashwini Ramaswamy rehearses on the Cowles Center stage in Minneapolis, Minn., on March 20, 2013. Ramaswamy is part of Ragamala Dance, a company inspired by South Indian classical movements. The group's new work "1,001 Buddhas: Journey of the Gods" premieres on March 22, 2013.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

This weekend, the acclaimed South Indian company Ragamala Dance premieres a performance at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis celebrating the cultural connections between India and Japan.

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As artistic directors of the Twin Cities-based Ragamala Dance Company, mother and daughter Renee and Aparna Ramaswamy are always looking for inspiration. The idea for their latest production, "1,001 Buddhas: Journey of the Gods," said Aparna Ramaswamy, came from an eye-to-eye encounter with 1,001 Buddhist statues.

"We were inspired to create this show after a visit to Kyoto, Japan and the temple of Sanjusangendo," said Aparna Ramaswamy.

It wasn't the temple's seemingly endless rows of Buddhist icons that sparked the Ramaswamys' imaginations. It was the 28 other statues standing watch over them.

"We saw these amazingly majestic and fierce deities that had their origins in Hinduism," Aparna Ramaswamy said.

At some point in ancient history, India's Hindu gods made their way into Japanese culture. Japan's Buddhists, however, didn't celebrate gods. To smooth over the religious discrepancy, the figures were transformed from gods to guards. This story of cultural reinterpretation intrigued the Minnesota-based dancers.

"I remember this distinct moment when we both turned to each other and said, 'This is fascinating. We should make a show,' " Aparna Ramaswamy said.

"The Indian gods, the Buddhist music, the Hindu music, they're all coming together and creating another atmosphere here."

Five years later, that show is about to receive its world premiere in Minneapolis. Friday afternoon, company members are going over every arm position and lighting cue in preparation for opening night.

The performance is built around the concept of cultural interchange, said Aparna Ramaswamy.

"As our world, in some ways, gets smaller and people are more and more connected, we think of that as a very contemporary state," said Aparna Ramaswamy. "I think it's very important to look back in history and mythology and see this connection between cultures and the influences that ancient cultures had on others."

The Japanese statues, with their blend of Buddhist and Hindu characteristics, are examples of that. Through dance, said co-choreographer Ranee Ramaswamy, the production showcases the spirits of these hybrid icons.

"You can see powerful and graceful and fearsome," said Ranee Ramaswamy. "It's like a comic book come alive where there are these very strong characters."

At its core, "1,001 Buddhas" is an intersection of cultures. In this performance, Ragamala's South Indian-style of dance merges with the sounds of Japan's Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara, lead by Art Lee.

"Outside of Japan we would call it Taiko drumming," Lee said. "The drums are really big. The drumsticks are very big ... and the sound is very big.

The goal of "1,001 Buddhas," said Ranee Ramaswamy, is to create a seamless work that still allows the separate cultures to shine.

"The Indian gods, the Buddhist music, the Hindu music, they're all coming together and creating another atmosphere here," said Ranee Ramaswamy.

Aparna Ramaswamy weaves her body around the stage. Her facial expressions are as dramatic as the music.

"As a performer, I feel very fortunate to be able to express these feelings of not just spirituality but awe and wonder and the depth and the largeness of this history and the mythology," Aparna Ramaswamy said.

All of that, she said, thanks to an afternoon sightseeing stop at a Japanese temple.