Aparna Ramaswamy is co-artistic director, choreographer, and principal dancer at the Ragamala Dance Company along with her creative partner and mother Ranee Ramaswamy. Before sitting down as a panelist for the Zócalo/Soraya event, “How Do Homelands Cross Borders?,” presented in conjunction with a performance of Ragamala Dance Company’s Fires of Varanasi, she stopped by our green room to chat about drawing inspiration from visual artist Julie Mehretu, the apprenticeship model of art, and her favorite game.
What’s the best thing about living in Minnesota?
The unexpected qualities that people don't associate with Minnesota. So, the richness of the arts, the richness of the diasporic communities—how we are actually invited in. You know how sometimes you go to a place, and you have to dig into a community to really find out where the artistic events are? Or where are my people? Where are these great hole-in-the-wall restaurants? And I feel like the fact that we are small diasporic communities—and we're also small, non-white communities—people want to share. I've lived there my whole life, and there's such an openness with the people who live there.
Do you have a favorite family tradition?
My family tradition, of course, is our practice in our dance. Because I work with my mother and my sister, there's no separation between the personal and work. It's our art. It's our lives. Because of the nature of what we do, how many people are involved, how much we travel together, how much we dance together, how much I'm juggling between my work life and my home life, sometimes I feel like I don't have time to reflect on traditions. But I just think of my life, when I think about how I spend my time, as a series of traditions.
What’s a formative creative moment that helped to shape your artistic sensibility?
For me, seeing my teacher for the first time when I was 9 years old. It was life changing. It was so brilliant, and so masterful, and truthful, and intimate, and completely, just huge, all at the same time. I could feel that when I was 9 years old. And so to me, that was a person that I want to dedicate my life to, and to spend time with. That is, if she would have me. The fact that I have an incredibly deep relationship with her after all of these decades, it's very meaningful to me. Because of her, I shaped very early on my artistic sensibilities in some ways, this deep desire for subtlety and description, imagery and poetry.
What’s one surprising aspect of the apprenticeship approach to art?
I think what people don't understand is the patience that it teaches everybody involved in that, and the longitudinal view that you experience about your art form, about your relationships, about your goals. And in that, your journey feels so intentional.
Do you have one goal or intention right now that you're specifically looking at with your work?
There are so many things that I want to deepen in my own practice, certain specific technical things that I feel like the longer we dance, the more understanding we have of what we need to achieve and accomplish. I have goals in creating new work that adheres and aligns with this idea of revealing the human condition through nuanced subtle ways that make people lean in, but at the same time giving them an emotional connection with the performer. I'm not interested in just kinetic movement. I'm really interested in how can we deepen this relationship even if it's from 100 feet away.
Is there a recent artwork that you've been especially moved by?
I recently saw the Julie Mehretu exhibition at the Walker Art Center. It’s this gorgeous show of large-scale canvases. And the craft is really intense and very impressive. And I feel that there's so much similarity in terms of what we're trying to do, in terms of the layering, in terms of the understanding of the craft and the work of the craft. There are these beautiful choreographical references and these beautiful architectural elements. And then there's incredible color. And then there are photographs that have been blurred or zoomed in. And so you get the emotion of it without at all knowing what the photograph is. And so there's a narrative for the artist as well.
Outside of dance, what do you do to relax?
I'm very fortunate to have so many lovely, wonderful, loving people around me. But there are a lot of demands on my time. And so one thing I should do is spend time on myself. I find time to travel with my family, and when we travel, we just kind of unplug and we’ll read and eat and hang out or swim or whatever because I think it's really important to have times when you’re not [on]. But it’s hard. It’s hard not to check your email and respond. I do. And I respond. But I find time definitely. On my weekends, I have time with my family and we play a lot of games.
What’s your favorite game?
Recently we've been playing a lot of Chronology. It's really fun. It's a history game—like when was Coca-Cola invented? When was the rubber band invented? And you have a set of cards and everything has to fit within your timeline. And sometimes it's really easy because you have 300 years and sometimes your timeline is only eight years. My kids really enjoy it. But my favorite game is Scrabble. My best friend lives in Denver, and she is here tonight—she flew in. We met our freshman year in college, and we've been friends ever since. When we were seniors, all we would do is play Scrabble. It was so fun.