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Article: Dancer gets McKnight prize

May 26, 2011 - Graydon Royce, Star Tribune. Ranee Ramaswamy has built Ragamala into one of the nation's premier dance companies.

Ranee Ramaswamy, who has pioneered the performance of south Asian dance in the Midwest, has been named the 2011 Distinguished Artist by the McKnight Foundation.

Ramaswamy, with a career spanning three decades, is best known for founding Ragamala Dance in 1992. Artistic director and choreographer for the company, she is the first dance artist to be chosen by McKnight for the award, which carries a $50,000 cash prize.

"This is a huge recognition for the art form," Ramaswamy, 59, said in an interview Thursday.

Growing up in southeastern India, Ramaswamy studied Bharatanatyam -- an ancient narrative form that illuminates myth or sacred text through dance -- for 12 years but never considered it a viable career path.

"I didn't have a choice," she said. "My parents made a decision that this was a hobby and that I would get married, be a housewife and have children."

It was not until after she and her then-husband moved to the Twin Cities in 1978 that she rediscovered her passion for Bharatanatyam. The following year, she performed at Coffman Union on the University of Minnesota campus for a gathering of the south Asian community. In 1982, she and her daughter Aparna studied with Bharatanatyam master Alarmel Valli during a two-week residency in Minneapolis. She noted that Valli lived near her in India, but they had never met until that residency.

"There was destiny for me to come to her," Ramaswamy said. "I started all over again and fell in love with her style. Every year, I would return to India and study with my teacher for four months."

In 1992, she founded Ragamala with musician David Whetstone, who left the company in 1997. Ragamala is recognized internationally, chosen as one of only two American-based companies to join 200 Indian artists of all genres at a Kennedy Center festival in March. Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times dance critic, praised Ragamala as an excellent company and said Aparna Ramaswamy was "an enchantingly beautiful dancer."

Twin Cities critics routinely praise Ragamala, Caroline Palmer writing recently that a solo for Ranee Ramaswamy showcased "her regal and precise style, not to mention a sense of elegant simplicity."

To open Cowles Center in fall

Looking ahead, Ragamala will be the first company to perform in the new Cowles Center for Dance in Minneapolis this September, with a new piece called "Sacred Earth" that will then travel to 22 venues throughout the United States in the next year.

Ramaswamy has worked with many Minnesota artists, such as poet Robert Bly, photographer Marc Norberg, jazz vocalist Charmin Michelle, Mu Daiko drummer Rick Shiomi and director/playwright Arawaar Mistry. She said Thursday, however, that her daughter Aparna has been her most-important collaborator.

"Since the age of 6, she has been my soulmate," Ranee Ramaswamy said. "My work is not complete without her."

Ramaswamy's younger daughter, Ashwini, also dances with Ragamala and is the troupe's marketing director. Ramaswamy and her husband, David McKay, live in Minneapolis.

Now in its 14th year, the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award is considered the state's top individual recognition among the culture community. Visual artist Siah Armajani was honored last year.

© Star Tribune 

Graydon Royce is at