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News Release: Dancer and choreographer Ranee Ramaswamy receives 2011 McKnight Distinguished Artist award

May 27, 2011 - Ramaswamy is founding artistic director and choreographer of Minnesota's renowned Ragamala Dance.

The McKnight Foundation has named Minnesota-based dancer and choreographer Ranee Ramaswamy as the 2011 McKnight Distinguished Artist, in recognition of artistic excellence spanning more than three decades. Now in its 14th year, the annual honor includes a $50,000 cash award and recognizes individual Minnesota artists who have made significant contributions to the quality of the state's cultural life.

Ramaswamy is well known as the founding artistic director and choreographer of Minnesota's renowned Ragamala Dance, named for their successful production of "Ragamala: A Painting In Motion" at the Southern Theater. The company was established in 1992 with Minneapolis musician David Whetstone, who left the organization in 1997.

"Ranee Ramaswamy is a stellar example of the combined power of vision, commitment, and technique," says Kate Wolford, president of The McKnight Foundation, "Through teaching and performance, Ranee has helped introduce this 2,000-year-old dance tradition to audiences in Minnesota and around the world, revealing its ancient ties as well as its relevance today."

Over more than 30 years, Ramaswamy's work has been presented throughout the U.S. and internationally by such venues as the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), the New Victory Theater (Off-Broadway, New York, NY), the Beckman Theater at CalTech (Pasadena, CA), the Wharton Center (East Lansing, MI), the Lied Center (Lawrence, KS), the Soorya Festival (Kerala, India), the Bali Arts Festival (Bali, Indonesia), and in Japan, China, Russia, Taiwan, and Edinburgh, Scotland. The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, has commissioned three of her choreographic works, Where the Hands Go, the Eyes Follow, Sethu, and Dhvee. Other commissions include Zenon Dance Company, the University of Minnesota's Interplay Series, the American Composers Forum, and the Children's Theater Company.

Ramaswamy is known for her precise technique and presence on stage. Since 1978, Ramaswamy has been a master teacher, performer, and choreographer of classical Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam integrates music, theater, poetry, and literature as part of a dynamic living tradition that offers an infinite scope for understanding and exploring the body, mind, and spirit.

Surprisingly, her dance career did not begin in earnest until adulthood. As a young girl in India, she studied Bharatanatyam for 12 years as a form of cultural enrichment, and never thought of it as a viable career path. Eventually, she brought her love for the dance form to the Twin Cities' Indian community, where she began teaching and performing as a way to share Indian culture. When the world renowned Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli came to Minneapolis in 1982, her artistry made a huge impact on Ramaswamy, who recognized the gulf between her own early training and Valli's masterful technique. With her young daughter, Aparna, she began studying with Valli, and her unexpected career began to unfold.

Ramaswamy has said, "Living in the United States, we are inspired by so many diverse cultures and art forms. We think creatively and find new and exciting ways to capture and move the audience while staying true to our tradition and maintaining the highest artistic standards. When this is done well, this makes the work accessible and relatable to all audiences."

Ramaswamy has seamlessly brought Bharatanatyam to contemporary audiences by collaborating with celebrated artists of diverse backgrounds and disciplines, including Minnesota artists such as poet Robert Bly, photographer Marc Norberg, jazz vocalist Charmin Michelle, Rick Shiomi of Mu Daiko, modern dancer Jerry Girouard, African dancer Morris Johnson, director/playwright Zarawaar Mistry, Deaf actress Nic Zapko, Prof. Martha Johnson of Augsburg College, pipa virtuoso Gao Hong, music ensemble Speaking in Tongues, Danny Buraczeski (jazz), Joe Chvala (tap), Susana di Palma (flamenco), Wynn Fricke (modern), and Lise Houlton (ballet).

"Among Ranee's distinguishing gifts is her commitment to collaboration," explains Vickie Benson, McKnight's program director for the arts, "In deep partnership with artists of seemingly disparate forms and approaches, her visionary works both embrace and transcend tradition."

She has also collaborated with internationally acclaimed artists from around the world such as legendary composer/violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam (India), the Çudamani ensemble (Bali, Indonesia), virtuoso composers/musicians Shubhendra and Saskia Rao (New Delhi, India), Taiko drumming group Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara (Nagano, Japan), and African dance troupe Ko-Thi Dance Company (Milwaukee), and jazz musician Howard Levy (Chicago).

Since 2002, Ramaswamy and her daughter, Aparna Ramaswamy, have served as Ragamala's co-artistic directors. Aparna has been her artistic partner throughout her life and also collaborates as co-choreographer and principal dancer. Her second daughter, Ashwini, is also a dancer with Ragamala as well as the company's director of publicity and marketing.

Prior to the 2011 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, Ramaswamy's grants and fellowships for choreography and performance have included 13 McKnight Artist Fellowships for Choreography and Interdisciplinary Art, an NEA Choreography Fellowship, a Bush Fellowship for Choreography, a Leadership Initiative Neighborhood Grant from the St. Paul Companies, and an Artist Exploration Fund Grant from Arts International, New York. Her work is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Minnesota State Arts Board, The National Dance Project, the Japan Foundation, and USArtists International. In 1998 and 2004, she was named one of the "Artists of the Year" by the Star Tribune.

Ramaswamy is the first dance artist to be selected as McKnight Distinguished Artist. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Dr. David McKay.

The McKnight Distinguished Artist Award recognizes individuals who helped lay the foundation for Minnesota's rich cultural life. Despite opportunities to pursue their work elsewhere, they chose to stay — and by staying, they have made a difference. Previous recipients are composer Dominick Argento (1998), ceramic artist Warren MacKenzie (1999), writer Robert Bly (2000), choral conductor Dale Warland (2001), publisher Emilie Buchwald (2002), painter Mike Lynch (2003), orchestra conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (2004), sculptor Judy Onofrio (2005), theater artist Lou Bellamy (2006), sculptor Kinji Akagawa (2007), writer Bill Holm (2008), theater artist Bain Boehlke (2009), and sculptor Siah Armajani (2010). The McKnight Foundation will honor Ramaswamy at a private dinner later this year.

The McKnight Foundation seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations through grantmaking, coalition-building, and encouragement of strategic policy reform. Founded in 1953 and independently endowed by William and Maude McKnight, the Minnesota-based Foundation had assets of approximately $1.9 billion and granted about $96 million in 2010.