General 9-10-2003

Dance Review: “Body and Soul”

Kim Surkan writes about a popular and unusual pairing of jazz and bharatanatyam dance that took place at the Southern Theater September 6 and 7.

Combining bharatantyam, a form of Indian dance, with American jazz is an unusual tribute to Billie Holiday; last weekend in “Body and Soul,” Ragamala Music and Dance Theater choreographer Ranee Ramaswamy and singer Charmin Michelle did just that. The resulting program was a two-hour medley of songs Holiday made famous, live instrumental jazz by the Twin Cities Seven, spoken text narrated by Maryann Sullivan, and bharatantyam performed by Ragamala dancers.

Although unconventional in its combination of art forms, the show was immensely popular, playing to a sold-out house at the Southern Theater on its one-weekend run. Familiar tunes such as the classics “All of Me,” “God Bless the Child,” and “Lady Sings the Blues” became group numbers danced by Ragamala trio Ranee Ramaswamy, Aparna Ramaswamy, and Tamara Nadel.

The rhythmic precision of the dancers made the unlikely marriage of two-thousand-year-old Indian dance tradition and Harlem jazz surprisingly compatible. Even to the uninitiated, the distinctive gestures and coded hand movements of bharatantyam became increasingly readable through their association with the words of Holiday’s songs, beautifully intoned by Michelle.

The strength of the program was in the selection of songs from different periods in Holiday’s career. Ramaswamy matched some with solos, others with the trio of dancers, and some were performed by Michelle alone with the band. Guest dancers Chas Kennedy and Alyssa Kark of Arthur Murray Dance Studios appeared in the second act for one swing number.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the performance came just before intermission in Ranee Ramaswamy’s haunting interpretation of “Strange Fruit,” the controversial song about lynching. When it was originally written in 1938, Columbia Records refused to record it, so Holiday recorded it with Commodore the following year. Jeff Bartlett’s shadowy lighting added to the effect of this piece, ending the first act on a chilling note.

“Body and Soul” attempted to create an historical account of Holiday’s life through narrative spoken by Sullivan between the musical numbers. While informative, the narrative was ultimately distracting, either by reiterating information in the program or providing an unlikely simulation of a Harlem club emcee.

It’s not often that so much varied talent converges on one stage, and that made this show a success for a wide range of audience members. Billie Holiday fans and Ragamala regulars found themselves in the same theater, celebrating the life and work of a singular musician in a very original way. It’s hard to imagine a better example of collaborative and multicultural work.