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Faculty Spotlight: “Written in Water” in U-M Classrooms

By UMS Lobby

In October 2017, UMS presented Ragamala Dance Company’s Written in WaterUniversity of Michigan students had the opportunity to experience the performance, many attending with a University of Michigan class that incorporated Written in Water into the curriculum.

Veronica Dittman Stanich interviewed faculty who shared their experience with the work and impact on students. 

Photo: Ragamala Dance Company performance in 2016. Courtesy of artist.

On October 20, 2017 UMS presented Ragamala Dance Company’s Written in Water at the Power Center. Ragamala’s work is grounded in the classical South Indian dance form Bharatanatyam, but its artistic directors, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, continue to push its traditional boundaries, working in contemporary choreographic contexts and collaborating with a range of musicians and visual designers. In Written in Water, they bring together themes of spiritual ascension from an ancient Sufi text, a Hindu myth, and Paramapadam—an Indian antecedent of the board game Snakes and Ladders. The dance unfolds against a backdrop of projected images by artist Keshav and is accompanied by Amir ElSaffar’s heady blend of Middle Eastern music and jazz, performed live by ElSaffar and a small ensemble of musicians. Faculty across the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts integrated the performance into their syllabi, bringing over 250 students to the performance. Here, some of these faculty explain how Written in Water functioned in their courses and how it impacted their students.

Photo: Ragamala Dance Company. Courtesy of the artist.

Yopie Prins brought all 125 students from Great Performances (Comparative Literature 141) to Written in Water. For this course—a First Year Writing Requirement similar to a “Great Books” course—students see performances from across genres, including music, dance, theatre, and opera. Prins explains, “I like to hold open a space for canonical works from non-western traditions. Ragamala brings together classical Indian dance and a more contemporary American aesthetic.” To prepare for this form that was unfamiliar to many students, they read about Bharatanatyam, participated in a movement workshop led by graduate students from the Dance Department, and attended a talk given by Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy. Prins comments, “UMS went out of their way to introduce the artistic directors to the class.” For their written response to the performance, Prins asked students to formulate an interpretation of the work by drawing on information from the preparatory readings and workshops as well as on their direct experiences in the theater. “It was an opportunity for some students to say, ‘I don’t know all I need to know to make sense of this,’ and to think critically about what they were missing,” explained Prins.

Photo: Ragamala Dance Company. Courtesy of the artist.

For Madhumita Lahiri’s Introduction to Indian Cinema: Bollywood (English 375), Written in Water extended the students’ investigation of a culture’s ideals around the body and movement. The performance allowed an additional perspective on Indian dance, augmenting students’ study of movement vocabularies in films. Lahiri’s students learned Bharatanatyam’s hand and foot movements and basic postures and she finds that, since the performance, students are noticing references to Bharatanatyam in the films they watch. Written in Water also became a lesson in looking. Lahiri notes, “Many of my students are on dance team, but the concert dance experience is new. Even students with a South Asian background, who know Bharatanatyam, don’t know the ‘codes’ of concert dance. There are choreographic layers, in addition to production layers like the projected artwork.” The class also found that unlike films, “There are no close-ups and no focus on the soloists. The camera isn’t there telling you what to watch. That was part of our classroom discussion—What did you notice? How did you know what to watch?”

Photo: Professional artist photograph of Ragamala Dance Company

Leslie Hempson’s Islam at Sea: The View from the Indian Ocean (History 195) examines how Islam spreads, asserting that it is an oceanic tradition, transported through commerce and navigation. Written in Water provided students the opportunity to consider some of the course’s themes through the medium of performance. For example, the course examines Sufism, a primary mechanism for the spread of Islam in South Asia, and especially its experiential elements; Sufism stresses an interactive relationship with God, often mediated through music and dance. The incorporation of Sufi text into the performance allowed students a different sort of inquiry into this theme. Their assigned responses to Written in Water focused on experiential elements—how it looked, how it sounded, how it made them feel. “Another major concern of the class is movement, movement of people and ideas,” says Hempson. “We can see how portable so many traditions are. Ragamala based in Minneapolis is an example; the tradition comes from South India. It helps us think about how art changes as it moves.”

In Sara McClelland’s Approaches to Feminist Scholarship in Humanities and the Social Sciences (Women’s Studies 601/602), first-year graduate students investigate feminist approaches to research practices that are used across the Humanities and Social Sciences. These include embodied methods along with more familiar ones like reading, listening, and counting. Written in Water provided an opportunity for McClelland’s students to consider ethnographic participant/observer practices, performance, and spectatorship as modes of research. She notes, “A lot of students aren’t accustomed to thinking about performance as inquiry. Most had never imagined performance’s potential as scholarship.” Now McClelland asks, “Where are your bodies in your research?” For their final projects, using methods from the course to investigate a research question, most of her students are planning to incorporate embodied practices. McClelland considers UMS performance an important part of her course, not only pedagogically—because it allows students to encounter sources other than text—but also socially. Most of her students had never heard of the Power Center and were excited to learn about UMS programming, especially the No Safety Net series.

Are you a U-M faculty member who would be interested in bringing your students to a UMS performance? $15 Classroom Tickets are available for students and faculty in courses that require attendance at a UMS performance. To learn more about how to work with UMS, email Campus Engagement Specialist at skfitz@umich.edu or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course.

Veronica Dittman Stanich writes about arts-integration in the university for UMS, and researches it for the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru). She also teaches writing about dance and performance, and holds a PhD in Dance Studies.

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