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Woodbury High student among talented group of dancers performing Saturday

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A group of young Bharatanatyam dancers rehearses in downtown St. Paul. Bharatanatyam is likely the oldest classical dance tradition of India with its roots tracing back to more than 2,000 years ago. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)2 / 7
Hiranmayee Ganesh of Maple Grove dances in front of Swetha Ganeshkumar of Woodbury during a Friday evening rehearsal. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)3 / 7
Kala Vandanam, a St. Paul dance company and studio, will premiere 'Ritu - The Seasons' on Jan. 28 at Hamline University. Bharatanatyam dancers, pictured here, rehearse around a colorful Pinnal Kolattam, or braid, which will be incorporated in the dance performance. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)4 / 7
Swetha Ganeshkumar, 15, of Woodbury rehearses ahead of the Jan. 28 opening of 'Ritu – The Seasons.' Her extended arms symbolize salutations to the seasons. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)5 / 7
Meera Viruru (submitted photo)6 / 7
Swetha Ganeshkumar (submitted photo)7 / 7

A Woodbury Senior High School student is among a group of young dancers who will be performing an originally choreographed South Indian dance performance Saturday.

Swetha Ganeshkumar, a Woodbury High sophomore, will be showcasing her talents with a group of other young dancers during the premiere of "Ritu - The Seasons," Jan. 28 at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Inspired by Sanskrit poetry and Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi's 18th-century work, "Ritu - The Seasons" tells a story about the seasons and includes colorful and elaborate wardrobes, energetic choreography and original music recorded in India.

For Ganeshkumar, dancing has been her passion since she began practicing and perfecting Bharatanatyam when she was 7 years old.

Bharatanatyam is a popular South Indian classical dance with roots tracing back almost 3,000 years ago. It has been traditionally performed in Hindu temples, but over time has moved into theaters while retaining much of its characteristics and stylized storytelling.

Ganeshkumar said Bharatanatyam allows her to express herself and forge long-lasting friendships with her castmates.

"It's also a connection to my culture, and this is probably one of my main hobbies. I love dancing, and I always have," she said. "It's a way to put my passion into something."

Cast members in "Ritu - The Seasons" began rehearsing last summer where they underwent daily rehearsals for two weeks in August.

The cast even performed a short preview during the St. Paul Art Crawl last year.

Now days away from the premiere, Ganeshkumar said she's excited to show off her and her peers' months of hard work.

"We've been working on this production for a really long time, so it's exciting to finally show it to someone," she said. "It's a different topic that I think people who watch Bharatanatyam before don't usually see."

The goal of the project is also to expose her students to what their peers in theater and ballet often experience — participating in a professional production from the ground up, said Suchitra Sairam, a Twin Cities dance instructor and choreographer who runs Kala Vandanam Dance Company in St. Paul's Lowertown.

The Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that generously funds journalism and the arts, also named the group winners of the 2015 St. Paul Knight Arts Challenge.

"With a dance form like this it's kind of culturally specific practice in some ways, and I feel like they don't get the same recognition for that commitment," she said. "It's a way for these young, aspiring dancers to showcase their dedication with their communities."

The training Sairam's students receive at her studio not only develops dancer's skills but also exposes them to other aspects of putting on a show, such as production, fundraising and marketing.

Meera Viruru, a Woodbury Math and Science Academy graduate and University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman, echoed a similar point and said she too began training at a young age and feels Bharatanatyam has brought her closer to her culture and religion.

Her friends who've watched her perform have also told her "they've never seen anything like it before."

"We call it Indian ballet," Viruru said. "Just to try and draw parallels, but the styles are completely different, and people are just blown away because they haven't seen anything like it."

Though she won't be appearing in the Saturday debut, she plans to perform later this year with the group's other performances this summer.

The premiere of "Ritu - The Seasons" runs from 7:30-9:30 p.m., Jan. 28, at the Anne Simley Theater at Hamline University.

Tickets for Saturday's performance are still available at kalavandanam.com.

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