It’s a safe bet you will see something at Sarasota’s Ringling International Arts Festival you've never seen before — like last year’s aptly-named acrobatic troupe Gravity & Other Myths, or performance artist Thaddeus Phillips’s Border Crossing, a one-man, multi-lingual world tour.
This year promises to be no less eye-opening, with performances ranging from flip-book storytelling to a live-action video game. One event, the solo play White Rabbit Red Rabbit, will not only be a surprise to the audience but to everyone involved in the production — because nobody knows what’s in the script until the actor tears open an envelope.
Dwight Currie, the Ringling Museum of Art’s Curator of Performance, is the man responsible for assembling all this eclectic artistry into the four days’ wonder that is RIAF, now entering its ninth season. According to Currie, the festival owes its existence to Florida State Senator John McKay and his unlikely alliance with, of all people, Mikhail Baryshnikov. The senator had connected with the world-famous dancer through a mutual acquaintance; once Baryshnikov’s name was attached to the project, along with a proposed partnership between RIAF and his eponymous Arts Center in NYC, funding followed relatively easily.
The initiation of the festival coincided with what the museum likes to think of as “the Ringling renaissance,” says Currie, when over a period of years beginning in the early 2000s four new structures were added to its campus, allowing for an expansion in programming. In a city well-served by traditional arts, the idea of a festival that offered something different — something new, more experimental — made sense. Baryshnikov’s celebrity helped bring it immediate attention — adding an unforgettable frisson to opening-night parties in the museum courtyard, when you’d see him wandering amongst the throngs like, you know, a regular human — and that affiliation lasted a successful five years. But now, says Currie, the festival has really found its stride.
“It’s not as high-profile as it was when we had one of the most celebrated artists in the world affiliated with it,” he says. “On the other hand, we will sell 4,000 to 5,000 tickets, a huge number when you take that as a percent of the local market.”
RIAF, and the performances Currie curates throughout the year at the Ringling, fill a niche, he says; one that’s different from what’s offered by, say, the Van Wezel or Sarasota Opera.
“Sarasota has long had its Broadway, has long had its Lincoln Center,” he says, “but hasn’t had until recently a downtown equivalent.”
Nor, when you think of it, does Tampa Bay. It’s rare to see adventurous, internationally-known artists of this caliber anywhere around here, which makes RIAF that much more of a treasure. Plus, it’s reasonably priced: No performances (other than the opening night celebration) cost more than $35, with student tickets available at $10. All tickets include admission to the museums, the gorgeous seaside Ca’ d’Zan and the gardens. Eateries on the grounds allow you to catch a bite between the 2, 5 and 8 p.m. performances without having to drive elsewhere.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2017 lineup, with comments by Currie.
White Rabbit Red Rabbit. A co-production of RIAF and Urbanite Theatre (a successful new company that, like RIAF, has proven that Sarasota audiences will take a chance on the unpredictable), this is the aforementioned play-in-an-envelope. Written by an Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, who at the time of its writing was forbidden from leaving his country, WRRR has been described as part theater entertainment, part social experiment. It had a successful run in NY starring the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Wilson and Nathan Lane, but if you want to experience it as the RIAF actors will, don’t Google. Not even Currie knows what’s in the script: “I made an active decision to not know.” The play will be performed four times at RIAF by four different actors, then 10 more times (by 10 other actors) at Urbanite. (Circus Museum Backyard: Oct. 19, 2 & 8 p.m.; Oct. 20 & 21, 2 p.m.)
Portraits in Motion. Volker Gerling’s “thumb cinema” employs the simplest of elements: an overhead projector and a flipbook of photos he took of people during a 2,174-mile journey through his native Germany. The result? “A simply beautiful expression of story-telling,” says Currie. Winner of the Total Theatre Award for Innovation at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (Historic Asolo Theater: Oct. 19, 5 p.m.; Oct. 20, 2 p.m.)
Happy Hour. You’ve never been to an office party like this one. Two goofball party-crashers fulfill Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s mission “to bring dance where it does not belong,” finding a reason to celebrate no matter what. “Wonderfully affirming and funny and accessible,” says Currie. (Circus Museum Backyard: Oct. 19 & 21, 5 p.m.; Oct. 20, 5 & 8 p.m.)
Nobuntu. An a cappella quintet from Zimbabwe whose repertoire includes folk songs, Afrojazz and gospel, Nobuntu is “enormously popular and loved in their own country and now they’re coming to the U.S. for the first time,” says Currie. “They’re really thrilled.” (Historic Asolo Theater: Oct. 19 & 21, 2 p.m.; Oct. 20, 8 p.m.)
Ing an Die. “High-concept dance,” says Currie, from Sarasota expatriate James McGinn. Now based in Belgium with his multidisciplinary family art collective McGinn Again, the dancer/choreographer brings what’s described on RIAF’s website as “a shape-shifting love story told amidst a pre-apocalyptic landscape.” The accompanying trailer is bloody, unsettling and quite beautiful. (Historic Asolo Theater: Oct. 19, 8 p.m.; Oct. 20 & 21, 5 p.m.)
eVenti Verticali: Wanted. Wow. If this Italian troupe is half as much fun in person as they are on video, we’re in for tricks and treats of mind-boggling proportions. Think Keystone Kops meets Super Mario Bros., suspended by harnesses in front of a three-story-high outdoor video screen. (West Courtyard: Oct. 19 & 20, 8 p.m.; also performed during the Opening Night Party on Oct. 18.)
ensemblenewSRQ. A Sarasota ensemble devoted to contemporary classical music presents two intriguing programs at RIAF. The first, John Luther Adams’s The Space Around You: Musical Reflections,” is performed, appropriately enough, in James Turrell’s sublime Skyspace installation. The second, “The Magical World of Berio’s Sequenzas,” explores the Italian composer’s virtuoso works for solo instruments; it will be performed in the museum’s Huntington Gallery. (Program One, Oct. 19 & 20 at 5 p.m.; Program Two, Oct. 20 at 2 p.m.; Oct. 21 at 2 & 5 p.m.)
RIAF 2017 First Night. A kick-off celebration in the museum’s West Courtyard with hors d’oeuvres, wine, beer and soft drinks; previews of the festival ahead; and at 8 p.m., a performance by eVenti Verticali of Wanted. (Oct. 18, 6:30-10 p.m.)