RIAF reviews: Minds. Blown. at Ringling International Arts Festival

Thaddeus Phillips, Gravity & Other Myths dazzle in Sarasota.

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click to enlarge Gravity & Other Myths. - Andy Phillipson/Ringling International Arts Festival
Andy Phillipson/Ringling International Arts Festival
Gravity & Other Myths.

Among the many journeys recreated by Thaddeus Phillips in his brilliant one-man show 17 Border Crossings, there’s one in which a quaff of psychoactive tea sends the storyteller right up into the sky, via the hole in the roof of a Brazilian shaman’s tiny hut. The view provides him with a whole new perspective on the earth and its man-made boundaries.

If as we did, you hear this story after having just spent an hour at James Turrell’s meditative “Skyspace” installation, gazing up at the sky through, yes, a hole in the roof, you may feel like you’re on some kind of head trip, too.

Serendipitous juxtapositions like this one make a journey to Sarasota’s Ringling International Arts Festival a must. With more then 20 performances over four days (through Sunday) in various venues on the expansive, beautiful grounds of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, you can’t see everything in a day and a half, which is all the time we were able to spend there. But whatever combination of events you choose, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll come away with minds blown.

We began our own particular journey listening to a “Conversation with the Artists,” including Phillips, cerebral and loquacious; the impish choreographer (and inveterate punster) Doug Elkins, whose mind is as active as his body (he stretched as he sat); and the grounded, soulful percussionist Matthew Duvall of the Grammy-winning Eighth Blackbird. Moderator Dwight Currie, the Ringling curator of performance, went beyond the tired query ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ to ask how the artists choose among the multiple ideas they’re juggling at any one time, and also delved into the challenges of collaboration and the pressures to keep doing what’s popular.

Elkins, describing how his dancers work together, said, “Everyone’s game in my company.” That could also sum up the attitude of the daredevil Australian acrobats in the troupe Gravity & Other Myths, the first act we saw on Friday.

You get the feeling that one of the myths GOM wants to dispel is the warning we all heard from our mothers: “Don’t do that. You’ll fall and hurt yourself.” Their answer? “Oh, yeah? Well, watch us!”

Performing in the intimate quarters of a three-quarter-round space in the Ringling Circus Museum, the eight members of the troupe (seven acrobats and one musician, who plays percussion on drums and his own body) are irresistibly playful, smiling at each other and the audience as they accomplish one impossible, jaw-dropping feat after another. The show begins with a rapid-fire series of trust falls, establishing two important facts. Yes, they will fall (but won’t necessarily hurt themselves, since the floor is padded). And yes, trust is very important. When you’re standing at the top of a human tower with your feet on the heads of the two guys below you, or when you’re being used as a human trampoline by the guy jumping on and off your back, or when you’re being swung around like a human jump rope within inches of the audience — trust is key.

(That would be true of the audience, too. If you sit on the front row, you may be recruited to lie in a circle on the floor with other audience members as a lithe female gymnast takes a walk on your outstretched palms.)

Games rule. There’s a jump rope battle in which the first guy to miss a skip has to remove an article of clothing (and the loser, oh those cheeky Aussies, loses everything); a handstand challenge during which the guy doing the handstand has to hold his stance for as long as everyone else in the company can hold their breaths (which turns out to be a loooong time); and there’s the answer to the question, What’s the best way to solve a Rubik’s cube? Which is, of course: Stand on your head on a little pole while you’re working the cube, take a break to stand on your hands with the rest of the company as the audience throws little balls at you until you collapse, then go back to the tiny pole, stand on your head again, and solve the puzzle. Easy!

Gravity & Other Myths is a must-see (repeated tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 2). For us, it was the perfect jumping-off point (sorry) for the day.

Following that breathtaking start, we needed a bit of respite. After a stop at the Lounge on the Lawn, a tent with food and drink and great music (we heard the gypsy jazz stylings of the Hot Club of SRQ), we entered “Skyspace” a permanent installation of the Ringling Museum which opens at 6:40 p.m. during the festival. Looking up to the sky through a large square opening in the ceiling, you become gradually aware of the almost imperceptible changes in color that Turrell’s lighting has created, the ceiling slowly morphing from beiges to blues to yellows to greens to reds, in turn altering your perception of the colors of the sky as the sun sets. When you finally leave the space, you may be surprised to find it’s dark outside.

Altered perception is just one of the wonderful side effects of Phillips’s 17 Border Crossings, a delightfully inventive, casually profound discourse on the globe we inhabit and occasionally roam. Phillips, an internationally acclaimed artist who’s based in Colombia and Philadelphia, noted during the artists’ conversation that Crossings began as his attempt to do a sparse, Spalding Gray-style man-at-a-desk-with-a-cup-of-coffee monologue, as opposed to his more elaborately populated past works. But, as he admitted during the talk, that attempt “failed.” He begins with desk, chair, and mug, but before long he’s on a train to Serbia, a chairlift in Austria, a ferry to Croatia, shipping KFC through a tunnel in Palestine and attempting a passage across the Mexican/U.S. border, to name just a few of the liminal locations he conjures up with sound, lighting, vivid storytelling, and multiple finely realized characters (in multiple languages).

At every stop along the way, each a passage from one country to another, small epiphanies abound, all accruing to Phillips’s central point: Boundaries are invented things. When he jumps off that Austrian chairlift (represented by an overturned table) into Germany, he looks around and realizes, “Germany looks just like Austria!” I say “he,” but in fact Phillips narrates all his journeys in the second person: This is happening to you. You stick your biometric passport in the microwave so you’ll be untrackable; you watch as a strange Serbian guy dumps suitcases out the window of a train; you are confronted by a series of equally incomprehensible authority figures who determine whether you’ll be able to cross the borders or not. And it’s you in that Brazilian shaman’s hut, floating above the world.

The timeline jumps about as capriciously as the itinerary, but the stories keep circling back in on one another, so that the Rwandan stowaway who falls to earth from a plane going 535 mph recalls a previous story of a flight over Africa in a plane going that same speed. And the final crossing, by a persistent Mexican trying to rejoin his family in the U.S. under the glare of Border Patrol headlights, recalls that hopeful, ill-fated Rwandan, risking everything to cross an arbitrary boundary.

Phillips performs 17 Border Crossings again today at 5. The journey takes just an hour, but it’ll continue on in your head for long after.

The doug elkins choreography, etc. program (Hapless Bizarre and Mo(or)town Redux, a reinterpretation of Othello crossed with Motown and Jose Limon's The Moor's Pavane) will be performed today at 2 p.m. in the Mertz Theatre. Eighth Blackbird's Hand Eye will also be performed today (choices, choices!) at 2 p.m. in the Historic Asolo Theater. For information on these and other Ringling International Arts Festival performances today and Sunday, go to ringling.org. The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art is located at 5401 Bay Shore Rd. in Sarasota.

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