The Ringling International Arts Festival dances on the cutting edge

click to enlarge HY SO BLUE? Meow Meow is one of the festival's edgier draws. - Meow Meow Karl Giant
Meow Meow Karl Giant
HY SO BLUE? Meow Meow is one of the festival's edgier draws.

Sarasota's arts scene has been damn exciting of late, from international DJ events to Ringling College of Art and Design alums starting artistic co-ops to promote less traditional works. Ringling Museum, however, has always been the area's artistic grande dame, its formidable collection and parade of international traveling exhibits a dependable lure for visitors and locals alike — a serious, if not exactly cutting-edge, institution.

But this week the venerable museum is blurring the lines a bit with the Ringling International Arts Festival, presented in conjunction with the Baryshnikov Arts Center of New York. Ringling's the host, while the Baryshnikov is curating the talent, largely using artists presented by or given residencies at the center. The five-day festival will feature a marathon of dance, theater and musical performances, the artists ranging from the FSU Symphony Orchestra to "post-modern cabaret diva" Meow Meow. Those two should probably get together and jam.

The festival — likened to the 30-year-old Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. — was the brainchild of Ringling board member John McKay. "He's talked to me about this idea for probably four years," says Dwight Currie, Ringling's associate director for museum programs and the man behind the scenes for the festival. One of McKay's acquaintances is friends with Mikhail Baryshnikov, so once the museum finished a round of construction projects two years ago, they brought in the acclaimed dancer and his staff for a confab.

With a plan in place and Baryshnikov's name attached, Ringling was able to secure a grant from the Florida Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development to fund the festival. According to Currie, it's seed money. "Starting a new product or company takes more money than continuing it," he says, when I ask him about the festival's future prospects in an age of drastically tightened purse strings at the museum and its parent, FSU. The museum plans to repeat the festival in 2011, using fundraising and revenue generated during this year's events.

Besides the big-name acts brought in by the Baryshnikov Arts Center, there will also be a series of subsidiary events presented on the stage in the festival's giant food and drink tent. "We're a part of FSU, and one of the goals was to give the university students a venue to perform," says Currie. Students of the dance, theater and music programs will put on shows in the festival café three times a day. "We wanted a fringe component to the festival," explains Currie, "but we wanted it to grow organically." He expects that side of the event to expand in 2011.

Ticket sales are brisk, thanks in part to accessible pricing that ranges from $10 to $30 per show. However, Currie also mentioned that one of his more avant-garde moves for the festival — at least as far as Sarasota is concerned — hasn't garnered as much support as he'd like: "Late night" shows scheduled for 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, featuring Meow Meow and the critically acclaimed Eight. "It's always a problem, trying to engage Sarasota's younger crowd," he says. "Of course, they'll probably wait until the day of the show to buy tickets.

The Ringling International Arts Festival takes place Wed. Oct. 7-Sun. Oct. 11 at the Ringling Museum of Art/Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Call 941-360-7399 or go to ringlingartsfestival.org for tickets.

PERFORMANCES

Meow Meow

Billed as "kamikaze cabaret kitsch and performance art exotica," Meow Meow has become a force to be reckoned with in the recent cabaret resurgence across the globe. Her act is an intense display of drama, performance art and soulful singing that both glorifies and deconstructs the genre, like Pussycat Dolls filtered through Bertolt Brecht. She's a must-see. Mertz Theatre, Thurs., 5:30 p.m.; Fri., 10:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.

Eight

Fresh from Edinburgh University, Ella Hickson debuted Eight — her first play — at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008, winning awards and accolades for this insightful series of monologues. Covering a wide range of characters in a variety of emotional states, it's the kind of piece that causes critics to bandy about words like "truthful" or "honest." Better yet, Hickson is using a few local FSU student actors in the Sarasota presentation. Historic Asolo Theater, Thurs., 5:30 p.m.; Fri., 10:30 p.m.; Sat., 10:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.

Elevator Repair Service, The Sun Also Rises

It's theater, but likely not as you know it. Elevator Repair Service creates its innovative performances through an extended bout of collaboration, like improv comedy given theme and structure. The result — seen in this new adaptation of the Hemingway novel — is energetic, moving and impressive. Cook Theatre, Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri., 5:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.

Peter Brook/C.I.T.C., Love Is My Sin

A rare chance to see the work of one of the world's most revered directors, whose seminal 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream drew this review from the New York Times' Clive Barnes: "This is without any equivocation whatsoever the greatest production of Shakespeare I have ever seen in my life." Known for his ability to pare down complex texts to their dramatic essence, Brook explores some of the most alluringly complex texts ever written in Love Is My Sin: Shakespeare's sonnets. Veteran British actors Bruce Myers and Natasha Parry (Mrs. Peter Brook) star. Historic Asolo Theater, Thurs., 2 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.

Azsure Barton & Artists, Busk

Judging from her video documentation (and her glowing reviews), this Canadian choregrapher makes dances that are sexy, funny and savvy, both about the conventions of social dance and the dance of social convention. Busk is a world premiere co-commissioned by the festival, the Banff Centre and Danceworks. Mertz Theater, Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sat., 5:30 p.m.

Robert Spano/Pedja Musijevic/FSU Symphony Orchestra

Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony, conducts FSU's orchestra in a festival opening-night program featuring two towering Beethovens — the 5th Symphony and the Piano Concerto #4 in G Major — and Steve Reich's mesmerizing Nagoya Marimbas. Pianist Pedja Musijevic is director of music programming at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Mertz Theater, Wed., Oct. 7, 8:30 p.m.

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