It’s called the Ringling International Arts Festival. For the first time in the festival’s history, seven shows in this year’s event include two local performing arts groups.
For Dwight Currie, the curator of performance for the Ringling and the main man behind the the festival, that doesn’t have much significance.
“It’s the content that I was focusing on first,” he said. “I think the art is, of course, international. It’s coming to us from Iran. It’s coming to us from Belgium.”
And even the work from the local groups is truly international. RIAF is partnering with Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre to present “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” a recent work by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. He’s not allowed to leave Iran because he refused to serve in the military. His play has become an international sensation.
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“He’s a playwright who cannot leave Iran,” Currie said. “Yet his play has taken on a life of its own around the world.”
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” is an one-person show, and one of the aspects that makes its distinctive is that Soleimanpour specifies that it should be performed without rehearsal or direction. Each actor performs it only once. He receives the script just before he walks on stage and reads it for the first time as he performs it.
Another Sarasota group, ensemblenewSRQ, will perform the music of John Luther Adams in the James Turrell Skyspace, and Luciano Berio’s “Sequenzas” in the Huntington Gallery.
The “Sequenzas” are notoriously challenging pieces to play. The fact that Sarasota has musicians willing and able to take them on, and has professional actors willing to put themselves on the line to perform Soleimanpour’s work, says a lot about Sarasota, Currie said. Not a lot of American cities of similar size would be able to cull that kind of talent from its ranks.
There’s still plenty of art without a local connection, though. Volker Gerling is a German photographer who walked thousands of miles across his country shooting portraits of people he met along the way. He took multiple photographs of each of them over the course of a few seconds, and put them together into flipbooks. In a piece called “Portraits in Motion,” he presents a selection of his favorites, flipping through each one under a video camera so that its moving images are projected onto a large screen while he narrates the stories behind them. “Portraits in Motion” received the Total Theatre Award for Innovation at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was called, “uniquely heart-warming” by The New York Times.
“There’s something so generous about his performance,” Currie said. “It’s so beautiful and perfect, but it’s hard to describe if you haven’t seen it. It’s just a beautiful little piece of theater.”
There’s something so generous about his performance. It’s so beautiful and perfect, but it’s hard to describe if you haven’t seen it.
Dwight Currie, on Volker Gerling’s “Portraits in Motion”
Gerling’s performance is perhaps the most intimate of this year’s festival. At the other end of the intimacy spectrum, Currie said, is eVenti Verticale. The Italian performance group brings together theater, circus, graphic art, acrobatics, dance, music, visual comedy and new technologies and performs on a vertical stage.
“They’ve performed on cliff faces and on the sides of buildings,” Currie said. “Here they’re performing it on a video wall.”
In their piece, “Wanted,” two men are on the run. Suspended in front of a massive video projection, they take the audience on an adventurous trip that teeters between the fictions of animation and the pseudo-reality of computer graphics. It’s sort of like a video game scaled to life-sized dimensions.
One of the most respected contemporary dance companies in America, Monica Bill Barnes & Co. turn an area of the Circus Museum into an awkward office party, and the audience are the guests. The audience can mill around for a while, order a cocktail and maybe have some snacks, and then Barnes and Anna Bass enter, portraying two guys who make the awkward social situation much more awkward. The audience helps shape each performance.
“Every performance is different because the audience plays such an important role,” Currie said.
(It’s more audience involvement than audience participation, though, he said. People aren’t going to be pulled up on stage or asked to perform.)
It’s a festival, so come in a festival mood.
A group called Nobuntu is making its U.S. debut at RIAF, with an innovative musical program that includes traditional Zimbabwean songs, Afro Jazz and gospel all performed with voices, augmented by minimalistic percussion, traditional instruments and authentic dance.
There’s a third performance with a local connection. James McGinn is a Sarasota native, though he’s now based in Belgium. He’ll perform “Ing an Die,” the product of a decade of research into Richard Wagner’s theory of a total or universal work of art. It’s a piece that’s operatic in both scope and scale, and combines several choreographic languages with symbolic imagery to create a shape-shifting love story set amidst a post-apocalyptic landscape.
The pieces are scheduled so people can attend several performances each day, with the idea that they may check out shows that aren’t necessarily up their usual artistic alley and discover new kinds of work. Each piece is performed several times, with 24 performances in all.
They range in scale from delicate intimacy to open and expansive, and in tone from contemplative to exuberant. But RIAF is foremost a celebration of the world’s performing arts, and it should be approached that way.
“It’s a festival,” Currie said, “so come in a festival mood.”
Details: Oct. 18-21, The Ringling, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Opening night gala 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18; performances on other days at 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Most shows $35 general, $10 students with ID. 941-359-5700, ringling.org.