Arts & Culture

Sarasota's RIAF drew much bigger crowds in 2014

The sixth annual Ringling International Arts Festival produced some impressive art. It also produced some astounding numbers.

In just one year, attendance at the four-day festival nearly doubled -- there were 6,804 ticket holders this year, as opposed to 3,493 in 2013. And box office revenues were about 2 1/2 times higher this year.

"I'm much more interested in the number of people than in the dollars," said Dwight Currie, the curator of performance for the Ringling.

What, exactly, those numbers say about the festival and its offerings is difficult to pinpoint, though.

"I don't really know what to say about that," Currie said. "There are all sorts of thing that go into putting together this festival. We worked really hard to put together something that people would find appealing."

The 2014 edition of RIAF, which ended Oct. 18, was the first that the Ringling had produced alone, without partnering with the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

In 2013, the RIAF curated by the Baryshnikov Arts Center had offered some very dense and intellectually challenging works of performing art. There was avant-grade dance, Belarusian political theater, Shakespeare performed in a different language. There was not one word of English spoken in any performance throughout the festival.

Currie wanted the performances this year to be more engaging, without sacrificing artistic integrity and emotional complexity.

He accomplished that with such shows as "Tangram," a performance piece by Stefan Sing and Cristiana Casadio that combined dance and juggling into a beautiful and fun wordless narrative, and "Intergalactic Nemesis," which merged radio theater and comic book art.

Both were hits with audiences. The numbers would suggest that such shows drew in lots of new people without alienating the ones who liked the more esoteric offerings of previous years.

But it's not just as simple as offering shows that might have a broader appeal. Currie attributes a lot of the success of this year's festival to the geography and scheduling.

RIAF officials took better advantage this year of their several

neighboring theaters, including the Historic Asolo Theatre and the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, and concentrated the schedule so visitors could treat the festival like a buffet. They might start with something they knew they'd like, but then decide to sample something else, even if they weren't too sure what it was.

"We'd have shows at 2, 5, and 8 o'clock, and I think each show energized people so that when they left the theater they'd be ready to try something else," Currie said. "There was a feeling that every show was a part of a larger whole."

That helped build a buzz about all the shows. As you walked around the Ringling grounds, you'd hear strangers asking each other about what they'd seen and what they recommended. Currie points to Duo Amal, which consists of an Israeli and a Palestinian pianist, and "Intergalactic Nemesis" as shows that built audiences through word-of-mouth during the four days of the festival.

The momentum from RIAF could help feed other performances at the Ringling. The Ringling's New Stages series for 2014-15 kicks off this week with a performance by Camablache. The east Los Angeles group performs music that combines the heritage of Spanish, African and indigenous cultures of Latin America, and their performance is scheduled to coincide with the Ringling Museum of Art's exhibit "Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898." Concert tickets are $20, $25 and $30.

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 and 8 in the Historic Asolo Theater. You can get more information at ringling.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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