When it debuted in 2009, the Ringling International Arts Festival was announced as a biennial event. But the collaboration between Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art and Manhattan’s Baryshnikov Arts Center proved so popular that the gathering has become an annual one, a getaway for arts lovers on the bayside grounds and in the stately spaces that are circus magnate John Ringling’s cultural legacy to Florida.
Curated by dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov’s namesake center, the festival showcases artists from the worlds of dance, theater, music and visual arts, top-tier contemporary talents from all parts of the globe. This year’s festival, which runs Oct. 10-13, is as distinct as each of its predecessors, a bit smaller in scale and budget but with plenty of artistic variety.
The critically acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group, the festival’s marquee draw, will perform four pieces — Grand Duo, Canonic ¾ Studies, Silhouettes and the new A Wooden Tree — in the largest venue, the 500-seat Mertz Theatre. Indian Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa and the powerful vocal folk group Ensemble Basiani from the Republic of Georgia perform in the Historic Asolo Theater, a grand 1798 Italian theater reassembled inside the visitor’s pavilion at the Ringling estate. Philadelphia’s Obie Award-winning Pig Iron Theatre Company is collaborating with Japanese director Toshiki Okada on Minister of Mascots, a new play that will get four performances in the intimate Cook Theatre.
Two pianists, Adam Tendler and Phyllis Chen, will perform at James Turrell’s Joseph’s Coat, the work of art that is the museum’s first-in-Florida Skyspace. Arts-themed movies about dancers Carmen de Lavellade and Geoffrey Holder, Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a dance film titled Labyrinth Within are a new element of the festival. And New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band will perform at the closing-night party.
Dwight Currie, associate director of the Ringling Museum and director of the festival, acknowledges that the festival’s budget has contracted a bit in the move from public to private funding — this one will run about $750,000 vs. the $1 million for each of the first three festivals — but he believes that festival goers and those who work on the four-day gathering will get a richer experience.
“There are two ways to measure size. I think we’re deeper, if maybe not as wide,” Currie says. “This is a new area of ‘collecting’ for us. We don’t get to keep these artists. But we’ve amassed a collection of experiences, of deep engagements with the artists, for us and our audiences. It’s a new way of exhibiting, curating and presenting visual and audible art.”
The two pieces of dance “art” at this year’s festival could scarcely be more different, except that each is making a Ringling Festival debut.
Shivalingappa will perform Shiva Ganga, a storytelling dance in the tradition of Kuchipudi, which dates back to the third century B.C. in India. The artist has performed with Pina Bausch’s company and in Shakespearean productions directed by the great Peter Brook, and this summer has been performing in a production of Peer Gynt at Austria’s Salzburg Festival. Performing with four musicians in Shiva Ganga, Shivalingappa conveys not just a story of gods and goddesses but also showcases different aspects of Indian dance.
“Kuchipudi comes from a strong dance and theater tradition. The masculine, strong movements are percussive; the feminine ones are soft and undulating,” Shivalingappa says from Austria. “The life of an artist is wonderful. I love dancing, and I get to do that in so many different ways, working with so many artists. Kuchipudi is so intense, but doing other things allows me to come back to Kuchipudi with as much passion as always.”
Morris’ friend and White Oak Dance Project co-founder Baryshnikov has been a presence (and in 2010, a performer) throughout the short history of the Ringling festival. The October gathering will be Morris’ first time in Sarasota, and the appearance will be just a week after the new piece A Wooden Tree has its world premiere in his hometown, Seattle. Morris rarely dances any more, but his wide-ranging talents have led him to choreograph for his own company, for ballet companies and for various opera companies, and he has also done some conducting for his company’s performances. He likes it all, though he remains exacting and outspoken.
“I love ballet, but the ballet world is extremely conservative politically, socially and sexually. It’s very, very old fashioned. As far as men and women go, the dancers are perpetually infantilized,” he says.
The juxtaposition of contemporary and traditional art forms, the unique setting at the Ringling and its expansive grounds, the chance to see artists perform and then encounter them in casual settings — all of that, says Currie, enriches a trip to the festival.
“This is like the collectors’ collection. This performances and performers are so very different, and not so easily found in one place,” he says. “It’s so worth the drive.”