Ringling International Arts Festival, Sarasota

reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody blog (http://infinitebody.blogspot.com)

My wife and I recently took a short trip to Sarasota, Florida, where we lodged in a quiet Lido Key bungalow. We enjoyed mornings walking and birding in Myakka River State Park and on a nature trail near South Lido Beach–where we discovered mangrove trees and a pileated woodpecker. We made a side trip to St. Petersburg’s fascinating Salvador Dalí Museum and caught up with a New Yorker friend who’d relocated to Gulfport. But our primary reason for visiting the region was the brand new Ringling International Arts Festival, a joint venture of New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, a Sarasota institution governed, since 2000, by Florida State University.

We sampled a small but impressive selection of the festival’s offerings, which ranged from orchestral and chamber music to avant-garde cabaret, from flamenco to contemporary dance and experimental theater. All in all, the five-day fest might not be The Greatest Show on Earth, but if the partners can sustain and build upon this initial level of diversity, accessibility and freshness, John Ringling‘s town will have another tradition to point to with pride.

Some highlights

The surprise fireworks show at opening night’s pre-concert festivities had nothing on conductor Robert Spano‘s bang and dazzle as he later led the FSU Symphony Orchestra in works by Beethoven and Steve Reich. In the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, the orchestra flowed in joy and intensity; the fragrant music fairly danced under and around the agile, vivacious playing of pianist Pedja Muzijevic. With Baryshnikov looking on from the balcony, the festival got off to a joyous start.

The next afternoon, we attended our first dance show, Compañia María Pagés. Pages possesses a ship’s-prow body, a mature sturdiness to match her assertive, lusty self-presentation in Flamenco y Poesía–her suite of dances inspired by works by José Saramago and Federico García Lorca. We have come to expect flamenco, when genuinely rich in duende, to take us on a fiery, often wrenching inner journey of the soul. With Pagés, instead, we stormed the path of womanly righteousness.

“I want to dance the words, only the words,” Pagés wrote about this U.S. premiere for the program booklet. But the notes provided no translations, or even identification, of the selected poems. This created the curious effect of keeping us pretty much focused on the diva herself. Yes, her handsome quartet of young male dancers executed Riverdance-style synchronized routines–wicked-sharp ones, if ultimately unaffecting. And, yes, the heartfelt singers Ana Ramón and Ismael de La Rosa and the sublime guitar work of José Carrillo “Fyty” and Isaac Muñoz contributed lavishly to the beauty and “all in” feeling of Pagés’s presentation. But the inescapable fact is that María! María!–to echo one of de la Rosa’s wild cries–ruled the stage.

Like Duncan, like Graham, Pagés evokes and invokes the raw, primal elements. They exist in her large, harsh, masculine face with its stark, jutting jaw; in her arms–not muscular but strongly deployed, all angular sculpture framing and whipping about her head and long, thickish but python-like torso; in her powerful winding, churning, twisting and folding upon herself. Large and in charge, she does not so much flirt with her men as rally them to her martial cause. For the most part, she saves her seductive strategies–and she does have these, and in surprising, radiant, killer abundance–for her captive audience.

With supreme confidence, Pagés can also set aside strict flamenco stylings and don a little black dress and a pair of castanets to interject a bit of comedy, challenging two of the men to match her intricate percussive volleys with similar rapping of their walking sticks. This comedic interlude works in no small part because the Queen remains Queen throughout and, by that point, the conquered audience has pledged allegiance.

I’ll have a full review of Aszure & Artist‘s Busk in an upcoming Dance Magazine. For now, I’ll simply say that I continue to be charmed by Montreal’s Aszure Barton. Busk–which shared a program with Annie-B Parson‘s The Snow Falls in the Winter, performed by the luminous OtherShore ensemble–just might be Barton’s most sophisticated effort yet, a triumph for her terrific dancers and for the festival.

If a polite reception and overheard remarks offer a reliable gauge, ArenaDeganit Shemy‘s physically-gutsy meditation on toxicity and violence, premiered in April at Dance Theater Workshop–appears to have left Sarasotans a bit confused. Or maybe disturbed and dissociated in a self-protective way. But I hope it kept them thinking about it.

The current version does cry out for serious trimming; repetitiveness can give the impression of choreography going nowhere fast, no matter how striking or how valiantly performed. But the performers–all women and dressed and deployed to suggest athletes in the heat of competition–are, indeed, valiant and gripping. I’m familiar with a few earlier versions of Arena, and yet, as if I were encountering the work for the first time, the Sarasota performance gave me a nightmare. Literally. A very bad one. No lie.

We spent our last festival afternoon at a workshop premiere of Elevator Repair Service‘s romp through Hemingway–The Sun Also Rises (First Part)– directed by ERS co-founder John Collins. Great fun. Check it out when it makes its formal premiere in late 2010 at the New York Theater Workshop.

Eva Yaa Asantewaa (c)2009

Coming up:

Sideshow: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, a review of visual arts at the Ringling International Arts Festival by artist and psychotherapist Deborah Feller on Infinate Body: http://infinitebody.blogspot.com/2009/10/sideshow-john-and-mable-ringling-museum.html