For the fourth year, the John and Mable Ringling Museum, governed by Florida State University, and the Barishnikov Arts Center of New York partnered to bring to the Sarasota campus -- including all its theaters -- offerings in dance, theater, music and film from Oct. 10 -13, 2012. If there were fewer performers in this year’s program, which had to sustain itself independent of previous state and local government contributions, all the arts were still represented. Although the contemporary and nontraditional mixed, all presentations might be called unusual in some way, usually in mode.

Of the presentations I did not see, Phyllis Chen with “Playing with Toys -- Music for Toy Piano” was an early sell-out and the “Prepared Piano” of John Cage Sonatas and Interludes by Adam Tendler followed closely. The first uses an unusual medium; the second, an early departure from Cage’s later, more unusual composition. But the really stunning aspect of the piano performances was James Turrell’s “Skyspace.” A permanent Ringling Museum installation, it permitted a visual experience to enhance perception of the auditory ones.

The Mark Morris Dance Group proved a major attraction. After Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has not danced in RIAF since its opening program, announced he would be joining the MMDG Dance Group, attendance skyrocketed. The MMDG Music Ensemble, who perform integrally with the dancers, was represented by Coin Fowler, pianist, and Aaron Boyd, violinist. The group’s four dances prominently featured piano music by modern composers. “A Wooden Tree,” premiered October 4 in Seattle prior to the RIAF and featured lyrics as well as music.

Ensemble Basiani, a Georgian cathedral choir, sang table, work, and ritual songs. A dozen singers from all regions of Georgia performed the traditional polyphonic folk music. The ritual “Chona” is part of the eastern Georgia celebration of Easter.

Of three films shown, I saw the most theater-related. “Carmen and Geoffrey” documented separately and (mostly) together the lives and careers of dancer Carmen De Lavallade and dancer-choreographer-painter-designer-director Geoffrey Holder. No history of the evolution of modern dance and the place of black performers and choreographers in it would be complete, the film shows, without what Carmen and Geoffrey contributed, especially in the 1950s into the 1970s.

It’s a treat to see film of her early dancing with Alvin Ailey and of Geoffrey’s work with The Wiz or his yearly visits to Paris, always a source from which his creative juices flow. Filmmakers Linda Stkinson and Nick Doob, themselves married, use every visual resource granted them to present a full picture of a couple devoted to their art and each other.

Pig Iron Theater Company’s Zero Cost House was the sole actual theater production...result of a partly collective creation with the playwright Toshiki Okada, who also directs. But the RIAF production is mainly directed -- to use the term loosely -- by Dan Rothenberg. It’s mostly a narration of Okada’s life at the time of the Japanese tsunami seemingly (and possibly, partly actually) being made into a play on the spot. Actors portray Okada and a woman playwright (who may or may not at one time be his alter-ego) learning from Thoreau’s “Walden” about how to live without needless things.

There are two bunnies, also portrayed alternately by actors, who hop about comically but seem more at home before a pile of ashes (which look a bit like coal) holding symbolic toys. They also walk on and off stage and play ukeleles. Thoreau himself joins the goings-on, which never really go very fast and seldom seem scripted, much less purposeful.

A degreed architect, Sagaguchi, who does not build anything and operates on the basis of his sense of smell, enters Okada’s life meaningfully (though that may be an oxymoron) after Okada has had to go “On the Road” from a devastated Tokyo to a rural city. (Shades of Kerouac joining Thoreau!) With his advice on how to live on nothing, he’s eminently suitable to be...what? A con man? Revolutionary? Politician? One who puts ideas into practice when, as Bob Dylan sings, “The times they are a-changing.” And, of course, so are the people in this part-collective production, as well as the animals and the plot.

Zero Cost House took an hour and 56 minutes to score almost zero. It is said that an actor’s accident caused the cancellation of the performance after the one I saw. Uh-huh.

The best drama (subtitled “Shiva Ganga”) occurred in the dances of “Shantala Shivalingappa” who was accompanied by four fantastic musicians: J. Rameh, K.S. Jayaram, N. Ramakrishnan and B.P. Haribabu. They themselves did a remarkable demonstration of their rhythmic system of Tala using their voices as much for instruments as their drums and flute. The spectacular end to this segment of the program was their being joined by Shivalingappa who danced upstage and downstage on the edge of a brass plate.

Hindu myths largely informed by the Lord of the Dance and the Goddess of the Sacred River energized the final, three-part dance drama, each cosmic and colorful with Shivalingappa employing an endless vocabulary of movement and facial expression. But even in the preceding dances, variety marked her costumes and movements executed with incredible strength. Lighting and costumes deserve special mention. In any case, the best of the Festival was saved for last, as described here.

The only lecture in RIAF 2012 previewed the Ringling’s upcoming entrances into the “Art of Our Time” series each year. It made one eager to see the exhibits, heavy on photography, as well as theater pieces like the newest by Bill Bowers.

RIAF concluded with an enormous New Orleans-style party in the museum courtyard. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band had a crowd dancing and clapping and generally enjoying their energy and music. Themed food and a variety of drinks came in second in audience appreciation of this festival ending.

Key Subjects: 
Museum of Fine Art, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Pig Iron Theater Company, Shantala Shivalingappa, Carmen deLavallade, Geoffrey Holder, Art of Our Time, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Marie J. Kilker
Writer Bio: 
Retired as a career academic (Ph.D.), Marie J. Kilker continues to be a part-time free lance writer, editor, columnist (for, and speaker, with regular reviewing of theater and developing of proposals and projects.
October 2012