The 2016 edition of the Ringling International Arts Festival kicked off last night, Thursday, Oct. 13, with performances by three of the artistic groups in town this season. As always, guests could take their pick of the three shows; I started off the festival with the Doug Elkins Choreography, etc. company’s staging of Hapless Bizarre and Mo(or)Town Redux.
The two pieces could hardly be more different in tone, although both demonstrate the strength and athleticism of the dancers. Hapless Bizarre (conceived by Elkins with Barbara Karger and Michael Preston) opens with actor-comedian Mark Gindick (he's the Hapless of the title, it seems) in a familiar bit with a black bowler hat he keeps trying to pick up as it moves away from him on the floor. Soon a number of scenes bring in the other dancers, among them Deborah Lohse, taller than the bespectacled Gindick and seeming to dominate him. Clad in bright and busy (mostly paisley) costumes by Oana Botez, the rest of the company alternately welcomes Gindick into their circle and rejects him.
Each dance is heralded by a taped PSA etiquette message that you could have heard back in old high school days, about the social situations you might find yourself in (a summer formal, for example) and how to handle them—or not. Music overseen by Justin Levine and Matt Stone provides a suitable light, carefree background, and there are moments of just plain feel-good lift. I’m not sure it all adds up to very much, but it’s entertaining.
Mo(or)town Redux, on the other hand, is a very involving 30-minute piece built on Shakespeare’s Othello, choreographer Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane, and a score blending both familiar hits from the peak of the Motown years and more recent music inspired by them. Stripped down to its essence, this Elkins work introduces us to the lovers Othello (Kyle Marshall) and Desdemona (Donnell Oakley, clad, of course, in virginal white), so happy with each other and bound together in their feelings by a significant handkerchief. That piece of cloth becomes, naturally, a tool for the villainous Iago (Alexander Dones), who hates Othello despite a seeming bonhomie with him and the wives as they dance up a storm in what feels like a party we’d like to join. (Cori Marquis plays the unhappy Emilia, torn between wanting to please Iago and her loyalty to Desdemona).
Sometimes the Motown songs are almost uncannily appropriate to the action, as when Othello receives that handkerchief from Iago, making him believe he’s been betrayed by his love (“I Heard It through the Grapevine,” in a solo version by Marvin Gaye). But every number reverberates with the characters’ emotions here, all of the dancers strong not only physically in the often sexy moves, but in conveying the heartbreak of the story. Dones delivers all of Iago’s dark force, and the final pas de deux between Othello and Desdemona—a tense scene of assault and agony—is almost too much to watch. It’s a powerful piece.
You can see these works again in performance tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m. or Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Mertz Theatre. And of course other performances await this weekend as well. For more info on RIAF, go to ringling.org.