A Star Is Born

By Kay Kipling August 1, 2009

asset_upload_file981_28299.jpgLovers of arts festivals may be accustomed to jetting to Charleston’s Spoleto in May, or crossing the pond to Edinburgh in August. Now cultural connoisseurs will have a new destination, as Sarasota joins the ranks of the world’s eclectic arts celebrations with the Ringling International Arts Festival, Oct. 7-11.


The inaugural festival, the result of a unique partnership between the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and New York’s prestigious Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC), promises a wealth of music, theater, dance, visual art and special events opportunities in those five days, centered at the Florida State University/Ringling Museum campus that's located in north Sarasota. More than 100 artists from around the world are expected, and many of the works seen will be a first-time experience for both Sarasotans and out-of-town audience members.


It’s a bold move in uncertain economic times, but Dwight Currie, curator of theater programming at Ringling, is encouraged by the response the festival is enjoying from beyond Sarasota-Manatee’s borders. Three months before the festival’s debut, he said, “Twenty-seven percent of our ticket sales to date have been from out of state and 60 percent from out of our region. That was our hope”—to draw attendees from far and wide, especially at a traditionally slow time for the local tourism season. (The festival has been marketed both online, including with a daily blog, and through more traditional advertising methods, including buying space in already established festival venues to reach fervent festival goers and working with tourism officials in Sarasota and Manatee to spread the word both here and abroad.)


Currie and others at the museum have been talking about a festival of this sort ever since the restoration of the Historic Asolo Theater back in 2006 and the expansion of the museum’s gallery space in 2007. Late that year, planning took a leap forward after contact was made with the BAC; staff members from the center (including dance legend Baryshnikov himself) came to visit the Ringling complex and were excited by what they saw.


Both BAC and the Ringling staff realized that the festival had to be “special,” not too close in nature to programming already in place in culturally rich Sarasota. “We needed to make choices of what could be presented that will inform what’s already here,” says Currie. “The BAC spent a lot of time here and looked at what had been produced in seasons past. They would call and say [about performers under consideration], ‘Is this right for Sarasota?’ and I’d say, ‘Let not talk about that. Let’s just put it together as a whole.’”


That doesn’t mean, according to Currie, that the festival will be too avant-garde for local tastes. “Certainly there are some new forms here,” he says. “For example with Deganit Shemy, you can ask is it dance, is it dance theater, and all that. But Shakespeare isn’t avant-garde, although director Peter Brook always does very forward-moving interpretations of Shakespeare. The Elevator Repair Service is doing a piece by Hemingway; that’s not new, but they always open eyes to things you think you already know. What has surprised me is that tickets are selling so evenly across the genres. I’m encouraged by the number of people familiar with Elevator Repair Service or with the contemporary dance companies.”


It’s hard to gauge exactly what will spell success for the fledgling festival, although Currie admits, “Ultimately, it’s a success if we decide to do it again.” (The event is planned as a biennial for now, with the second fest in 2011.) With three theaters containing a combined total of 900 seats, each offering performances at least three times daily, a phenomenal success would mean a sellout crowd of 15,000. And single ticket prices, ranging from just $10 to $30 for most performances (with a variety of subscription packages available, too) are being kept affordable; Currie says, in fact, that they’re “ridiculously low, about half what they’d be anywhere else.” (The festival is initially funded with a startup grant from the Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, with sponsorships and ticket sales contributing to the budget mix.)


Of course, Sarasota is no stranger to festivals (see our roundup of others already in place here, page 48). But this debut event is on a different scale and with a different mission than most, especially considering it bears the imprimatur of the BAC, which in its New York Hell’s Kitchen location serves as a creative lab, meeting place and information space for artists from around the world.

Currie admits that at one point he was worried about what the Ringling could do to make the festival unique and truly exciting. Then BAC’s executive director, Stanford Makishi, visited the Ringling campus, touring the entire grounds from the art museum to the mansion, Cà d’Zan, to the Rose Garden to the Ringlings’ railcar, the Wisconsin.


“He said, ‘Dwight, this setting is what you have that’s special,’” says Currie. “I know of no other festival where everything is so closely connected and convenient, with all the events within walking distance from each other—and even from the airport.” Currie and other organizers hope that festival visitors will take with them those images of Sarasota’s beauty, ease and artistic excellence when they return home—and make plans to visit again.


A look at the festival lineup

An opening night concert on Oct. 7 at the Mertz Theatre features the Florida State University Symphony Orchestra, led by acclaimed conductor Robert Spano. The orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G. Major, op. 58, and his Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, op. 67, as well as Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas, with soloist Pedja Muzijevic (praised by London’s Financial Times as a “musician with fiercely original ideas”) at the piano, at 8:30 p.m. The concert is preceded by cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and a bit of circus magic from the FSU Flying High Circus in the museum’s courtyard.

Internationally renowned musicians Anne-Marie McDermott (piano), Jennifer Frautschi (violin), Edward Arron (cello) and Eric Ruske (French horn) collaborate on two separate programs of chamber music, both at the Historic Asolo Theater. The first offers works by Debussy and Mendelssohn; the second a piano trio by Dvořák. Both programs present a new work by composer Mason Bates (commissioned by the RIAF), a world premiere horn trio.


Ready for a change of pace? Meow Meow: Beyond Glamour: The Absinthe Tour provides exactly that. Singing sensation and “post post-modern-showgirl” Meow Meow combines love songs, Weimar-era musings, cabaret ditties, French pop, punk and more in her performances; she's been called everything from “riveting” to “haunting” to “hilarious” by the press.



Deganit Shemy & Company perform another work commissioned by the RIAF (and developed in residence at the BAC), Arena, in which five women enact an intensely physical and disturbing game. Shemy was named “Young Choreographer of the Year” in 2004 in her native Israel; she founded her dance troupe in the United States in 2005. “A wonderful company” of “focused, committed super strong women,” says The Brooklyn Rail.


Ah, the flourish of flamenco. Compania Maria Pages presents virtuoso Pages’ latest work, Flamenco y Poesia, which translates the cadences of poetry by Jose Saramago and Federico Garcia de Lorca into the rhythms of dance. An ensemble of nine dancers and musicians brings the world of flamenco to vivid life.


Two works of dance, one a world premiere, unite in one innovative program. Aszure Barton, currently resident choreographer for Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, has choreographed new works for Baryshnikov, the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Broadway stage. Here, she creates a compelling new work, Busk, exploring the visual architecture of movement, color and sound. On the same bill: The Snow Falls in the Winter, a dance-theater piece based on Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson from OtherShore, a new company founded by Sonja Kostick and Brandi Norton that has also presented works at BAC.

Legend of the Dance

How the one and only Misha got involved with Sarasota’s new festival.

Mikhail Baryshnikov is a legend in the world of dance, and he continues to dazzle audiences around the globe with his artistry onstage. But he’s also very involved with the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which he founded almost four years ago, and which is partnering with the Ringling for its new arts festival. We spoke with him about his roles in the center and the festival.

    Q. How and why did you found the BAC?

    A. We have a lot of purposes. The foundation is designed to help young artists and help the New York arts scene. It’s a meeting point for young artists to work together with more experienced mentors. Right now we’re in the process of renovating a theater here—that’s the noise you hear in the background—to be the Jerome Robbins Theater and a home for [renowned New York theater company] The Wooster Group.

    Q. How did your involvement with the festival come about?

    A. I had been in Sarasota years ago, passing by. But more recently, through mutual friends I got to know some people there—[former State Senate President and Ringling board member] John McKay and people at Florida State University. They approached us to be a sort of advisory board for the festival. I came down a couple of times, saw that extraordinary Baroque theater and museum and the circus exhibits and all of that. It should be a wonderful opportunity to show this work to people and hopefully will be the beginning of something more permanent.

    Q. Is there worry because of the tough economy right now?

    A. No doubt it’s an ambitious project, and of course there’s always concern. But the numbers I’ve seen are promising. The publicity machine is not yet in full turn, so I hope it will pick up nicely and be a success, artistically and financially. It might be your modest answer to the festivals in Charleston or Edinburgh; it could become something really big. But it has to hit the right note.

    You know, the Lincoln Center Festival just started here in New York yesterday, and that is filling hundreds of theater seats, with many performances by international artistic groups. Of course New York has more tourists, but it’s been affected by the financial crisis, too. Even in difficult economic times, people do turn to the arts.

    Q. Maybe even especially then.

    A. Yes. I’m very pleased with the way the programs for this Ringling festival came out. We’ve worked with these artists; we’ve had a proud association with people like Peter Brook, for example. I think the festival could bring in a lot of generations—young people from the university and tourists, too. It’s a very promising lineup.

    Q. Will you be here during the festival?

    A. Oh, yes. Maybe I’ll introduce some of the artists, do whatever I’m needed to do.

    Q. And you’re still performing regularly?

    A. I just got back three days ago from a summer tour in Europe. I’ve been performing with the Spanish-born dancer Ana Laguna in Three Solos and a Duet, which features pieces by three different choreographers; we toured abroad for two and a half months. In September I go on the road again [in the United States] with that, and I’m also working on a new dance piece with Swedish choreographer Mats Ek. So I’m performing very regularly.


Eight, a new play by emerging talent Ella Hickson, won several awards at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.


It’s a collection of monologues, told in the voices of oddball characters that range from a single working mother to an Iraq war vet, that presents a moving portrait of Britain today.


Hickson has been called “a huge writing talent” by The Scotsman and “powerful” by The New York Times. Actors from the United Kingdom will be joined by students from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in the production.


The legendary director Peter Brook, who’s worked with everyone from John Gielgud to Paul Scofield to Lunt and Fontanne in his long career, gives us the U.S. premiere of Love is my sin, based on sonnets by William Shakespeare and starring longtime collaborators Bruce Myers and Natasha Perry. Famed for his ability to reduce theater to its barest, most essential form, Brook is always must-see viewing for dedicated theater aficionados.


Hemingway’s first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, chronicling the lives of several “Lost Generation” wanderers, is given a workshop premiere by New York-based collective Elevator Repair Service. (ERS has previously brought works by Hemingway contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner to the stage in Gatz and The Sound and the Fury.) The company is known for its approach of tapping a variety of sources and combining elements of slapstick, high- and low-tech design and a highly developed style of chorography in its productions, so expect anything but a conventional take on this Hemingway classic.


Visual Arts

Special exhibitions on view in the Ringling Museum during the festival include Venice in the Age of Canaletto, displaying important paintings, sculptures and artifacts assembled from around the world as the museum highlights the milieu of the Venetian Republic of the 18th century. Demonstrating its Asian connection, the museum also presents Paths to Paradise: The World of Buddhism, examining Buddhist deities throughout time from multiple Asian cultures. And Louise Fishman Among the Old Masters places the large-scale, intensely saturated abstract paintings of New York artist Fishman alongside museum masterworks in a dramatic juxtaposition that should startle viewers into seeing them in a whole new light.


In addition, there are special guided tours of the museum, curatorial presentations, a forum on 21st-century artistic achievement, a festival brunch, several free dance and theater performances in the Festival Café and an Asian Cultural FunFest for kids during the festival’s duration. For a complete schedule with ticket information, visit or call 360-7399 or (800) 660-4278.


The Art of The Festival

Mark your calendar for these Sarasota cultural celebrations.

The first-time Ringling International Arts Festival joins Sarasota’s already impressive roster of festivals dedicated to the arts in one way or another. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the year ahead.

Sarasota Blues Festival. Thousands of music fans gather for their blues fix each fall at Ed Smith Stadium; this year’s daylong event, set for Oct. 24, features the sounds of Duke Robillard, Larry McCray, Bruce Katz and special guest Floyd Miles, the “Mojo” Myles Band and headliners Little Feat. For more info go to


Cine-World Film Festival. This weeklong celebration of films from around the world turns downtown’s Burns Court Cinema into the place for cinephiles, each scrambling to get their tickets and their lattes in hand before screening time. Dates this year are Nov. 6-12; go to for the latest.


Sarasota Jazz Festival. Each year the Jazz Club of Sarasota produces a lineup of jazz musicians both established and new, in a variety of venues around town. The 2010 names have not been announced yet, but the dates are Feb. 28 through March 6; visit for updates.


La Musica International Chamber Music Festival. Chamber musicians from around the world assemble each spring to present both concerts (at the Sarasota Opera House) and open rehearsals (at New College’s Sainer Pavilion) to please classical aficionados. The festival runs April 7-21; for program and ticket info, go to


Sarasota Music Festival. Can’t get enough chamber music? Stick around for the summer celebration that is the Sarasota Music Festival, taking place for three weeks each June. Some of the world’s top music students and faculty unite to perform; check it out at

Sarasota Film Festival. Movies, parties, stars, special talks and programs—they’re all part of the 12th annual fest, which takes place April 9-18 with screenings at the Hollywood 20 downtown. For the latest on who will step onto the red carpet this year, let your fingers do the walking to


Florida Winefest & Auction. There are those who would claim that the pairing of great food and great wine is an art form, and who are we to argue? Especially when the Florida Winefest benefits so many deserving children’s charities via its approximately 30 events, sprinkled throughout the weekend of April 22-25, with the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, among its venues. For more information go to ❚

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