RIAF opening night “inspires” audience for start of Sarasota’s cultural season

Ready, set, go! Season in Sarasota has officially begun, as Stephen High, Director of the Ringling Museum of Art, announced last night at the opening event for the Ringling International Arts Festival (known simply as RIAF, pronounced “ree-off”). RIAF has found footing as an important book-end to a world-class season of events in our great city. Once a fledgling festival, RIAF is now in its fourth year and seems to be a graduating senior (can you tell I teach undergraduates?), ready to launch as a signature festival that people from all over the world will clamor to attend, like Spoleto or the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It is a well-managed and contained festival that an intrepid visitor to Sarasota can attend and feasibly “do” in a few days.

We began our evening at RIAF Inspires with cocktails and Aston Martins in front of the Mertz Theater, which proudly announced the Asolo Rep season, titled “The American Character,” and the Sarasota Ballet season, which includes a night with Paul Taylor (ooh, la-la, I’m a fan!). From there, we were quickly ushered into the theater to see the Mark Morris Dance Group perform. This experience has been very high on my to-do list, mostly because of Mark Morris’ deep connection with Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is hands-down my favorite dancer. Sarasota is only the second city, after Morris’s hometown of Seattle, to see Baryshnikov perform with the company in their latest work.  

This was my third opportunity to watch Baryshikov dance. The first time, Baryshnikov was approximately the age I am now, and his performance was still at a level that took my breath away. He danced in Twyla Tharp’s Cutting Up, which she created in residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts; I saw it on opening night and later in the run. My second chance was during his command performance at RIAF two years ago when he announced his retirement. In that performance, he challenged his younger self (who seemed to mock him on screen with endless pirouettes) and proved that he was still the consummate performer. While he may not be able to physically dance the way he once did, his spirit and inherent charisma have ripened his connection with the audience. It was announced about  a week ago that Baryshnikov would join the cast of Mark Morris’s The Wooden Tree — like Brett Favre, it seems he may choose to “retire” several more times before he officially takes a permanent seat in the audience.

We had excellent seats in the center mezzanine, but when I looked up and saw them, a bout of vertigo kicked in. My husband saw my blanched face and suggested we move to the box, which we did. With relief, I settled in for the performance, but I couldn’t help but wonder why my rational mind can be well aware that nothing will happen to me when I sit in the mezzanine, while my physical body has a very different, quite irrational reaction. As the dancers began, I realized their first piece, Canonic 3/4 Studies, seemed to be about just that: How do we retain our balance in a world that wants to tell us otherwise? In a very funny moment, a young male dancer became a bit out-of-sorts when two female dancers swiftly pivoted around him, expecting him to assist them in their rotations. At other times, these extremely skilled dancers played with shifting their balance, stopping just short of falling. The whimsical piece reminded me that the part of my mind giving me the physical reaction of butterflies in the mezzanine is also the aspect of me that gives me creativity and helps me appreciate the miracle of modern dance.

The dancers took a light-hearted approach and a cheeky sensibility to their performance that drew in their audience. During A Wooden Tree, the music served to provide comedic undertones, but the piece culminated with Baryshnikov and a female dancer sharing a meal. As the words, “We have a beautiful cosmos, you and me,” echoed in the background, their connection was instantly transformed. It was quite moving to see the couple sharing a silent intimacy with one another.

In Silhouettes, two male dancers, Aaron Loux and Dallas McMurray, performed a graceful and sensual pas de deux, each wearing the top and bottom halves of the same pair of pajamas. And for the final piece, Grand Duo — my favorite of the evening — the company brought the house down with animalistic, rhythmic motions that had me dazed and confused in the best possible sense. When it ended, I was transfixed in another world.

For more pure delight, the RIAF Inspires evening included dinner in the galleries. We were fortunate to be seated at the “wonder” table in the modern gallery, and had the rare treat to dine while gazing upon priceless works of art. We made some new friends and got the festival off to an elegant beginning. There’s much more to come in RIAF, so please check back later in the week for more performance talks.

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