As my husband and I watched the fireworks exploding overhead in the museum courtyard during the Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF) closing night, I thought about the festival’s impact on our community. Several years ago, Sarasota Ballet Director Iain Webb told me of the move to create a major arts festival for Sarasota when I interviewed him for Attitudes magazine, and I was so excited! I had recently moved to Sarasota from New York City, willing to uproot because of the wide variety of local artistic offerings. But at the time I felt that a cutting-edge international arts festival would really spice things up on the local scene. There is something quite powerful about having an interjection of international performers into a sophisticated but still somewhat insular community like this one. And the idea of having such a festival on the magnificent bayfront at the Ringling Museum arts complex was brilliant!
The first year, I developed a panel discussion held at the Historic Asolo, where I interviewed local arts leaders about what they thought RIAF would do for our community. There was a resounding level of enthusiasm about the opportunity to collaborate around an arts festival of this magnitude. Ringling Museum leaders even decided to make RIAF an annual festival rather than a biennial festival (as it was originally conceived) based on the success of the first year. I worried it might be too much of a good thing if they jumped immediately to an annual festival, but year two featured a performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov—the godfather, if you will, of RIAF. His appearance was a great boon for ticket sales, and year two was just as successful, securing RIAF’s place on the Sarasota art scene.
Now, in its fourth year, RIAF has the look and feel of a seasoned festival. As I hurried from one event to the next, I could sense the energy of the audience members around me. There is something electric about a whole community coming together to see truly unique performances that are here one moment and gone the next. It’s rare in New York City for everyone to be talking about a singular show or performance (save a rare show such as The Producers with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane that had everyone clamoring for tickets). But during RIAF this week, talk of the festival was on the tip of everyone’s tongues, the topics ranging from watching Baryshnikov perform with Mark Morris Dance Group, to the mesmerizing performance of Shantala Shivalingappa, to the love-it-or-leave-it production of Zero Cost House by Pig Iron Theatre Company. In an engaged community like this one, we could all come together around our appreciation for the performing arts.
Earlier that evening, we had the opportunity to see Shivalingappa perform Kuchipudi, a classical dance form from South India developed around the 15th century. Although I had seen her from afar throughout the week, when Shivalingappa came onstage she was so radiant that I was overcome with emotion. She has such a pure spirit and is so authentic, that a smile like hers is almost overwhelming to guarded Westerners. Throughout her performance, she appeared jubilant to introduce a new audience to dance from her native India that may have been unfamiliar to them. It was as if she was welcoming us into her home. She was well complemented by four musicians, including a singer, a percussionist, a flutist and mridangam player, whose music made my body move throughout the performance. I often attend kirtan concerts (an Indian participatory music experience) where we sit on the floor and are free to get up and dance. Although such a setting may have proved difficult for sight lines, this show also made me want to join in. I’m certain other audience members felt the same way—I even saw a few attempting this style of dance in the lobby following the show. A highlight was when Shivalingappa performed an entire piece on a small bronze plate, moving forward and backward on the stage. She has clearly perfected this style of dance and is truly a living repository for an ancient art form.
Following the performance, the closing night party proved a fitting wrap-up to a great festival. Where similar events have a “been there, done that” quality—get picture taken wearing unusual hats (check), tiny plates (check), little black dresses (check)—at these closing festivities, the guests shared a common experience and had the chance to reflect on the variety and diversity of performances. This is precisely the kind of atmosphere a festival like this should create. During the evening we also were able to meet the performers, who were charming and seemed very pleased to come to Sarasota for their first visit. One never knows whether artists want to hear how great they were on stage, but Shivalingappa, Mary McCool and Alex Torra (both of Zero Cost House) were all interested in discussing their respective performances. In a very “meta” moment, McCool asked me to describe what I liked so much about Zero Cost House, which is precisely what the playwright character bemoaned having to do when he met his hero Thoreau. I was pleased she was so interested; even though I was more than half-way through a hurricane, I described my favorite elements of the play until she and Torra were swept away to meet “Misha,” as Baryshnikov is known to friends.
I am so delighted to have been a part of the RIAF festivities this year, and I hope you have enjoyed reading about them from my perspective. I’m already anticipating what surprise performances we have in store for next fall — see you at the festival!