Ringling International Arts Festival serves up humor and intricate choreography among its offerings

Event always a welcome kickoff to fall

Logo from The Ringling's website
Logo from The Ringling’s website

I have enjoyed the offbeat atmosphere of the Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF) since the first performance eight years ago, eagerly awaiting the beginning of fall and the early days of October.

When festival time arrives, for five days I wander from one performance venue to another, and wherever I go, I meet people I know. So for me, RIAF becomes a grand party filled with stimulating theatrical experiences and a chance to catch up with busy friends.

Top of my list is always the dance performances, and doug elkins choreography etc., this year’s company, is a homegrown New York City group. It had previously appeared at the festival in a successfully deconstructed performance of The Sound of Music. “Deconstruction” is the key word, as the company’s approach to choreography and story involves a loose mix of basic movement, ideas and songs, as in Hapless Bizarre (2014).

Elkins’ latest work is a light and unpredictable hour of dance, set to a mix of songs and radio lessons on etiquette. The company’s group of six loose-limbed, energetic and youthful dancers skipped around the stage, met in acrobatic encounter, and shimmied their disco hips when not chasing a hat in a series of circus hijinks in this easily digestible entertaining mix of athleticism and humor.

However, I thought that Mo(or)Town/Redux (2012), a mix and/or deconstruction of Othello — Shakespeare’s 1603 tragedy — featuring choreography from Jose Limon’s 1949 masterly interpretation of the tale, The Moor’s Pavane, and 1960s songs from Motown lacked the emotional undertones needed for a retelling of this tale of the destructive power of jealousy. I was familiar with the rhythms and melodies of the popular songs from the 1960s, but I must admit to a very limited knowledge of the lyrics. Perhaps that influenced my reaction to the work, for in this dance/theater work, the lyrics played an integral part in commenting on and communicating the feelings of the different characters caught in a web of deceit.

doug elkins choreography offered two pieces in this year's festival. Image from The Ringling website
doug elkins choreography offered two pieces in this year’s festival. Image from The Ringling website

I do want to mention that Kyle Marshall, who danced the role of Othello as a media star, lacked an emotional connection to his Desdemona but was brilliant in a solo of subtle choreography and liquid movement that embodied the rhythmic soul of the music pioneered by the Motown artists.

The next day, I had a ticket to see The Pianist. Though the illustration in the program pictured a man in formal concert attire hanging onto a shiny chandelier, I did not expect the mayhem and silliness that unfolded during the zany performance of Thomas Monckton as a concert pianist faced with a series of mishaps.

Monckton — a tall, loose-limbed, nimble and probably boneless master of comic acrobatics — is from New Zealand. His inspired lunacy in depicting a debonair concert pianist who literally swings from the chandelier and engages in a paper fight with the audience was created in concert with the Circo Aero, a Finnish/French circus. Though piano music accompanied Monckton as he wrestled with a broken piano leg and with draperies impeding his entrance onto the stage, I had to wonder who had recorded that music. Did Thomas Monckton have another persona as a gifted concert pianist?

I have to admit that the performances and the congenial atmosphere surrounding RIAF have been a welcome change to everyday toxic election politics on the radio and on television. This was especially obvious before the performance of Gravity & Other Myths: A Simple Space at the Circus Museum, as I waited in an ever-growing, patient line to be seated. No one complained; instead, people chatted until the rope was loosened and it was possible to enter the performance area and find a seat. It was worth the wait.

Gravity and Other Myths dazzled audiences with the members' athleticism. Image from the company website
Gravity and Other Myths dazzled audiences with its members’ athleticism. Image from the company website

This Australian import featured fresh-faced smiling tumblers and acrobats who swept through incredible, breathtaking athletic feats of balance with an ease that belied the level of difficulty. There were no costumes or special effects. Instead, the two women and five men in the company wore ordinary T-shirts and pants while one of their group sat in a corner with a laptop and programed the accompanying sounds and music. They then proceeded to dazzle the audience with a nonstop display of acrobatic tumbling. Individually and as an ensemble, these extraordinary, talented performers competed in a quick jump-roping contest, in a series of faster-than-the-eye backward somersaults, in building a pyramid of shoulders and hands, in turning themselves inside out in tumbling exercises, and in forming an upside down/hands on the ground/legs up in the air circle to battle an onslaught of plastic balls.

In one formation, Joann Curry, “who always knew she wanted to be the girl who gets thrown around in the circus,” as the program put it, topped off a human tower of legs, torsos and shoulders to balance on one hand, her legs piercing the space around her and her head almost touching the ceiling.

This engaging youthful group of acrobats makes its sophisticated level of tumbling look so easy that it is a temptation to disregard the level of difficulty; but in no way is it possible to take for granted the performers’ good humor and friendly accessibility.

The days of 2016 RIAF have come to an end, but I will be first in line when one day in the spring, Dwight Currie will announce the program for the 2017 Ringling International Arts Festival.