Small companies present stimulating performances during the latest Ringling International Arts Festival

Event offers around-the-world taste of talent

Image from The Ringling website

The day after Dwight Currie, curator of the Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF), announces the events for this annual performing arts event, I buy my tickets and then wait for those few days in October when I can feel as though I am tip-toing around the world. I do know it will be an unusual festival, as Currie searches out new and unique artists and their performances.

This year’s programming was no different; what was different was the focus on small companies and cooperation with Sarasota artists, which suggested a make-do accommodation because of the availability of fewer funds for the festival. However, there is a devoted following that continues to grow each year. Performances were sold out or full, and, personally, I found the four performances that I saw to be enjoyable, stimulating and thoughtful.

The first, Portraits in Motion, was Volker Gerling’s solo production in which he shared his experiences and his flip books culled from photographs taken on his walks around Germany and Switzerland. It had a certain charm.

Though his stories were pedestrian, and his German-accented English made it difficult to understand everything he said, I found it fascinating to see how a smile would change a subject’s expression, as Gerling flipped through a series of photographs taken of the same person, whether it was an elderly man who became youthful or boys whose expressions never changed as they looked into the camera. I recall small flip books from years ago, but this was an odd reset in the age of selfies and other technical marvels.

Volker Gerling presents ‘Portraits in Motion.’ Image courtesy The Ringling

A surprising, playful sense of the absurd also surfaced in both the Urbanite Theatre’s production of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, based on the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s exploration of isolation; and the gender-bending Happy Hour, with Monica Bill Barnes & Co. Fortunately, I saw these two productions on different days, giving me some time to process what I had experienced, because both performances had a freshness that gives RIAF its uniqueness.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit is not a traditional play, but rather a monologue with incidental help from the audience. An actor — Tess Hogan, in the performance I saw — is given a script that she has never seen and begins to read. The stage is bare, but the play is given in an alternate space — in this instance, the open back room of the Ringling Circus Museum. The actor begins to read a story about a group of white rabbits that attack a red rabbit that has climbed to the top of a ladder. This story is repeated with variations and with animal imitations by the actor and by members of the audience, who all had been asked to number themselves as the “play” reading began.

Yes, Soleimanpour has found a way to talk about a repressive society through an absurd, amusing story of barnyard animals. And according to the program notes, he and his wife are now living in Berlin.

Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass perform in ‘Happy Hour.’ Image courtesy The Ringling

For Happy Hour, the same space in the Ringling Circus Museum was transformed into a restaurant, with tables and chairs scattered around the room. There was a bar offering drinks, while bowls of candy and chips sat on the tables. A master of ceremony set the scene, inviting the audience to participate in games and selfies with him. He then left the scene, and the recorded music began as two slight dancers, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, appeared. They had slicked back their hair and were dressed in men’s suits. They began imitating the gestures and postures of young men looking for love in a bar. The words of the accompanying iconic, romantic ballads helped fill in their motivation. The music ranged from an old tap step, Shuffling off to Buffalo — with Barnes and Bass offering their own soft shoe interpretation — to Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender. The dancers were witty and expressive in their portrayal of guys enjoying a night on the town looking for love.

Love as a positive force was the underlying message of Nobuntu, the collective name of a group of five women with glorious voices who come from a town called Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Their repertoire, covering traditional African songs, gospel and a variety of inspirational ballads, is sung with only the beat of a drum to anchor their voices.

The women — Duduzile Sibanda, Zanele Manhenga, Heather Dube, Thandeka Moyo and Joyline Sibanda — wore colorful outfits, jumped around in a form of traditional African dance, kicked their legs high into the air and shared their love of life with the audience. I feel certain that all the audience members were engaged by their naturalness and their openness, as I was, even when one member of the group did a little shilling and announced Nobuntu has two CDs available.

1 thought on “Small companies present stimulating performances during the latest Ringling International Arts Festival

  1. I took a break last week to attend the first day of the RIAF and see the acapella group from Zimbabwe. I’m a nut for African jazz and pop, so I couldn’t miss this five-woman ensemble, armed with a drum, whistle, gourds and a fly whisk.

    Truly wonderful stuff, even a Marvin Gaye song. But mostly in their local lingo(s), including a klick-language song they taught to the audience. Also taught, a complex hand-clapping rhythm, and a call-and-response song “Take me to heaven in the morning.” Powerful hour of entertainment, voice and dance.

    Every year we try to take in a show or two at the RIAF. Few will be as memorable as these five women. A little more traditional than I prefer, some of the old roots are audible as repetitive chanting. But the new growth is there too. I went solo this year and it was worth every dime.

    ps. Bought the album, of course.

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