Between celebrating Leonard Bernstein with the Sarasota Orchestra and lamenting the star-crossed lovers on the Sarasota Opera Stage, expanding the mind at the fourth annual PINC Sarasota conference and diving into the political at the Ringling Museum of Art, this year’s cultural season expects nearly as much from the audience as the audience does of it. With witty and biting social commentary on the Asolo stage and the Urbanite’s unlikely duos asking viewers to open their hearts to the other, audiences should be prepared to get their hands dirty—literally, if they’re at one of the many exhibitions coming to Ringling College of Art and Design this year.

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BIG ON BERNSTEIN

Celebrating the 100 year anniversary of famed and acclaimed American composer Leonard Bernstein, the Sarasota Orchestra has prepared a season with no fewer than five concerts celebrating his work. December’s Masterworks concert, Symphonic Carnival, brings Bernstein’s West Side Story classic, “Symphonic Dances,” to the grand hall of the Van Wezel, while January’s Great Escapes event, Amadeus, takes a more intimate setting in Holley Hall, as conductor Stefan Sanders shares stories and asides with the audience in between performances. But the centerpiece of the season, says Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joseph McKenna, has to be the Sarasota Orchestra debut of international violin virtuoso Midori, performing Bernstein’s Serenade, after Plato: Symposium—the same piece she performed in her concert debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 11, and again at a legendary performance with Bernstein himself as conductor, during which she broke two strings on two violins and Bernstein knelt in awe. Finishing the celebration through April and May with Bernstein selections in both the Mavericks of Rhythm concert, celebrating American composers like Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland as well as Bernstein, and the City Sounds concert in the Sarasota Opera House, audiences will have ample time to (re)discover the legendary composer. “The combination of his 100th anniversary and as prolific a composer as he was, and in a number of genres, it seems like an absolute necessity for us to call some attention to this American icon,” says McKenna. “We should celebrate his life and work in much the same way as Mozart or Beethoven.” For those looking for one more fix, Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota celebrates Bernstein in its own way with February’s The Celluloid Guitar.

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RINGLING GALLERIES CURATED

At Ringling College of Art and Design, the exhibition season looks to go beyond the standard artist showcases with a series of co-curated, collaborative exhibits bringing various industries and projects to campus for an experience more than mere viewing. “They’re not a painting or a sculpture at the center of the room to be adored,” says Tim Jaeger, campus and community engagement manager at Ringling College. “They’re exhibitions to explore, they’re exhibitions that teach and they’re exhibitions that investigate ideas and systems, all the while nurturing creative energy and providing viewpoints and visibility of all kinds of concepts.” The season begins this month with Warren Reinecker: 42 Years of Automotive Identity at General Motors Design, a traveling exhibition from GM that brings the viewer inside the world of automotive design through one of the company’s most dedicated and distinguished designers, and continues with four more set to give attendees an inside glimpse into something bigger than a single artist. Freedom of the Presses, opening late October and co-curated by Marshall Weber of Booklyn, Inc., explores the world of independent artist publishing not only through display of past publications, prints and related ephemera, but through film screenings, hands-on projects, an art book fair and a talk and performance from international artist Sheryl Oring. Continuing into the new year, the college will bring Emily Larned, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of her sociological art project, Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), which investigates the concepts of labor and time and how society assigns value. Attendees can peruse the history of the project, through publications and assorted artifacts, as well as take part in a collaborative and community-based publication being produced on campus and under the guidance of Larned. And extending through much of the spring season, Ringling College brings an exhibition from The Peace Paper Project, an international initiative that seeks to use traditional paper-making techniques as therapy, expression and activism, with 35 programs around the world. Featuring a selection of work from the Peace Paper Project’s living archive at Yale University, audiences will not only see tactile examples of the project in action, but have the chance to hear directly from the project’s founders in a series of talks and workshops. “It’s a very community-based season,” says Jaeger. “And it’s free and open to the public.”


URBANITE DUOS

Urbanite Theatre embraces the power of two this season with a slate of shows built around unlikely duos forced into each other’s worlds through circumstances beyond their control. Perfect for Sarasota’s only dedicated black box theater, each of these productions strips drama to its bones, allowing character-driven stories and performances to propel the show, without the trappings of extravagant sets or large casts. “It’s a very simple construct,” says Urbanite Co-founder Brendan Ragan, “but it’s incredibly difficult to execute without being cyclical.” Audiences have already gotten a taste in Naming True and Pilgrims, but the theme continues into a pair of shows directed by Ragan and fellow Urbanite co-founder, Summer Dawn Wallace. Echoes, directed by Ragan, presents two parallel stories in tandem, one a Victorian woman sent to Afghanistan as wife to an officer of the British Raj and the other a modern-day Muslim schoolgirl who flees to Syria to join ISIS. With both onstage throughout the production, the actors address the audience directly in alternating fashion, revealing commonalities as both build to their conclusion. Part of Henry Naylor’s award-winning Arabian Nightmares trilogy, Echoes opens November 17. Opening in the end of January, Wallace directs Northside Hollow, the story of a coal miner trapped by a deadly collapse, waiting with an inexperienced first responder to see if further help arrives. Like Naming True and Pilgrims before, both rely on the conflict and contrast of two central characters, and the strength of the actor to bring it to the forefront. “From an acting standpoint, it’s the most exciting,” says Ragan, as both characters (and actors) can arguably claim the starring role, which translates to an energetic and dynamic performance for the audience. “It gives you two equal perspectives to serve the story,” he says, and in a time of contentious political dialogue, maybe that’s what the audience needs.

 

ASIAN ART

Between the recent construction of the Asian Art Center at Ringling Museum and the opening of the Elling Eide Center last fall, Sarasota’s blossoming love affair with Asian arts and culture continues to grow. At The Ringling, shows like the recent Eternal Offerings exhibit of Chinese ritual bronzes and the current monumental sculpture exhibition of renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads bring audiences into the worlds of both ancient China and contemporary Asian politics, while the hiring of Dr. Rhiannon Paget as a dedicated curator of Asian art promises even more to come. And though only a year old, the Elling Eide Center will this year play host to the Southeast Early China Roundtable Conference, bringing scholars from across the world to the Old Florida landscape off Little Sarasota Bay this October to discuss Chinese history from the earliest recorded period to the Tang Dynasty. In attendance this year, and delivering a separate but open to the public lecture and Q&A, will be Dr. Robert E. Hegel, professor of comparative literature and Chinese at Washington University. Entitled Books and Pictures, Books with Pictures: How the Tradition of Chinese Illustrated Books Came About, Hegel’s public lecture will explore the ways in which decorative arts, artistic expression and literary arts intertwined through the history of Chinese culture, and how this is revealed through examining the published works, ranging from novels and poetry to histories and industrial accounts, as objects themselves. “There’s a growing interest in Asian culture in this country and the world, possibly because of China’s emergence as a very powerful country, but also because they have such a unique and long, well-documented history,” says Harold Mitchell, president and CEO of the Elling Eide Center and cousin to the man himself. “Just among the people of Sarasota, we’re finding there is a fantastic thirst for culture, and particularly Asian art and history.”

 

A DAY OF INSPIRATION

What do a graphic designer, research forester, architect and second grade teacher have in common? All are slated speakers for PINC Sarasota 2017, coming to the Sarasota Opera House this December for its fourth year bringing artists, entrepreneurs, scientists and innovators to talk about their passion and share in their inspiration. “It represents a day to step outside of your day-to-day and be completely challenged, inspired and refreshed by a host of different performances and ideas,” says PINC organizer Anand Pallegar. Not the typical vertically-oriented conference, speakers and presentations at PINC Sarasota run the gamut, bound only by the central themes of people, ideas, nature and creativity (PINC). This year, speakers range from acclaimed graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, credited with popularizing the sabbatical, to Manal Rachdi, the French architect currently formulating a nine-story, reverse-pyramid “floating village” in Paris, with housing lifted away to free up green space below. Some have more direct relation to local issues, says Pallegar, such as Meg Daly, founder and president of Friends of the Underline, a nonprofit looking to turn the Miami MetroRail into a 10-mile long trail and park. Similar questions arise over the use of the Legacy Trail, and Daly’s ideas could spark solutions here. “That’s what PINC is about—connecting humans to humans and fostering deeper meaning,” says Pallegar. “And Sarasota’s community of philanthropists, educators and educated entrepreneurs is a great ecosystem to cultivate and grow.” And sometimes, it’s just about something really cool, such as the creations of felt artist Lucy Sparrow. More than a conference, says Pallegar, PINC is “a movement of people who are passionate about the potential of humans.”

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RINGLING GETS POLITICAL

Between showcasing the Old Masters and ancient artifacts in its collection, the Ringling Museum gets political this season with a pair of exhibits seeing artists from around the world tackle some of the biggest issues in global politics. Opening October 8, Aftermath: The Fallout of War brings the work of 12 international artists to the museum with a traveling exhibit from the Samuel P. Harn Museum at University of Florida. Primarily photography and photojournalism, but with one video installation, the artists turn their eyes to many aspects of a conflict’s aftermath. Suzanne Opton and Lynsey Addario turn their cameras on returning veterans and their trauma, as they reintegrate into civilian life, while the Lebanese-American artist Rania Matar investigates the aftermath of military and humanitarian operations in affected areas. “Overall, the exhibition is about the human toll of war and conflict,” says Ringling Museum Curator of Photography and New Media Chris Jones. “But there are a lot of different approaches and angles to the subject.” Following Aftermath, comes an exhibit that Jones has been putting together for more than a year. Tentatively titled Approaching the Border, the November exhibition features five artists from around the world examining the notion and concept of borders, as physical spaces, political realities and mental barriers. With artists from Mexico, Belgium, the UK and Italy, the conversation is broad, but grounded in the contention surrounding the US/Mexico border. “These are topics at the forefront of global politics,” says Jones. “The Museum can serve as a civic space—a place to promote learning and dialogue, to gather more information so we can understand other lives and perspectives. That’s something we want to foster here.”


LATIN FLAIR 

From the concert hall to the opera house, performances are infused with Latin American flavor this season, including groundbreaking collaborations and Sarasota debuts. The Sarasota Cuban Ballet School (SCBS), now entering its sixth year of operation, fittingly stands on the forefront, making its Venice debut as a company this December with a performance of its own version of The Nutcracker at the Venice Performing Arts Center, enhanced with extended choreography to simultaneously serve as a showcase for the young performers. “So the student has more opportunity to dance,” says Ariel Serrano, SCBS co-founder, alongside Wilmian Hernandez. “So they can participate more.” But prior to December’s performance, Sarasota audiences will get a chance to see four of SCBS’s lead dancers perform on the Sarasota Opera House stage in November’s La traviata, which also sees SCBS Master Teacher Tania Vergara serving as guest choreographer. Vergara will similarly lend her talents to Sarasota Opera’s spring production of Carmen. “It’s a complete honor and an amazing opportunity to share a season with them,” says Serrano. And in February, Sarasota Ballet welcomes the Sarasota debut of Ballet Hispánico, the acclaimed New York-based company dedicated to blending the traditions of ballet with various aspects of Latin dance, bringing a distinct cultural flair to a classic form. “We all speak the same language, but in different accents,” says Sarasota Ballet Director of Education Christopher Hird. Just as Russian ballet can seem grand and regimented, reflecting the time and place of its birth, Cuban ballet and otherwise Latin-inspired ballet brings an exciting sensuality and virtuosity. For those still left wanting a little more, Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota brings the songs of popular Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona to the stage in April’s From Cuba to Broadway, and, in March, the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba comes to the Van Wezel.

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EDGY ASOLO

Within a season of classics and crowd-pleasers like Evita, The Jungle Book and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, Asolo Repertory Theatre takes a moment mid-season for a trio of productions asking the hard questions. “That’s part of our responsibility,” says Asolo Rep Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards. “We can’t retreat to a world of pure escapism.” Beginning February 7, two-time Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati brings Eugene Ionesco’s post-WWII parable, Rhinoceros, to the stage. Written in response to the horrors of war made possible by an obedient population, Ionesco tackles the herd mentality with absurdist aplomb, as one ordinary man finds his fellow townspeople transforming into literal rhinoceroses at an alarming pace—and considers the ramifications of following along. The following month, Asolo Rep becomes only the fourth theater in the country to produce Lisa Loomer’s Roe, a comic and heartfelt account of the two women at the heart of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case. Spanning decades, from the court case (recreated with the help of actual recordings of the justices’ responses) to the public and personal battles that followed in the years to come, Loomer gives nuanced voice to each side and story. And coming to the Asolo in April, the Pulitzer Prize-finalist Gloria presents a darkly comic and satirical look at the aftereffects of shocking violence in the workplace. Centered around a group of young and hungry assistants at one of New York’s premier publications, poor sales and declining readership push one young gun to the edge. “We’re living in a time when it’s increasingly difficult for people to sit down and talk when they have profound disagreement,” says Edwards. “Theater is an opportunity to build bridges and give artists a chance to help guide us, because the best words elude us in our daily lives.”

 

STAR-CROSSED AT THE OPERA

From the Parisian courts to the mountains of Seville and even Roman-occupied Gaul, falling in love comes at a high cost in the world of opera, if this season at Sarasota Opera serves as any indication. From the season’s opener, Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, to its close with the revival of the rarely performed German-language Tiefland, high drama leaves little room for happy endings. Heralding the return of Verdi to the Sarasota Opera stage, La traviata opens November 3 with the story of Violetta, a young Parisian courtesan buffeted by social forces and torn between her heart and duty to her family, leaving her with an impossible choice. The season of heartbreak continues just in time for Valentine’s Day with the opening of Manon Lescaut on February 10, seeing the eponymous young woman wrestle with her love for the dashing Chevalier Del Grieux and the security provided by a much wealthier man, when following her heart’s desire could mean the downfall of them all. And the ever-popular Carmen brings the familiar tale to the corridas and mountains of Seville, where passion runs hot among the toreadors and the charming Carmen, with fatal consequence. There are only so many stories in the human experience to be told, explains Sarasota Opera Maestro Victor DeRenzi, and the relatable but exaggerated idea of doomed romance will always resonate—if told well. “It’s not the story that matters, so much as the telling of the story and how one puts those thoughts into words and music,” he says. Stories like traviata and Norma, an Italian opera playing through March about a Gallic druid priestess and her love for a Roman soldier, remain compelling “200 years after they were first written.” Closing out the season with a revival, Sarasota Opera brings Tiefland to the stage, which has not seen an American production in more than 100 years and offers perhaps the happiest ending of the season (though not without its fatalities). “Not that there’s a lot of competition,” laughs DeRenzi.


YEAR OF PREMIERES

Between returning favorites like Will Tuckett’s The Secret Garden and the annual holiday production of The Nutcracker, the Sarasota Ballet season represents a sizable expansion of the institution’s repertoire and offerings, with six company premieres, one world premiere and the Sarasota debut of the Manhattan-based Ballet Hispánico. In December, Metropolitan brings the world premiere of the latest choreography from the acclaimed Marcelo Gomes, star dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, as well as the company premiere of George Balanchine’s Theme and Variation, a demanding performance meant to evoke the grandeur of Russian ballet during the time of Tchaikovsky. Post-Nutcracker, January’s Moving Identities program sees the company premiere of Paul Taylor’s Airs, melding the choreographer’s passion for traditional ballet and modern dance under the baroque stylings of G.F. Handel. In the same program, Robert North’s Troy Game returns, but with a fresh twist—performed alternatingly by all-male and all-female casts. And after bringing Ballet Hispánico for its Sarasota debut in February, Sarasota Ballet closes out the season with two concerts and four company premieres. Dreams of Nature, performed in March at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, brings not only the company premiere and lavish sets and costumes of Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but also the premiere of the equally showy but socially conscious ‘Still Life’ at The Penguin Café. Choreographed by Birmingham Royal Ballet Director David Bintley, Still Life celebrates the grace and beauty of the natural world with a cast of characters comprising endangered animals in sumptuous costuming so fair as to be the envy of all. Closing out the season on the Sarasota Opera House stage, the dancers of Sarasota Ballet perform two more company premieres—Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading and Balanchine’s love letter to Japanese music and dance, Bugaku.