Dispatches from RIAF Part 1: It's A Circus In Here!

Todays News

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY OCT 16, 2015

The Ringling International Arts Festival opened last night, with attendees choosing amongst a trio of performances: Shank’s Mare, a kuruma nungya puppet show created by director Tom Lee and master puppeteer Koryu Nishikawa V, which officially premieres in New York later this year; a series of performances from Thai choreographer and dancer Ronnarong Khampha; and Phare: The Cambodian Circus, with its show Khmer Metal. I chose Phare.

Sitting in the dark of the Mertz Theatre, the show begins with a figure stumbling through the black, a flashlight’s weak beam swinging drunkenly, illuminating nothing. We're both in the dark, but at least he knows what’s coming. He can prepare himself for the coming spectacle; I have no idea what to expect.

When the lights rise, it’s on the interior of a Cambodian dive, with a full bar in the back and seating next to the stage, where the band will assemble. The performers trickle in—a drunken dancer, the proprietor, the band, the regulars—and what comes next is a jaw-dropping affair of circus-sized proportions, a choreographed cavalcade of contortionists, dancers, jugglers and acrobats with feats of strength, balance, coordination and dexterity enough to give The Greatest Show on Earth a run for its peanuts. With a ragtag feel belying the undeniable skill on stage, the crew incorporates everything from the bartaps to oil drums and an old car door in a fearless performance that defies expectation.

And one can’t forget the music, a rock-funk hybrid with driving rhythms and infectious riffs, propelling the performance and injecting the show with moments of true pathos. It’s raucous, rowdy, electric and, quite literally, awesome. The praise is effusive leaving the theater, with one woman raising her voice above the crowd, “Now that was circus!”

With the evening’s shows concluded, the night’s attendees assembled in the Ringling Courtyard, ushered by stilted women in vibrant saris, for the opening party, Bollywood Dreams, with Bollywood singer and choreographer Prashant Kakad taking the stage as MC and DJ. As the crowd danced, ate and drank, the fireworks lit up the sky, thudding and flaring into the dark. RIAF 2015 had arrived.

The performances continue throughout the weekend, with Phare, Khampha and Lee joined by acclaimed contemporary dance from the TAO Dance Theater of Beijing, performances by Indonesian vocalist and composer Peni Candra Rini, a solo musical drama exploring the musical traditions of Taiwan, East Timor, Vietnam and more with Jen Shyu, and the modern yet nostalgic stylings of the Indonesian orchestra Orkes Sinten Remen.

Photos by Wyatt Kostygan. Pictured: (from top) A stilted woman welcomes guests to the Ringling Courtyard, and Prashant Kakad works the crowd.

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