The Ringling International Arts Festival returns next month for its ninth year bringing performances from across the globe to The Ringling campus. Featuring seven productions and 24 performances over the course of four days, and ranging from Zimbabwean a capella groups to musical virtuosos found right here in Sarasota, this year promises new venues, interesting juxtapositions and one show that reamins a mystery even to festival  organizer and Ringling Museum Curator of Performance Dwight Currie. 


“I’ve never seen it; I’ve never read it,” he says. “It’s the ultimate RIAF experience and what we’ve been saying this is all along.”The festival kicks off Oct. 18 in the Ringling Museum courtyard with a gala celebration and accompanying performance of Wanted from eVenti Verticali, a large-scale comedic spectacle from two Italian brothers bringing together circus, dance, theater, daredevilry and graphic art. Utilizing a massive three-story-high vertical stage installed in the courtyard, the performers will suspend by cable in front of the screen and appear to run, jump and fight across animated images projected behind them, taking the audience across cityscapes and down high-speed pursuits in a madcap tale of two men on the run. “It’s big and it’s noisy and it’s fun,” says Currie. “But they’re very much in that tradition of classic European buffoonery and clowning.” 


In stark contrast to the spectacle, Volker Gerling’s Portraits in Motion brings an intimate scale to his performance, presenting “thumb cinemas”—photographic flipbooks that serve as animated portraits of the people the artist met on his 3,500-kilometer walk across his native Germany. Projecting the images on the screen behind him, Gerling presents each flipbook with an accompanying story, bringing the individual to life in just 36 pictures and an instant. In doing so, Gerling slows the moment to capture what the eye can miss. “He’s fascinated with the gaps between moments—when you see a smile just start to break,” says Currie. “He tells beautiful stories, but in very simple ways.”


For music-lovers, RIAF brings performance near and far, including the first festival appearance for a Sarasota-based group. From Zimbabwe comes Nobuntu, an all-woman a capella quintet performing everything from folk music and traditional chant to Afro Jazz, gospel and contemporary covers. Enjoying their US debut, audiences will see what made Nobuntu superstars in their home country, earning awards and iconic status. “And sometimes you lose sight that America is not the only place with popular culture and performance icons,” says Currie. Performed with dance and minimal accompaniment from traditional Zimbabwean instruments, it’s just the power of “five pure voices.” 


Hailing from a bit closer to home, ensemblenewSRQ takes a different approach, with performances reveling in the virtuosity of their instrumentation. Bringing two productions to the festival, ensemblenewSRQ will also perform in venues new to the festival, chosen to enhance and complement the music for a more holistic experience. The Space Around You: Musical Reflections takes place in the museum’s James Turrell Skyspace, with a performance of work from contemporary composer John Luther Adams, written specifically for the space, while The Magical World of Berio’s Sequenzas brings the musicians to the Huntington Gallery, where they will perform selections from the 14 sequenzas amidst the museum’s collection of 19th and 20th century artists, including Marcel Duchamp and Salomé. As to whether local artists should be billed in an international festival? “You don’t have to be far away to be good,” Currie says.

Not the only production with Sarasota connections, James McGinn returns to his hometown from his new home in Antwerp, Belgium with a dance performance Currie calls “big, risky and intellectual.” Entitled Ing an Die, this pre-apocalyptic love story melds the old and the new, for a performance contemporary in its nature but told through a classic three-act structure almost operatic in scope, where dance shifts from painful and passionate to joyous expression and back again. “It’s about dance being the language of love,” says Currie, and at its heart a celebration of the form itself. In another careful juxtaposition, Happy Hour from Monica Bill Barnes & Company explores the emotional power of dance but from a blatantly comedic perspective. Staged in the backyard behind the Circus Museum, the grounds turn into the Sideshow Café, host to a tacky office party destined to be crashed by two hopelessly inept, be-suited businessmen desperate to fit in. While the audience enjoys drinks and light bites, Barnes and her partner careen throughout the space for an immersive performance where dance really can be the “antidote” to awkwardness. “We’re all clumsy, awkward people who put our foot in our mouths and go through the whole party with spinach between our teeth,” says Currie. “But if you dance right, you can get through it.”

Lastly comes a theatrical performance to test audiences and RIAF organizers and performers alike—White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour when he was forbidden to leave his country, no one—not the actors or Ringling Museum staff—has seen or will read the production beforehand. Standing alone onstage, a different actor will be presented with Soleimanpour’s script in each performance, giving a cold reading and interpreting the playwright’s words for themselves as both audience and actor share in the exploration together. Produced in partnership with Urbanite Theatre, co-founders Summer Dawn Wallace and Brendan Ragan will each perform one of the four performances, and, at the festival’s conclusion, take White Rabbit, Red Rabbit to the Urbanite for additional performances (with fresh actors) through the end of November. “As producers, we ask our audiences to take risks all of the time,” says Wallace, “and now we’re going on an adventure together.” Adds Ragan, “And that’s thrilling. As a company, you don’t ever get to take that blind leap.”

But that blind leap is what it’s all about, says Currie. Whether as an actor or audience member, to experience new art requires a level of openness and willingness to participate—especially when presentation runs contrary to expectation. “Sometimes expectations are just preconceived resentments,” he says, but knows the RIAF audience as full of the “hopeful believers” who meet the artist halfway, as opposed to the “skeptical knowers,” sitting with their arms crossed and a “show me what you got” attitude. “Knowingness is a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe,” said 19th century American philosopher Richard Rorty, and Currie agrees: “If you sit back, all-knowing and all-informed, you’re going to rob yourself of that moment.”