In its first themed program, the seventh annual Ringling International Arts Festival will present a blend of historic and modern Asian performances.
For three days next week, Sarasota will be a hotbed of contemporary Asian culture.
From Oct. 15 to Oct. 18, the seventh annual Ringling International Arts Festival will bring some of the most innovative names in dance, music and theater from around the world to perform at The Ringling.
Dwight Currie, The Ringling’s curator of performance art, has led the festival’s programming since its inception. He says he’s never organized performers around any particular theme, but with the Ringling Museum’s Center for Asian Art opening early next year, the timing couldn’t have been more fitting.
“You have a chance to juxtapose contemporary performance against historic and contemporary visual art,” says Currie. “I found it to be particularly exciting, because I think people have in their heads notions of what Asian cultural performing arts are.”
This won’t be Noh theater or Kabuki; RIAF is presenting nontraditional Asian art forms that are still evolving. Incorporating historical traditions with modern resources and perspectives, the festival will display Asia’s dynamic arts community.
Two artists that represent this fusion of Asian artistic heritage and modern sensibility are Tom Lee and Jen Shyu. Lee is a puppeteer and stagecraft wizard. Shyu is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, dancer and composer. Both artists combine the past and the present to create something altogether of the future.
Lee, who was born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in Mililani, Hawaii, has made a career out of telling timeless stories in new and exciting ways. A puppet artist, performer and designer, he’s performed with the company “War Horse,” which broke new ground by using a life-size puppet horse as the play’s main character and by performing in “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera.
For RIAF, Lee is bringing his latest original production, “Shank’s Mare.” It’s scheduled to make its world premiere in November at La MaMa in New York City, but Sarasota audiences will get the first glimpse of the production. Lee collaborated with fifth-generation Japanese puppet master Koryu Nishikawa V on the production, which depicts a fable of two disparate men.
“This project is a really exciting one for me personally,” says Lee. “It’s been 10 years in the making since I first went to Japan and began studying Japanese traditional puppetry and theater. It’s the culmination of Western puppetry and Japanese puppetry in one form.”
Shyu is a similar artistic alchemist who takes raw artistic traditions and creates performances that are wholly new and her own. Her show, “Solo Rites: Seven Breaths,” was created from a years-long journey through Asian countries. And in its own way, it’s a microcosm of the entire festival.
Shyu, born in Peoria, Ill. and raised by Taiwanese and East Timorese parents, received a Fulbright Scholarship in the fall of 2011 and spent the next two years traveling southeast Asia to places like East Timor, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea and Kalimantan.
The avid traveler absorbed the music and cultures from each of these unique countries and transformed them into a one-woman opera. Shyu’s unique performance incorporates various exotic and traditional instruments, as well as her voice, but she assures audiences she won’t let them take a wrong turn in their Asian road trip together.
“I hope people will be curious and check out what this is,” she says. “I’m asking audiences to be open and not define what a concert should be.”