The 2014 Ringling International Arts Festival will feature performers from various countries and multiple genres, but the underlying emphasis is on generating greater local engagement and involvement.
"What I love is when people come out of the theater and ask, 'What did you think?' 'I can't believe you thought that!' 'I want to go see what I think,'" says Dwight Currie, The Ringling's director of performance programming, who selected the lineup for this sixth annual festival, the first without the oversight of the Baryshnikov Arts Center.
"What's common to all those encounters is the word 'think.' How great that for three or four days we are called upon to think and given wonderful material to think about."
This year's festival, scheduled Oct. 15-18 in four venues, all within walking distance on The Ringling campus, ranges from contemporary dance, jazz, puppetry and nouveau circus arts to a sci-fi fantasy adventure presented as a live action graphic novel.
While the performances are sure to create individual moments as memorable as those in past festivals, the conversations they provoke are what make RIAF unique, Currie said.
To facilitate such exchanges, for the first time there will be a designated area outside The Ringling's Visitors Pavilion where audience members can gather to share their thoughts and reactions. Seating areas will be marked with the names of individual productions to facilitate discussions about particular shows.
"I'm confident people will come out of these performances with a contagious energy," Currie said.
Another locally focused addition this year is a community dance that will be choreographed by Larry Keigwin, whose contemporary dance troupe, Keigwin+Company, is one of the seven productions this year.
Sarasota will become the eleventh city in which Keigwin has created a dance to Ravel's "Bolero," using community members as performers and striving to distill the essence of a geographic area in movement. Previous "Boleros" have taken place from New York to Santa Barbara, focusing on everything from beaches to urban energy.
Keigwin's original idea was to create a dance with senior citizens here, but given Currie's input that Sarasota was much more diverse than a single demographic, he expanded the concept.
"I try to edit it down to two thematic features of a city," Keigwin said. "Senior citizens was the initial hook for me, and also the circus, but we'll try to make it accessible to everybody."
There will be an open audition — no dance experience necessary — in September. Keigwin says no one who can commit to the daily two-week rehearsal schedule will be turned away.
"Bolero Sarasota" will have its sole performance in The Ringling courtyard, just before the evening-concluding fireworks on opening night. It is the first attempt to incorporate a large-scale community performance in the RIAF format.
"What a great way to do something collective and inclusive," said Currie. "And what if, afterward, everyone gets up and starts dancing? How great would that be?"
The rest of the RIAF offerings include:
-- The Pedrito Martinez Group, a quartet of Latin music virtuosi from Cuba, Venezuela and Peru, featuring Afro-Cuba percussionist Ariacne Trujillo;
-- The Vijay Iyer Trio, a celebrated "new music" jazz ensemble that includes Iyer, a Greenfield Prize winner and Hermitage Artist Retreat fellow, drummer Marcus Gilmore and Bassist Stephan Crump;
-- Duo Amal, featuring pianists Bishara Haroni, from Palestine, and Yaron Kolberg, from Israel, performing work from baroque to modern;
-- Tangram, a boundary-breaking amalgamation of dance, circus and physical theater performed by ballerina Cristiana Casadio and circus artist Stefan Sing, making their American debut;
-- The Table, a whimsical work of puppetry and theater from Blind Summit Theatre in Great Britain;
-- The Intergalactic Nemesis, Book One: Target Earth, a live action graphic novel presented as radio drama by artists creating characters, sound effects and music for comic book images;
-- Keigwin + Company, the acclaimed contemporary dance troupe known for its theatrical style, wit, humor and heart.
This year's lineup is more diverse and less esoteric than in some past years, part of an effort to create attendance and excitement from a broad spectrum of newcomers and returnees alike. Tickets range from $20 to $35 for most performances; opening night prices range from $125 for one of three available shows plus the courtyard party and performance, to $75 for the courtyard segment alone.
Currie said the 2014 programming is part of an ongoing effort to keep the festival fresh and audiences enthused.
"A festival is kind of like a potluck where you're obligated to taste what everyone's mom made and what gets leftover at the end, mom doesn't make the next time," says Currie. "We didn't start with a formula and we haven't tried to adhere to one. The common denominator is the engagement of audience members with each other.
"A festival, by definition, should be festive."
RINGLING INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL, at The Ringling, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Opening night 6 to 10 p.m. Oct. 15, $90-$125. Performances at 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Oct. 16-18, $20-$35. Discounts for packages and museum members. 360-7399; www.ringling.org.