The first time Dwight Currie saw the work of Jackson Pollock, he could neither understand nor appreciate the unorganized explosions of color that distinguished the famous abstract expressionist's unique "drip painting" style.
"Then I saw a video of him working," says Currie, associate director of performance programs at The Ringling. "Witnessing his abandon, yet also his precision, changed the way I saw his work. My appreciation changed immeasurably just by seeing that."
Currie would like to provide the same sort of entrée for audiences seeing the contemporary performance artists he selects as part of the museum's "New Stages: The Art of Performance" series — all living artists whose work is in a state of constant evolution.
Because one-night-only shows can seem "random and chaotic," and because it's not possible to showcase performance art collectively, as you might with a retrospective of a visual artist's work, Currie came up with a different approach. Why not develop an ongoing relationship with the artists themselves, helping facilitate, nurture, even perhaps influence, the development of their work?
"So many people are doing great work, but you see it once and then never again," he says. "I want the city to be able to contribute to the artists we have here and to provide the artists not just with time and space, but a sense of the culture."
The first of what Currie hopes will be sporadic residencies for performance artists at The Ringling took place last week. Choreographer David Neumann — whom some may remember from his appearances with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 2010 Ringling International Arts Festival — was here to work with several collaborators on extending and evolving "Hurricane," a piece based on the death of his father, Frederick Neumann, in 2012.
The multidisciplinary work, which began as a seven-minute solo and which Neumann hopes to stretch into an evening-length work, uses the construct of traditional Japanese Noh theater to examine his father's process in the final weeks of his life, which coincided with the ascent of Hurricane Sandy up the eastern seaboard.
Neumann's multi-faceted approach to the storytelling embraces dance, script, "found" objects and recordings from his parents' New Jersey home, excerpts from Shakespeare and Beckett (his father was a founder of Mabou Mine, a New York experimental theater) and YouTube recordings of on-camera journalists reporting during hurricanes — among other things.
Not only did the museum provide the choreographer with the time and space for creating, it also provided contacts and connections to inform and amplify his work, arranging for visits to the National Weather Service in Ruskin, as well as a meeting with a hospice nurse at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
"Any residency is the greatest type of support for me personally," says Neumann, 49, a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. "To get out of your town and the strings you're attached to allows one to be immersed in the work in a different way. But with this residency, what's been amazing is the research end."
Neumann found his three-hour visit to the weather service, where he viewed the technology that predicts impending storms weeks ahead of time, "amazing," and his time with palliative care nurse Beth Reilly both poignant and painful.
At one point, as he was speaking with Reilly, a voice on the hospital public address system announced a "code blue," the phrase used for an emergency when a patient is in imminent danger of dying.
"It was difficult," recalls Neumann. "There was this very calm voice — nothing like it is on TV — saying, 'Code blue. We need a doctor to ward three ASAP. Code blue. The team is assembled. Code blue.' Tears just sprang to my eyes."
As difficult as the moment was, however, Neumann says it made an impression that may filter into his work; as the hospital's subdued "code blue" is juxtaposed against television shows that depict the same event frantically, so the incremental threat of climate change clashes with the dramatic ways in which a weather event is reported on television.
"Hurricane" will premiere in Maryland and New York next spring, and will be performed at The Ringling next year or in 2016.
Though he's the first to have a residency, Neumann is not the only artist in the New Stages series whose relationship with the museum is ongoing and whose future work will reflect influences of the area.
Choreographer Larry Keigwin, whose company will perform in this year's RIAF in October, will set a dance on community members in September, a part of his "Bolero" series that seeks to capture the essence of various cities around the country.
Choreographer Dusan Tynek, whose company will perform at the Historic Asolo Theater next March, has already discussed with Currie his hope to create a work inspired by the museum's James Turrell Skyspace.
Also in 2015, Lars Jan will mount "Holoscenes" on the bayfront by the Cà d' Zan, a large-scale installation/performance that manifests states of flooding within a large aquarium to portray the relationship between climate change and everyday human behaviors. (Certainly, a Florida-relevant subject if there ever was one.)
And Alex Ketley, whose "No Hero," an exploration of the meaning of dance in rural areas of the West, was performed as part of last year's series, will return in November 2015 to present a new work based on explorations along the same theme done in the Southeast — a creation in part prompted by his Ringling connections.
For Currie, fostering the connection between artist and audience is an important part of his job as a curator. His charge, he believes, should not be just about "bringing what will sell" but "investing" in the future of art.
"Museums don't deal in mass-produced art, but rather one-of-a-kind pieces that must be preserved," he says. "This is no different. I feel I'm a steward of resources — human, finances, performance spaces, even audiences — and I think it's very important that some of those resources go to the art of creation.
"Then, the more you are involved with the creative process, the better informed you are," he says. "And the more informed you are, the more you can enjoy the artist and the art."