The Ringling International Arts Festival really took on some of that international flavor for me over the weekend, as I saw Irish dancer Colin Dunne and Ethiopian-born singer-musician Meklit Hadero perform. Sandwiched in between was Doug Elkins & Friends’ Fraulein Maria, and, for a closer on Saturday, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.
Dunne came first on my schedule, with an hourlong performance called Out of Time that both harked back to his roots in Irish step dancing and looked forward to a break away from that form. Using film clips of other step dancers (projected on a box that came apart and together in different ways), and even one of himself as an award-winning child performer, Dunne followed in their footsteps, paying tribute to this time-honored tradition. But, by the end of the performance, as he flung himself exuberantly around the stage, he was freed from the rigid confines of step dancing, which doesn’t allow the upper body to move–utilizing his entire dancer’s body to express himself the way he wanted to.
Hadero, who performed in the intimate Cook Theatre venue, expresses herself both in songs she’s written and occasionally in folk songs from her native Ethiopia. Coming onstage barefoot and with what seems a quiet, even shy demeanor, she gradually winds both her body and her voice around her songs, backed by three fine musicians on drums, trumpet and bass. Swaying back and forth, lost in the music, she forms a rapport with the audience that will probably send many to buy her CDs or at least see and hear her on YouTube.
While I enjoyed both of these shows, the hit of the day for me, and I think for many others, was Fraulein Maria, Elkins’ comedic but affectionate take on the classic film The Sound of Music. Cleverness abounds in this 65-minute dance adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, but not in a snarky way. Co-director Michael Preston is an engaging personality to lead us into the story of the young novice Maria (played here by three dancers, including one male) and her budding relationship with Captain von Trapp and his children (the eldest of whom, Leisl, is likewise played by a male dancer, who’s a hoot, too).
The dance numbers smoothly tell the tale, whether it’s how the kids came to wear those curtains or how Austria was annexed to Germany (simply but effectively related with just two men, one of them wearing Nazi threads). There’s a bell ringing scene to rival any hunchback’s, 10 nuns in hooded black togs, a hip-hop Mother Superior and lots more witty choreography, executed with high spirits and panache; overall, it was exhilarating.
I wrapped up my RIAF viewing with a Saturday afternoon concert by Brooklyn Rider, which opened with an Eastern-sounding air composed by quartet member Colin Jacobsen and then launched into Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, a late piece that violinist Johnny Gandelsman called “the story of a life.” Played with skill and understanding, the seven-movement quartet sounded heavenly in the acoustics of the Historic Asolo Theater; it was followed by two songs in the Roma gypsy tradition, one a lament and the other a fast dance, played with such fervor that Gandelsman nearly dropped his bow at the end, and apparently broke a string. Ah, well, it was all in good service to a memorable afternoon of music. And that’s RIAF until next October.