Sarasota’s annual Harvey Milk Festival returns with activism, anger and hope

By : Krista DiTucci
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“It’s a fine balance of visual art and social commentary,” performance artist Belaxis Buil Buil says. “I’ve used galleries and museums as a way to speak to people and discuss something that’s taking place in society. If I present it in a visual format, they will pay attention in a different way and respond. It’s like they walk out completely awakened.”

That’s what Harvey Milk was about.

In May, Sarasota will celebrate its 7th annual Harvey Milk Festival with three days of festivities including live art, theater, workshops, music and parties from May 12-14. The timing is perfect; the vanguard LGBT municipal leader of San Francisco would have turned 86 on May 22.

May 12 marks the opening night kickoff party and live art performance, High Resolution Paradise by Belaxis Buil. Buil is a performance and multimedia artist, dancer, and choreographer from Miami. The event will be held at Bowne’s Lab Theatre of the Florida Studio Theatre at $10 per ticket.

Shannon Fortner, president of Harvey Milk Festival, describes the performance as a three-hour choreographed piece with six professional dancers. It also includes a fashion show featuring pieces from a Miami seamstress who collaborated with Buil. Fortner says the night turns into an impromptu dance party in spirit of the opening night celebration, a celebration of what Milk did to motivate the LGBT movement. It’s intended to recruit you. It’s also intended to remind you.

The concept of High Resolution Paradise stems from Buil’s nostalgia for a small South Beach LGBT community. Buil says over the years, the community that was once “like being in Candyland” has been replaced with tourists and commercial shops.

“The magic just isn’t there anymore,” Buil says. “I remember this drag queen bar café and restaurant. I go to South Beach longing to find it and it’s not there. We need to learn to preserve.”

Buil attempts to invoke strong feelings by using visual imagery like hurricanes destroying palm trees to symbolize wiping out the community. Buil says she also depicts a club world drug scene during which the audience can experience the performers’ trip.

“I want to create an environment for the viewer to have a live art experience that engages all of their senses,” Buil says. “They will understand that I’m discussing the historical preservation of the gay community not being there anymore and using the hurricane to destroy the scene.”

The opening night celebration will continue with an after party at 10 p.m. on the second floor of the Gator Club. Admission is free with High Resolution Paradise ticket purchase and $5 for all other guests.

The opening night after party will feature music from Eduardo Correa, a Sarasota singer, songwriter, and producer. Correa’s style is described as “tropically-tinged electric pop and sun-kissed disco.” Correa will be promoting his upcoming album Summer to be released in June 2016. Locals wanting to get a sneak peak of Correa can also find him at “Gay Guy Happy Hour” on May 5 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Starlite Room.

Also in store for the opening night after party is an excerpt by Octavio Campos to help promote his show the following evening.

Day Two of the Harvey Milk Festival, May 13, will mark the inauguration of HMF Theatre, an initiative to bring internationally acclaimed LGBTQ artists to the live stage to share an intimate evening with audiences.

“I’m excited for the new theater program,” Fortner says. “It’s a direction I wanted to approach when I started this festival in 2010.”

The HMF Theatre debut performance, Octavio Campos: America’s Next President, will be held at 7 p.m. at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating Theatre for $15 per ticket, with a pre-show mixer at 6 p.m. in the Bea Friedman Room.

Octavio Campos is a Miami-born Cuban-American dance theater artist. He has presented classes and workshops worldwide to performance and visual artists, business leaders, at-risk LGBTQ youth and adults, as well as incarcerated women and girls. Campos is a resident artist at Miami Theater Center, grant panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, producer of the Knight Art Challenge grant program “Sandbox Series,” and founding artistic director of the interdisciplinary nonprofit arts organization Camposition.

America’s Next President, a production with BodyTalk directed by Yoshiko Waki, Rolf Baumgart, and Camposition, recently premiered in Germany and will be performed for the first time in the U.S. at the Harvey Milk Festival.

“My goal in Germany was to introduce a lot of the issues we are dealing with as a nation to the community,” Campos says. “I asked them what they thought and I literally turned my body into a target and painted a target on my belly button.”

Campos says he brought out guns and passed out rifles to audience members in an effort to “stop negative hating and start positive shooting,” which he explains during the performance. He says bringing out guns in public in Germany is very controversial because only those with hunting licenses are allowed to carry guns, so people got very angry. Campos says introducing guns at the Harvey Milk Festival performance is likely to stir up similar emotions since Harvey Milk was killed by a gun.

“I start the environment off by getting it tense and loaded, but end it with hope to the idea of expanding and the idea of being queer and changing culture,” Campos says. “We break down the tension of power and games and position and politics, then bring it down to a dance party and embrace this idea of queerness.”

The performance places an LGBTQ twist on historic events and will feature a president who embraces a “queer nation.” Campos says he hopes to emphasize the queerness in all of us and make “queer” a positive and inclusive term.

“Everyone is queer,” Campos says. “We are all performers whether it’s in our jobs or in our homes, and if you don’t do things in the way everyone expects you to do them, you’re looked at as an alien.”

Fortner says the night will include a little bit of musical performance, which will help set the tone for the music festival the following day. Campos will also hold an artist talk after his piece.

“He’s pretty amazing,” Fortner says. “He’s really into pushing people’s buttons but re-embracing our stereotypical social downfalls and reinventing them. I think people will leave with a different mindset and will see negative things as more positive.”

Following Campos’s performance, Mandeville Beer Garden will host an after party and will donate proceeds from Left Hand’s Nitro Milk Stout sales to the festival.

The Harvey Milk Festival will conclude on May 14 beginning with a workshop by Campos, “Emotional Gymnastics,” from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the Florida Studio Theatre with $20 admission. Attendees are encouraged to bring a towel and water and wear comfortable workout clothing, socks, and sneakers.

“The workshop kind of awakens your nervous system and reconnects you,” Fortner says. “It’s a pretty intense workshop.”

The ten-band music jamboree will kick off at 2:30 and will run until midnight. Included in the lineup are:

  • AVAN LAVA, a New York pop band described as “a natural bridge between late nightclub culture and kaleidoscopic pop theatricality;”
  • PWR BTTM, a queer two-person punk band “bringing elements of performance and drag artistry into DIY culture;”
    Krisp, a Miami indie dance band “combining electro dance, chill wave, and indie rock to produce a unique blend of carefree groove and 80’s inspired synth lines;”
  • TOMBOi, a Jacksonville queer electron band which “incorporates psychedelic pop vocals, driving guitar leads, and a combination of live and electronic beats;”
  • AMFMS, a Baltimore band whose music “straddles a fine line between lo-fi basement tapes and vintage 80’s college radio hooks;”
    Millionyoung, otherwise known as South Florida’s Mike Diaz, “a refreshing form of chill wave with bright synths and dreamy dripping nostalgia-inducing backdrops and the occasional guitar.”
  • Bluejay, a Miami underground band, combining “a mix of indie, tribal, folk, and pop;”
  • Someday River, an experimental folk rock project and art platform “incorporating sweeping drum patterns and funk bass over songs rooted in folk;”
  • Physical Plant, a Sarasota collaborative rock project serving up “high-energy indie psych rock with nary a dreamy synth in sight;”
  • Sam Robertson, a singer-songwriter who uses “smooth angelic melodies and raw lyrics to bring listeners to another time and place.”

“We try to encourage a political platform for people to have a voice,” Fortner says. “We try to do that through art, performance, and music. We don’t want to mimic a Pride festival. We want to stay focused as a political platform with bands that support the cause to perform and celebrate and create a magical feeling.”

Also included in Saturday’s festivities are free family theater workshops by Ria Cooper in which youth and families are invited to attend a 30-minute session of community-building and social activism through theater. Ria Cooper, director and applied theater practitioner, has worked with LGBT and at-risk organizations using theater as a tool for building community and creating social change. Workshops will be held at 3:30 and 4:30 p.m.

The final after party to mark the festival’s end will take place at M.A.D.E. restaurant in downtown Sarasota and will include a DJ and drink specials.

The Harvey Milk Festival is made possible not only by guests and the community, but also by sponsors. Fortner says Whole Foods and Smokin Joe’s have been sponsors since 2010 and have been two of the festival’s biggest supporters every year since. Other sponsors include official hotel sponsor Aloft, Community Foundation of Sarasota County, Florida Studio Theatre, Camposition, BodyTalk, Gator Club, Herald-Tribune, Flour Parlor, Equality Florida, SRQ Arts Presenters, Bud Light, Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, Feel Magik Productions, Mattison’s, Clothesline Creative, Starbucks, The Players Theatre, Our Sarasota Fund, GSHRadio.com, Rainbow411.com, Sarasota Day, 96.5 WSLR, the Rainbow Knot, SarasotaMusicScene.com, and the Shamrock.

The newest partners are Sarasota Film Festival, Sarasota Underground and Big Top Brewery. Fortner says Sarasota Film Festival is a great partnership, because HMF has its own film festival in the fall. Additionally, Sarasota Underground will conduct raw footage and community Q&A at the festival. Other partners include Prism Youth Initiative, and ALSO Youth.

“This festival is raising awareness about Harvey Milk, but also getting people to awaken their inner activist and raise their voice,” Fortner says. “We want to inspire youth and show them that they can be heard and get the support of the community.”

Tickets to workshops and performances can be purchased at http://harveymilkfestival.org/tickets/. For more information, please visit http://harveymilkfestival.org/.

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