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Why are the Dutch invading Governors Island? To show Americans the "moving landscape art" (and other out-of-the-box works) they've made de rigueur at home.

FROM AFAR, IT'S AS IF A SWARM OF BUTTER-flies has swooped down and landed on the dazzlingly vast stretch of mudflats of the Noordvaarder, situated at the western point of Terschelling, an elongated Frisian island off Holland's north coast. It is the second week of June. A tenacious band of four conceptual Dutch artists known as SLeM is opening its latest site-specific project, Windnomaden (Wind Nomads), on the sandbar. The beach--so incredibly wide you can imagine that you are in the desert--looks flat enough, but the walk is not easy. The blazing sun keeps obscuring my view of the horizon, the distant sea and the swaying, spread-winged installations. The tidewaters have moved out, leaving behind pools of seawater and trail patterns on the soft ground. My dirty white sneakers sink up to the ankles in the rubbery mud.


As I trudge closer, live music swells. Against the expanse of monochrome landscape, the spray of two-sided metal panels perched on standing pipes resemble gaudy birds with wings unfurled (though actual shrieking gulls are also floating in the salty air). Clusters of Dutch locals and partyers, their pant legs rolled up, many walking barefoot with drinks in hand and slurping oysters from the shell, slosh around the drying tidal sand flats. Their presence betrays the artifice of this temporary landscape, inspired by the theme ("grass between the boards") of this year's Oerol Festival in Terschelling. Spectators are greeted here twice a day as if they were the event's first visitors. Attendants and artists act as guides.

Leave it to the Dutch to elevate an entire island to the level of a text--to bypass the whole edifice of modern drama and instead hoist up the connective vibes that arise from a specific environment, an everyday place--what SLeM co-founder Bruno Doedens calls "a new genre of landscape theatre."

SLeM, Doedens explains, stands for the Stichting Landscapstheater en Meer ("Foundation Landscape Theatre and More"). Its members come from diverse fields (a mime performer/theatre director, a landscape architect, a graphic designer and a filmmaker) but share an interest in multidisciplinary theatre and the answers it proffers to questions such as: How might various artistic disciplines form and transform landscapes? In SLeM's Adrift (2008), spectators were accompanied by live music as they strolled along the shore of the North Sea, which was covered with 300 metal silhouettes, each engraved with wise sayings about the nature of time. It was "a movement theatre at the edge of reality," Doedens says. In Summer Tales (2007), 70 giant glass seashells were scattered on the beach, and visitors morphed into actors as they leaned against the shells and listened to fairy tales written by 70 authors, poets and sound artists.

"I have the impression our way of working and the shows that result are new, even to America," Doedens continues, adding, "Everything we do has a script and is less or more organized. Visitors are part of these landscapes, and they are also the actors. In Wind Nomads, the waters of Terschelling are an actor--a very big one!"

But is Wind Nomads theatre? "For me the question is not so relevant," Doedens replies. "It is a way of looking at our world, so it is not theatre in the normal way. Mobilizing the social energy of participating artists and visitors is a central issue in our projects. Sometimes the work is closer to visual art, sometimes to land art, sometimes to music and location theatre."


I find SLeM's use of drama metaphors endearing, but I am not entirely convinced. Neither--it seems, at first--is the artistic director of the Oerol Festival, Joop Mulder, whose dramatically oversized walrus moustache (a remnant of his hippie days) looks as if it could take wing of its own volition. "I know SLeM calls it landscape theatre," Mulder muses, parsing his words carefully. "With Wind Nomads, I don't agree so much. You could call it environmental art." A brief pause. "I think it is a moving landscape art."


Mulder has chosen to make Wind Nomads part of a new initiative designed to give Americans a chance to sample recent Dutch creations that consciously break traditional forms of representation. Wind Nomads will be transported to Governors Island in New York as a showcase entry in the Dutch-themed international New Island Festival (NIF), which runs for two successive weekends, Sept. 10-13 and Sept. 17-20. With the financial support of the Netherlands' foreign ministry, and in cahoots with Mulder's partner Terts Brinkhoff (the founding creative director of de Parade, a mobile theatre-and-music festival), the Dutch will culturally colonize this 172-acre island haven across the Atlantic Ocean. And, as at Oerol, they will seek to exploit the landscape-theatre possibilities of a once-lost-in-time piece of landmass that has recently been opened to the American public.

An outdoor smorgasbord of site-specific madness and wild revelry (the normally reserved Dutch are famous party animals), NIF is one of the major commemorative events of this year's NY400, the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's voyage from Amsterdam to New York Harbor. (This English explorer, arriving aboard the Dutch vessel Half Moon on a trip sponsored by the Dutch East India Company, had stumbled upon what is now Manhattan while seeking a northern passage to the Far East.) As part of the generous Governors Island programming, four actors comprising the troupe Zap will concoct fast-paced comic skits that survey Dutch painters, writers and composers from the founding of "New Amsterdam" 400 years ago to today. Also, four art groups that have held residencies at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center on Long Island are crafting fully realized installation worlds inside the houses of Colonels' Row on Governors Island. So-called legitimate theatre--such as the Toneelgroep Amsterdam's The Human Voice, staged by the maverick Ivo van Hove in a warehouse--has been programmed at NIF as well.

The majority of these NIF presentations are past and present hits of both Oerol and de Parade. LAN, for example, mashes up film, music and nature; the Frisian composer, musician and birdwatcher Sytze Pruiksma performs his own minimalist score (with samples of real sounds), while audiences are seated on blankets watching on two huge screens an abstract film that refracts the same natural location in which the piece is performed. Hardly any text figures in De Jongens's Under Construction, a 50-minute slapstick spectacle involving four actors in red overalls trying to organize objects (fridges, washing machines, a toilet) using a four-meter-high pulley construction.


so much in the case of 56-year-old Joop Mulder, who comes across at first glance as a burly bartender. In the 1970s, Mulder hatched the idea of Oerol in a small pub on Terschelling Island called De Stoep, where he invited local poets, musicians and entertainers to perform for his customers. By virtue of having founded Oerol, now 27 years old, in one of most resplendently beautiful parts of Holland, Mulder is considered in Europe a pathfinder in site-specific theatre and multidisciplinary festivals. As the festival grew, the island became a paradisiacal vacation spot for some 50,000 visitors, families and young people cycling from show to show (in the Frisian dialect, oerol means "everywhere").


In contrast to the idyllic nature of Oerol, de Parade is an urban affair. You don't journey to de Parade--it travels to you. This peripatetic festival houses its eclectic productions in fairground tents and seedy arcades, some of which are trucked to the nicest parks, squares and cobble-stoned sections of four cities in Holland, with 10- or 17-day stints in each place. Operated by Mobile Arts, de Parade was known from 1984 to 1988 as Boulevard of Broken Dreams, explains its founder Brink-hoff, a grizzled giant with the raffish air of a carnival barker, whom I interviewed in the 750-year-old city of Amersfoort in central Netherlands, which serves as de Parade's home base. Despite the name change (the reason: bankruptcy--a long story), Brinkhoff says de Parade has never wavered from its original mission and form.

"Boulevard," in the original moniker, refers to a 500-foot-long oversized table. Designed by Piet Hein Eek, it is the heart and centerpiece of de Parade--as it will be at the New Island Festival on Governors Island. On Terschelling, surrounded by roman tents, bars, restaurants and terraces, this wooden table serves as a stage for impromptu performances, a hangout, a place to eat and drink, even a catwalk.

Brinkhoff and Mulder have been touted as pioneers of zomerfestivals (summer festivals), an alternative circuit that has been all the rage in the Netherlands. Oerol and de Parade trace their lineages to Amsterdam's International Festival of Fools, a riotous festival of alternative comedy and nouveau clown acts that went on from 1975 to 1984. Something changed, however, in the DNA of Dutch performing arts. In the '60s and '70s, radical-leaning artists in Amsterdam came together to form ad-hoc collectives based on the belief that the ideas behind a work are more significant than the product itself. The provocations of a Flemish wave of actors and directors in the '80s also altered the landscape.

Holland today enjoys a healthy theatre boom, despite the global economic slump. Every year this flourishing scene of zomerfestivals lures loads of tourists, foreign troupes and arts professionals from around the world--all of whom hope to immerse themselves in a category-defying, or location-based, or post-dramatic theatre that seeks to expand the mind and stimulate the senses in ways that cannabis cafes in the historic canal district and the prostitute windows in the red-light district do not. In the Netherlands, tourism and theatre art are on the verge of fusion.

In part because the Netherlands is not a country of great dramatists (Dutch is spoken mainly in the Netherlands and Flanders only), in part because the local film industry has been frequently in tatters--and also because Dutch training schools and granting structures tend to prize highly theoretical, mixed-media or cross-disciplinary creations--the pervasive attitude in the country is that words carry very little power or global significance. So temporarily altering a landscape can engender more emotionally engaging events than a performance that depends on language alone. "The whole idea of New Yorkers going to Governors Island to attend a Dutch theatre festival is an adventure," says David Binder, the producer of the U.S. side of NIF. "When you see theatre in a new environment or a nontraditional space, the experience awakens people's senses. You become receptive to new ideas, new ways of thinking."

Many established Dutch theatremakers and cross-disciplinary groups naturally gravitate to zomerfestivals, which also attract an even bigger pool of young talents and fresh graduates avid to try out their new creations or seeking to forge new reputations. In Amersfoort, Brinkhoff spent much time and energy trying to convince me that, despite appearances, de Parade is neither a circus, a carnival, a fair nor an actual parade (even though, like a circus, it travels around, and, like a fair, it offers carousel rides). "We are not street performers," he says. "The central formula is to sell ideas, and the best classical form to communicate that is a market."

What Oerol and de Parade then are bringing to NIF is far more than a New York showcase for Dutch imports. In the simplest formulation, Governors Island sets the stage for a temporary Dutch art colony. (Many Dutch artists are going to pitch tents on designated parts of the island, just as they do in Oerol.) In the deepest cultural sense, this site-specific bazaar will celebrate in the U.S. the deliberately naive Dutch movement of making out-of-the-box theatre that allows spectators a virtually limitless freedom to interpret what they see.

Randy Gener's trip was partially supported by the Theater Instituut Nederland.
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Title Annotation:CURRENTS; Stichting Landscapstheater en Meer
Author:Gener, Randy
Publication:American Theatre
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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