George W. Bush’s administration lacked a reputation for benevolence. Nevertheless, in 2003, it sold Governors Island’s 150 acres to the city of New York for $1. (Not since Manhattan went for a few baubles has such a real estate coup occurred. Somewhere, doubtless, Trump and Thor Equities wept.) Subsequently, the city has dithered over what to do with its land grab. According to a recent New Yorker article, suggestions have included “a park, a college campus, a conference center, a casino, an amusement park, a prison, an Olympic stadium, a new United Nations, a condominium complex, a homeless colony, an artists’ retreat, a museum, a theme park, and a nut-tree preserve.” But from September 10 to 20, the trustees of the isle have ignored these well-intentioned proposals. Instead, unexpectedly, they have returned Governors Island to the Dutch.
The New Island Festival may once again make New York resemble New Amsterdam (perhaps with fewer tulips and ruffs than in the earlier iteration). More than 150 Netherlandish artists, drawn from the Dutch Oerol and De Parade festivals, have temporarily conquered the islet, stocking its homes, lawns, and military installations with theater, dance, visual art, acrobatics, site-specific performances, and a “flying piano.”
During a damp and drizzly opening night, the festival seemed sparsely attended and, judging by surrounding conversations, largely Dutch. (Did the Netherlands Fund for the Performing Arts import audiences as well?) As the Dutch are a very attractive people, this isn’t such a bad thing. They strolled the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the festival’s main thoroughfare, which features cabaret-style acts and a 400-foot-long table upon which chef André Amaro feeds the masses. Some may be pleased to note that his culinary influences owe more to the Mediterranean than to herring. On the festival’s opening night, the acts included a Fosse-esque dance performance, a silent disco, a video installation, and a popular cart trumpeting “Make your own poffertjes!” These are like pancakes, I was told, only smaller.
Instead of making a poffertje, I made my way to Broeders (Brothers), director Jetse Batelaan’s mildly site-specific play about the soul, or maybe the super-ego, or life, or humanity. I wasn’t really sure. In a courtyard arrayed with 12 white tables and a few props (a telephone, a juicer, a wine bottle), several characters in everyday dress lounge about. Each is served by a white-clad and seemingly invisible attendant who stoically holds the character’s hand. Only when a character collapses to the ground is the connection severed. It’s all very metaphorical and a little trite, though performed with seriousness and verve. The hoot of riverboats, the chirruping of insects, the rustling of leaves, and the crinkling of audience members’ plastic ponchos provided a nice contrast to the stage metaphysics.
A more bombastic soundtrack greeted the half-dozen people assembled to watch Salto Vitale, an installation by the Tuig company. As a somewhat Wagnerian score boomed, one assistant jogged in a human-size hamster wheel, one propelled herself on a seesaw, and a third manipulated a paddle wheel. All of these apparatuses were on fire. Through a semi-comprehensible system of ropes, cables, pulleys, and winches, their exertions lifted a wooden platform 45 feet from the ground. Once elevated, an actor leaped from the platform and descended via a slow, revolving bungee cord. As he drifted and spun, he unfurled a banner reading, “This Is the Start.” Really? Can’t wait to see what New Island has in mind for the finale.