Frankly,” asserts Jane Nicholl Sahlins, director of the International Theatre Festival of Chicago, “it’s not like anything one has ever seen before.” “It” is Dogtroep, the Dutch group whose site-specific spectacles come off as a cross between Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch. American audiences will get a chance to see the wildly inventive company in its first – and only – U.S. appearance at the Windy City’s biennial festival June 4-19.
Founded in 1975 by a motley group of Amsterdam-based artists and university students determined (as managing director Han Bakker puts it) “to create a new public art,” Dogtroep reinvigorates the relationship between performer and viewer. “When we started,” says Bakker, “Dogtroep was not just a theatre company; we were trying to find new ways of presenting art to a wide audience. But the form became more and more theatrical, because that was the best way to communicate with the audience in the street.”Order now
Since those early days, Dogtroep’s activities have grown from small-scale, spontaneous street theatre events to scrupulously planned, large-scale shows performed in a variety of settings – from a beach on the North Sea to the Asiatic reaches of the former Soviet Union. In one of those ironies emblematic of eastern European life, poet-president Vaclav Havel nearly put the kibosh on a Prague performance when he arrived with his staff and 40 bodyguards to watch the group work in a pub whose seating capacity was limited to 50.
Although the troupe doesn’t toe a particular ideological line, Bakker sees their work as part of a spectrum that includes Dada, England’s Welfare State and Vermont-based Bread & Puppet Theatre, as well as the installation art of the past 20 years. “The idea,” he explains, “is that you can create stories by bringing people together from different art disciplines, who have as a frame for their fantasies the physical place they’re working in and the team they’re working with.”
This collective creativity produces stage pictures or Chaplinesque understatement, and riotous scenes worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. The Prague performance featured a reeling wordrobe that came to a halt when someone inside began to saw his way out. Bulldozers plowed through a show in Berlin. In another piece, a storybook dragon smashed through a wall, metamorphosed into an airplane, then crashed, leaving the pilot suspended in mid-air. Waterwork – presented in a lagoon at the 1992 World Expo in Seville – was populated with Pere Ubus. At a New Year’s Eve performance, a Trojan hourse with a man in its maw commandeered an Amsterdam bridge, dropped the fellow into the canal below, then burst into flames.
In bucking the confines of tradition (both spatial and dramatic), Dogtroep employs a strategy more visual then verbal. “Text is about meaning and communication in a semantic way,” avers Bakker. “We use texts just as we use objects and costumes, as a way of creating an image. So it’s more the sound, or the spirit of the text that is important.”
For the Chicago engagement (inaugurating the Skyline Stage, a new, $6-million, teflon-coated tent seating 1,500 on Navy Pier), Dogtroep will perform Camel Gossip III an ongoing extravaganza incorporating elements developed earlier in Glasgow and Amsterdam. And while safety codes prevent the troupe from playing with fire, there will be water – 20,000 liters of it. Pools of water, walls of water, torrents of water. As Sahlins explains, “There’s this scene with five women who at one point, well, start urinating. And this goes on and on and on and on. When I saw this in Amsterdam, I thought, |Oh Christ, here we go.’ The woman next to me, who was about 65 tears old, gasped. And then she started roaring with laughter, which is what the entire audience did.”
Although certain props, costumes and bits of business may come directly from earlier productions, the bulk of the Chicago show will be generated during the group’s month-long residency prior to the festival. While this sojourn in the Second City will certainly affect the character of the piece, Camel Gossip III won’t, its creators avow, be customized for American tastes. “It’s more a reaction to the Skyline Stage architecture, or the possibilities of the architecture,” suggests Bakker, “than to American culture.”
But there’s more to getting the lay of the land than seeing how the Sky Stage tent is pitched, and to that end, Dogtroep will take on area artists as apparentices. “We not only want to show people how we work,” claims Bakker, “but get a better idea of the place we’re working in.” Not surprisingly, the set-up is quite Calvinist; the local talent gets down and dirty before getting creative. “The apparentices all start as we do when beginning a show, with physical labor. Then, if one of them has a new idea, the first reaction is usually. Okay, show it, do it.’ If he designs an object or a costume, he’s the one who has to play with it, he has to develop a scene out of it. he has to wear costume. Nobody creates ideas for others. People may create an idea together. But nobody tells another person how to work.”