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10 years of SPRING: a journey through time


Let’s zoom in on specific focus areas, elements and developments across ten years’ worth of SPRING programmes.

SPRING exists 10 years and therefore we released a special anniversary book with a retrospect on the past 10 years of SPRING in Utrecht and inspiring essays. In the coming months, we will share these essays on our website. We start with a journey through 10 years of SPRING, written by journalist and dramatist Moos van den Broek.

In 2013 Springdance and Festival a/d Werf merged, a dance festival and a festival for site-specific work with a major focus on young artists. The two converged to form a new Utrecht-based platform dedicated to international developments in the performing arts. Strikingly, much of the historically established identities of the two festivals remained intact after the merge. Let’s zoom in on specific focus areas, elements and developments across ten years’ worth of SPRING programmes.

‘Let’s come together’, the one and the many’, ‘body of resistance’; the various slogans I come across as I look back reveal a strong socio-political focus, which increased steadily under Rainer Hofmann’s inspiring leadership. The sense of engagement is reflected in the selection of internationally less visible artists. Their often vulnerable work provides insight into cultures, countries, or lives. Take for instance the works of a recurring festival guest, the Indonesian choreographer Eko Supriyanto. In his pared-down way, he deconstructs his country’s traditions to create contemporary performances. In particular his all-female piece IBUIBU BELU: Bodies of Borders (2021) left an indelible impression on me. The show dissects the impact of borders on the body, mind and memory. Supriyanto’s artistic research with the women is more than a mere recalibration of traditions; it is a quest to find the ultimate liberation from limitations. It’s as political as the personal can become. In a very different way, the Taiwanese choreographer Fang Yun Lo highlights the same topic. In his equally straightforward and disarming show Unsolved he uncovers his family history and with it, the complex history of his native ground.

During the early years of SPRING Performing Arts Festival, traces remained of the conceptual movements in dance that had been a staple of Springdance’s profile for many years. But a new age dawned; dance was allowed to be virtuosic once more, and theatrical, and visually appealing. It was reflected in the wide range of dance performances at SPRING. One example is the show Complexity of Belonging, a theatrical dance show with ample text and sophisticated digital components. Choreographer Anouk van Dijk and director/writer Falk Richter revealed the great loneliness that marks our society today. In their document of our times, which is as incisive as it is funny and which features virtuosic dancing, they play with the dancers’ fragmented lives. Travelling all over the world, their social lives are conducted and maintained via digital interactions. SPRING has always been early to recognise the consequences of this new world, and showcases the issues in innovative performances.

Another development is the welcoming of club life, which like hip hop blew in from across the Atlantic from New York City. The work of four international dance makers acts as a trailblazer: Cecilia Bengolea, Trajal Harell, Francois Chaignaud and Marlene Monteiro Freitas. Once the latter establishes her own practice, she develops a unique personal signature and creates work that straddles the line between visual art, dance and music. An international breakthrough follows. If there is one dance maker internationally whose work the festival has followed closely, it’s that of the Cape-Verdean Freitas. She opens the festival in 2018 with her dynamic and Dadaist group work Bacchae – Prelude to a Purge, inspired by Euripides’ Bacchae, in which she lets voice, body and instrument bleed into one another. Freitas scours the limits of abstraction; it’s virtuous madness at its best! Let’s hope we will see this singular artist return to SPRING.

The trend not only emerges in the international dance field; Dutch theatre makers also begin to research the codes in music and club life in their work. Think for instance of director and performer Naomi Velissariou and musician Joost Maaskant. In their trilogy Permanent Destruction – coproduced with Theater Utrecht – they dissect the concept of a pop concert in fascinating ways. Form and content coincide organically, with existing theatre texts by Sarah Kane and Heiner Müller forming the backbone in the first two instalments.

The SPRING programme not only embraces contemporary developments in dance; it also upholds Festival a/d Werf’s profile in its many site-specific projects. A leading factor for this programmatic line has traditionally been the politically charged work of Dries Verhoeven. A highlight was his exhibition Ceci n’est pas, in which he created living statues with ‘real’ performers whom he placed in glass display boxes in the street. The work explores various forms of social awkwardness and attempts to spark a debate in public space on themes such as discrimination, oppression, and violence. Verhoeven went on to take things one step further. In the megaproject Sic transit gloria mundi he next raised the question who owns our public spaces. To do so, he created a huge overhaul of Neude square to accommodate a fictional work of art. Self-mockery abounds in the work; the gigantic statue of Verhoeven lying on his side, i.e., ‘fallen’, symbolises the end of Western hegemony. After years of invasive and pervasive construction work around Utrecht Central Station and the Hoog Catharijne buildings, Verhoeven coolly treats the city to yet another big and noisy construction site. The project evokes a fair amount of confusion – and vexation – and holds a mirror up to Utrecht society.

Another Utrecht-based maker whose development has gone hand in hand with SPRING’s site-specific line is Boukje Schweigman. Her work also has a strong visual focus and centres on the spatial experience, albeit in a very different way. Schweigman steers clear of politically charged messages and instead makes way for magic, wonder, consolation, and beauty. For SPRING, she reprises her unforgettable hit performance WIEK, which sees four dancers battling it out against a horizontally turning windmill. She goes on to create events with a strong visual component, such as Spectrum, in which she subjects her audience to an intense, physical experience. Some artists’ concepts are participative in nature, while others are more receptive. Some like to navigate the space between, like Benjamin VanderWalle. In his work, he literally directs the viewers’ gaze. We wander the city streets with him, sitting in curious little carts or wearing goggles in various shapes and sizes. It makes us see the city from a completely new perspective. In line with its history, SPRING continues to experiment both inside the black box and outside it. Over the years, these developments have been grouped under different names, such as site-specific theatre, participatory theatre or interactive theatre. Influenced in part by the rise of gaming, the latest moniker is ‘immersive theatre’, a term that is also used in visual art; art that allows the viewer to really dive in.

‘What is the value of the human body in our digitalised society’ and ‘how do we connect’ are essential questions in a world where authentic bodies seem to become increasingly less paramount, and communication is becoming a technological affair. The SPRING programme makes ample room for highlighting digitalisation. Complexity of Belonging (the opening show in 2015) is one example, but it really becomes tangible in the 2019 edition when artists like Stephan Kaegi (Uncanny Valley) and Dries Verhoeven (Happiness) set the tone and let robots replace actors. Uncannily, the theme literally took centre stage when in 2020, the festival was forced to present a digital edition, due to the corona pandemic. Interconnected as they were, the successive 2019 and 2020 editions came to symbolise the state of the whole world. It wasn’t until 2022 that SPRING was able to present a completely live edition. And if there is one thing that clearly emerges from the state of ten years of SPRING, it is that the digital experience is no alternative for the live experience. On the contrary; the live encounter is exactly what the theatre is all about, even if the actors are replaced by robots.

SPRING is genuinely concerned with young artists and their artistic development. True to Festival a/d Werf tradition (and that of Huis a/d Werf, now Het Huis) a good number of young makers have featured big on the programme. The festival does more than just provide them with ways to reach audiences. The network of international festivals that SPRING Performing Arts Festival is part of, acts as a springboard to the international community. Julian Hetzel, Samira Elagoz, Florentina Holzinger, Sanja Mitrovic, TILT; they have each found their way onto this international circuit. For young artists, this means they can find new coproducers and more scope for developing new work. Both are essential for fueling growth.

In the immersive theatre tradition, theatre maker Julian Hetzel is given free rein to define his work. His Schuldfabrik, for instance, centers on soap production. We witness how the product is made from human body fat, a reference to the horrific experiments conducted during World War II, but also a way to condemn our consumer society and non-stop productivity. We wash the guilt away, because the proceeds of the soap sales go to charity. As part of SPRING’s overall engagement Hetzel has been able to freely carve out his experimental, activist style. A freedom that is extended to other young makers too. It helps them connect with the international circuit; from the Volksbühne in Berlin to Festival Avignon and the Venice Biennale. And so, completely in line with its history, it turns out that SPRING Performing Arts Festival is not just an exciting festival with a strong commitment to its audiences, but also a good sparring partner for talented young artists and their development.

Moos van den Broek
Dramaturg, programmer and journalist


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