Skip to content
  • News

Seven shades of SPRING


Essay by Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink, Assistant professor in Theatre and Performance Studies, Utrecht University

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. 

Festivals are amorphous phenomena: they are intangible and forever changing shape, resulting in a highly personal festival experience, different for each visitor. Taking this as her starting point, Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink offers a necessarily random cross section of ten years of SPRING. A section divided along seven characteristics, clearly shaded in by personal experience, certainly incomplete, yet hopefully resonant with those of other festival visitors or an invitation to create your own retrospective.


Did you see the show by Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek? Did that really happen? Was that a dildo? Why all this nudity on stage? And why should I have to watch it? Opinions differ vastly, in 2014, when Holzinger and Riebeek jack up their audience performing Wellness, a show about today’s pumped-up body culture, competition and scoring urge, and hyped-up health cult. A show with a very unique aesthetic that plays with camp and kitsch, pornography and provocation, but that also tackles highly authentic questions around how to live with/on Facebook and Instagram, culminating in a sliding ballet by oil-soaked bodies snaking across the floor in yoga poses. Is this brilliance, or are we witnessing vacuousness above all else? There are spirited talks afterwards in the foyers and in the garden at Het Huis. That’s what makes a festival into a festival, and it’s what would evolve as SPRING characteristics: provocation, conversation, encounter. In the years following 2014 Holzinger and Riebeek become recurring guests, sometimes together, sometimes alone or in different constellations. Their work, and that of other much-talked-about makers like Dries Verhoeven or Julian Hetzel, seems symptomatic for SPRING: cutting edge, slightly discomforting, highly relevant.


Crunch, crunch, ssshhhh, splish, splash, grush, sleeex, swoosh: we hear a range of undefined noises in the pitch-black. Without compromise, no green filters covering emergency exit signs: all the lights are completely dark. We are in pitch darkness. For at least half an hour, it feels like. We hear shoving sounds. Mass, moving around. Splash. Whhirsh. Scrunch. Scrunch. Swooshh. As the darkness transports us to a different realm, something suddenly appears to be moving. A vague, glowing light appears. And then something else. Very slowly we become aware there are bodies. Bodies moving across a sea of squashed fruit, as ultimately becomes apparent. Raspberries, passion fruit, bananas… The sounds, the colours, the sensations, the languid moving bodies: it is as if I’ve been given a new pair of eyes. The darkness has intensified my gaze and given me a keen new focus. This is Memento Mori (2014) by the French theatre maker Pascal Rambert and lighting designer Ives Godin. But what is it: theatre? Dance? Performance art? An installation? We don’t know, and what does it matter at this point? It’s a theatrical experience, something that sharpens the senses and places perception centre stage:

this too is SPRING. Cross-over work, beyond the disciplines, radically making optimum use of all the options a theatre offers in terms of perception. And there are other makers, such as Giselle Vienne or Kris Verdonck, who ardently explore the theatre as a viewing-box. During one SPRING-seminar Kris Verdonck’s work was described as ‘operatic’. Very apt, even though there’s no singing at all in work like ‘dance-mobilé’ I/II/III/IV (2008, Festival aan de Werf), or in the universe of strange objects SOMETHING (out of nothing) (2019, with ICK), or ‘sleep show’ EXIT (2020). The same applies to Giselle Vienne’s Crowd, which shows the aftermath of a rave party in extreme slow motion: when the theatre space is deployed in optima forma, theatre takes on an operatic scale, one could say. Indoor Weather (2022), by young Flemish makers Ezra Veldhuis and Bosse Provoost can be grouped under the same moniker, as it literally and metaphorically changes the atmosphere inside the theatre to get us to reflect on the climate outside it.


SPRING has always been an internationally oriented festival. While in the early years the emphasis would be on shows from France, Spain or Portugal, more recently the focus has increasingly shifted toward regions beyond Europe, with a recurring role for theatre makers from Southeast Asia. Examples are Eko Supriyanto/Ekos Dance Company (Indonesia), Ho Rui An (Singapore), and Isaac Chong Wai (Hong Kong/Berlin). SPRING has grown into a festival where visitors can see work they won’t often see during the remainder of the

year, and become acquainted with stories and perspectives that aren’t generally heard or seen here. For instance, what do we here know about the huge economic crisis in South-Korea during the late 1990s? In Cuckoo (2019) Jaha Koo and three generations of rice cookers tell us about the far-reaching impact it had – staggering youth unemployment, social isolation, rising numbers of suicides – with amazing light-heartedness and very movingly. Another subtle presence in several shows from the region – although the festival would be loath to generalise all these different works – is a kind of animism in relation to technology, showing machines or appliances as buddies rather than a mere functionality or replacement of humans. The talking rice cookers in Cuckoo also serve to fill some of the loneliness; a robot dog and three other AI’s talk about themselves to each other in Jinsun Kim’s Deep Present (2018); in CPR Practice (2015) we see Geumhyung Jeongs’ sensual-erotic liaison with a CPR dummy.


I’m sure there are other festivals that kick off with a speech by their artistic director. I just don’t know any. More often, vision statements on festivals and the work presented there are offered in festival brochures – if at all. Not so at SPRING. Not only did SPRING-programme directors Rainer Hofmann and Karlien Vanhoonacker take their jobs as hosts very seriously over the past years by giving live introductions and motivations for each show, but every year, Rainer’s speech on opening night was something to look forward to. Instead of stringing together a few obligatory phrases, he would offer incisive analyses: of the way, for instance, Europe has deteriorated from a project founded on liberal values to a calculated economic formula, of how ‘culture’ is being annexed by populist movements, or whether it is the job of the arts to solve social problems. The year 2017 is an absolute high point. Immediately before the opening show Prelude to a Purge by the Cape-Verdean

choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas, Rainer was sitting on the edge of the stage, in a costume from the show and the larger-than-life stage make-up characteristic of Freitas: lips covered in a thick layer of black lipstick, eyes heavily lined with kohl pencil. A brilliant solution that ensures the show’s opening image remains intact and that is a precise testament to the courage of both this show, and the combined speeches and programmes at SPRING. Since 1 June 2021 Grzegorz Reske has been SPRING’s artistic director. Let’s hope the speeches will be continued!


And yes, things do sometimes go wrong, in spite of everyone’s best intentions. I’m reminded of Transfrontalier (2019) by dancer Zora Snake from Cameroon. In his show, he wraps himself in barbed wire, asking some painful questions about closed borders, (lack of) freedom, socio-economic inequality, and migration. Starting in Neude square, he slowly makes his way towards Ganzenmarkt. It falls to the festival volunteers to guide the audience following him and make sure they don’t hinder traffic. Two ladies with shiny shopping bags pass by unsuspectingly. They are sincerely startled by this nearly naked man draped in barbed wire, and stop to ask ‘What’s this?’. Two volunteers, multitasking in their attempts at keeping safe their audience, whose eyes and minds are elsewhere, they tell the shoppers: ‘It’s art.’ Ouch. Oh well, these things happen, of course. But it is a shame, because it does nothing to close the gap: these ladies out shopping will now think twice before they ever go and see any ‘art’ again. Which is a pity, because SPRING actually does bring art into public space with great care and much thought. Offering work that invites debate, like Dries Verhoeven’s Ceci n’est pas (2013) about social taboos or Wanna Play? about Grindr-dating (2015). Thankfully, most times things do work out very well, and largely thanks to the efforts of trained volunteers who are deliberately there to mobilise or guide the debate.


A festival is a party, it’s compressed time. You bring people together, show some thought-provoking works of art, and hopefully it leads to encounter and debate. In this spirit Spring Academy was born, and conversely, it is this festival spirit that Spring Academy feeds into. Consecutive Academy curators Aukje Verhoog, Zeynep Gündüz and Joost Segers compile inspiring programmes for various groups of students and professionals, increasingly international ones in the pre-corona years (with De Montfort University from Leicester as regulars). After-show talks, workshops, artist talks, debates, shared performative reflection; without fail, students leave the festival feeling elevated. These past few years, the festival has also been a place for residencies, where makers can share work-in-progress and host open studios, where exchanges with students act as valuable feedback. In 2022 the Japanese- Korean dancer Jija Sohn (with Dans Brabant) is working on an artistic research into solidarity and care. For two days, she works with students from Utrecht University, who end up playing an active, and caring, role in Sohn’s midterm presentation – the project will be continued in 2023.


It’s impossible to capture ten years of SPRING in a single image or show. But if I were forced to make a choice, this impressive lady would certainly be a contender: Doris Uhlich – she dances, and sometimes she destroys things. She inhabits a sizeable body and her work raises questions such as: who is allowed to be onstage, can you dance onstage if your movements aren’t elegant or if yours is not a buff, trained dancer’s body? And the answer is a resounding yes, why not?! In Ravemachine (2018) she dances a fantastic duet with Michael Turinsky, a wheelchair-bound philosopher and choreographer. Both of them go at it with wild abandon. Turinsky is dragged from his wheelchair, they form a trio, Doris clambers into the chair, or they both dance on their knees, an old wheelchair is blown to smithereens, they are having a wonderful time. It’s festive and it’s rough and explosive. As part of SPRING Academy my students and I had a beautiful conversation with her, about the ethics and aesthetics of rave parties. About how these are not about outward beauty, but about sharing energy. There’s no point in putting on make-up if you’re sweating all night and going crazy. Raving is also about fundamental equality. Everyone is equal on the dance floor. All of us going into that trance. My students have grown up with Insta and TikTok, and although they may not want to, they cannot ignore them. It is such a relief to them, I can tell, to hear Doris share this perspective, and to see such an example of making the stage your own, to tell your story. This kind of artist talks demonstrate how art offers a completely unique perspective on the world and how it is able to question the beaten path, the standard way of thinking. This is what SPRING is all about. A festival is a party. And there must be dancing at a (closing) party. With guests like House of Vineyard or the fantastic dance organ by Decap Beat Machine as an entourage. People dancing into the wee hours. Inspired and ready for what the festival may bring next year.


Motion on Motion off