White rooms welcome views of the bay from every perspective. KYRIL BROMLEY
The Watermill Center is a mystery for many people. Everyone knows about the center’s gala summer benefit, which overflows with celebrities, but they don’t know what really happens there.
Part of the Watermill Center’s mystery is because the building and grounds are not located on a main street in a village. The building is set back from the road in the hamlet of Water Mill, with a very small sign to indicate its presence.
When Robert Wilson started the Watermill Center, he did projects with artists-in-residence for five or six weeks in the summer. He created and rehearsed with dancers and theater people for productions of performance art. It started as a place where ideas could be created and incubate.
Mr. Wilson is from Waco, Texas, but his work is performed all over the globe. As a director, playwright and collaborator, he collaborated with Philip Glass to stage “Einstein on the Beach,” originally performed over five hours.
After finding the former Western Union research facility in Water Mill, Mr. Wilson completely renovated it. Now the Watermill Center functions as a work/living space and includes a research library, galleries, rehearsal and performance spaces, and offices, all in a 20,000-square-foot building on 8.5 acres. It is located at 39 Water Mill-Towd Road.
Archivist Nixon Beltran, who is the center manager and is in charge of the grounds, works with Mr. Wilson and local landscape architects to maintain the quality that is required. Mr. Beltran came for the summer program as a dancer and is still at the center 15 years later.
Tours for the public are offered on select Wednesdays and Saturdays, and private tours are available. The center has a permanent collection of eclectic, personal art curated by Mr. Wilson himself. It ranges from prehistoric sculpture and Indonesian artifacts to a collection of chairs. Unlike most museums, objects can be held and touched. Some artists whose work is featured in the collection are Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe.
But the main reason that the Watermill Center is unique is that its focus is on the artist-in-residence program for dance, theater, performing arts—and now expanding to include visual artists, filmmakers and writers.
The artist-in-residence programs vary from two to six weeks, with some interaction with the public midway through the artists’ stays. Every artist is expected to perform or share works-in-progress during this time. They used to be called rehearsals, because many of the projects were theater, dance or performance pieces. Now they are called “In Process Viewing,” because of the expanded forms of art represented.
The emphasis is on process, not finished product. The advantage to the artists is that they get to see audience reactions, and for the audience, an opportunity to see the creative juices flow with trial and error and false starts. The Watermill Center is a living museum with the artists-in-residence being the living art.
Director Elka Rifkin is expanding the Watermill Center’s outreach into the community by hiring local artists to assist and work there.
Artist Almond Zigmund is the coordinator and residency administrator. She brings an artist’s sensibility and, as she puts it, “a certain empathy and understanding to what artists might need, a bridge to creative solutions.” She orients the artists when they arrive, and organizes where they will stay—either in the dormitory in the main building or in a house off-campus. They are introduced to the collection, the library and the allocation of rehearsal space and basic scheduling.
“Different disciplines expose me to different ways of making art,” Ms. Zigmund said. An artist learns from other artists.
P.L.U.T.O.—an acronym for People Leading Universal Theatre Organization—put on a recent In Process performance of “Black Box.” The group is an ensemble of stage directors, actors and writers formed in 2015 at Lincoln Center Director’s Lab. “Black Box” communicates a dialogue between their various backgrounds and cultures. Their performance was both charming and thought provoking.
Five performers—from Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and France—dressed in navy blue jumpsuits, had pre-filled the same size black boxes with personal ephemera, photos, newspapers, fabric, a tambourine, eyeglasses, paperback books, articles of clothing, all laid out in a pattern on the floor that only the performers understood. They did a series of vignettes.
In one, an audience member selects an object from a box and each of the five performers talks about what it means to them. “I pray to this stamp,” one says. “It has the power of prophecy,” says another. Each telling why the stamp is important to them, real or made up, we don’t know, nor does it matter.
In one memorable vignette, they piled all the stuff up on one actress, signifying all the baggage and attachment to belongings that individuals carry. As the objects obscured her face, she bent her knee slowly and all the objects tumbled to the ground.
Another vignette had three actors sitting on three folding chairs reading aloud from three different newspapers, in French, German and Portuguese. One person started reading much louder that the other two, creating a dissonance not unlike the talking heads shouting at each other on CNN.
At the end, the performers put all the objects on the floor in the same order as at the beginning. Traffic noises in the background. END. The audience clapped.
Another way Ms. Rifkin is expanding the Watermill Center’s reach is by meeting with other museums and arts organizations on the East End to collaborate on programs and to share events. The Watermill Center meets once a month with Guild Hall, the Parrish Art Museum, Bay Street Theater, Southampton Arts Center, LongHouse Reserve and Hamptons International Film Festival to brainstorm ideas. The center has also worked with Peconic Landing and Head Start.
The Watermill Center recently hosted the dance group El Collegio del Cuerpo from Colombia, which did a collaborative performance with members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.
“This might be a template for future interaction and community involvement,” Ms. Rifkin said. “It’s a way to expand people’s understanding of the creative process.”
Public and private schools are another bridge to the community. A professional development session for teachers held a roundtable discussion at the Watermill Center and one teacher said, “I can breathe here.”
They have tried dual language programs and the Hayground School in Bridgehampton came every day during the month of January to work on a performance piece to be shown later in the year.
Ms. Rifkin said Mr. Wilson is the Watermill Center’s greatest fundraiser because of his unbridled enthusiasm. But Robert Wilson is now 75 years old. The Watermill Center is working toward an endowment to be financially sustainable in the future to continue being “an interdisciplinary laboratory for the arts and humanities.”
And a heads-up: Every summer, about two weeks after the Summer Benefit & Auction—which generates half of the Watermill Center’s operating budget, and this year is scheduled for July 29—the center holds “Discover Watermill Day,” when the artists re-create many of the gala performances free for the public, and many children’s activities are offered. This year, it is August 13, from 3 to 6 p.m., giving the general public the opportunity to see for free what the glitterati paid $1,500 to experience.
The Watermill Center should be a mystery no longer.
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