On Saturday afternoon, Utrecht Jaarbeursplein turned into a catwalk. Over 150 city residents paraded along the raised runway that ran across the renovated open space in front of the Beatrix Theatre towards the stairs leading to the Central Station. The staircase, already one of the iconic Utrecht landmarks, buzzed with the crowd that came to celebrate both the re-opening of the Jaarbeursplein and the start of the Uitfeest Cultural Festival.
The collective performance What Is The City but the People? is the brain child of British artist Jeremy Deller, who had first staged the event at the opening of Manchester International Festival in 2017. This year the show was brought to Utrecht by BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht in collaboration with the Central Museum Utrecht and SPRING Performing Arts Festival, Utrecht.
The show took months of preparation and meticulous planning; from finding the right people to represent the rich and diverse Utrecht population, to composing a bespoke soundtrack to go along with the performances. As each participant took stage, their stories flashed briefly in simple black letters over a white background on two giant screens at each side of the catwalk. The astounding simplicity of the stage design left us in no doubt; it was all about the people.
So who is a typical Utrechter? Is he a daring young man who challenged the boundaries between public and private space when he proudly strolled naked in front of the cheering crowd? Is she a 101-year-old lady who walked along with the city Mayor Jan van Zanen?
Or perhaps the home of Miffy is best represented by the face of an innocent and curious newborn from Dick Bruna’s heartwarming drawing on the onesies given out to every child born in Utrecht? For the city that has recently welcomed its 350,000th resident, it would indeed be highly appropriate. Children and young people brought energy and vibe of their potential futures to the tapestry of grown-ups’ life experiences and causes that Utrecht people are passionate about, from animal rights to climate change.
As more and more participants took stage, there came perhaps the most important moment in the performance when the audience joined in, singing, dancing and passing around the balls thrown down from the platform. The catwalk participants mingled with the spectators; a few youngsters dared climb onto the podium. The city’s face became everyone’s face.
Is this what it means to live in an “open city”, collaborative rather than prescribing?
Is this the message that the show creators wanted to send to the people of Utrecht? I
n the upcoming interview with BAK Artistic Director Maria Hlavajova, we will try to answer these and many other questions about the event, its impact, and its significance for Utrecht cultural life. Stay tuned!
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