Construction workers doing double time building the Skyline Stage on Navy Pier don't even bother with a double take when a woman wearing a ratty white wig and pouf of a miniskirt over her faded jeans strides through the site. She walks past roofers completing the concession stands, electricians wiring on the catwalk, and climbs on the stage. There she opens the door of a makeshift cabinet on wheels. She climbs inside, squats, and wiggles her hips. With her knees tucked under her skirt, she looks like a dancing midget.
"It's very strange," reports Lynn, an electrician wiring the back of the theater. "We don't understand why they're there. We have no clue."
This is what happens when a performance art troupe tries to stage a site-specific work and the site specified hasn't yet been built. The International Theatre Festival had been expecting the Skyline Stage to be ready by May 1. That was the day Dogtroep, the festival's opening act, arrived from Holland with a cargo container full of bicycles, costumes, and hand-held power tools to begin building the set for Camel Gossip III.
This isn't your ordinary two-act drama. It's more a whimsical spectacle incorporating music, dance, 20 minutes of onstage rain, and a 27-foot-tall tricycle. Dogtroep's modus operandi is to hang out in the space where the group plans to perform, watch the people, feel the vibes, then build a set and write a script in response to the environment. "We really get into the building," says Jos Zandvliet, the group's artistic director. "Sometimes we even think we're construction workers."
Dogtroep has performed on a snow-covered hillside during the Winter Olympics in Albertville, in front of the opera house in Frankfurt, and in the scorching heat of Seville. Each production is different. In France performers and buildings emerged from under the snow. In Germany the company members worked with huge flames; in Spain they played with water. This is the first time the group will actually perform in a theater. And it's also the first time it has created a show in an environment that's constantly changing. "I felt awful at first," Zandvliet says about the mayhem on the pier. But Dogtroep has adapted.
The group has been building sets from scraps found on the construction site. One became a huge hodgepodge of a sculpture, a fanciful, teetering skyscraper made of gauze, two-by-fours, and cardboard boxes. A deliberately flimsy construction, it seemed to mock the workers building with mortar and steel. A week later it was gone. In its place stood another precarious assemblage.
Just before the second piece was completed, a member of the group reports, a carpenter asked, "Is this being built by a union carpenter?"
"Does it look like it's made by a union carpenter?" a guy from Dogtroep replied.
"Well, a union carpenter has to build it," the union carpenter answered.
"I don't think a union carpenter could have built this!" the Dogtroep guy said. And he's right. "If you took one pole away," says Han Bakker, Dogtroep's executive director, "the whole thing would come tumbling down."
In the middle of Navy Pier's organized labor, Dogtroep workers follow the seemingly disorganized logic of artists. "[We're doing] something different than pouring concrete," says Zandvliet. "We're trying to stretch people's perception of the world. In Dutch, we say, 'We put them on a different leg.'"
Perhaps Dogtroep is already standing on a different leg. "We saw them dismantling this big wood and cardboard structure from the bottom up!" laughs Lynn, the electrician. "It's like, uh, sweetie? That thing's going to collapse on you."
Dogtroep will perform at Navy Pier Skyline Stage, Grand Avenue at the lake, Wednesday, June 1, through Sunday, June 19. All shows are at 9 PM. Tickets are $21-$26, children half price. For information or reservations call 831-2822.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.