I used the word 'revolutionary' when a camera crew from Theatre Rotterdam asked me what I thought of Closed Eyes. I don't know if my otherwise extraordinarily enthusiastic response will make it to the final edit, but a day later, that feeling is not gone. What Alida Dors, artistic director of Theatre Rotterdam, has shown is a revolution in the world of structurally subsidised city companies in the Netherlands.
Why is that? Alida Dors is a performer. We all know that since she was in 2022 The State of The Theatre uttered. This was not a neat union text, as is usually the case at the traditional season opening, but a combination of dance and spoken word, which made a deep impression.
New dimension of vulnerability
Now she is taking it a step further. Watching her perform yesterday as an inspiring spoken-word artist and dance leader at Closed Eyes, a piece about a rather fraught and wet consequence of our colonial history, made me realise just how extraordinary she fills her role as artistic director. She takes her ensemble onto the stage, plays a supporting role there herself, taking the concept of vulnerability to a new dimension. That is a revolution.
For vulnerable is this gesture by Dors, who as creator and manager does not wait safely behind the scenes until the applause at the end, but spends the full hour and a half in the light with her colleagues. Light that, incidentally, is also rarely effective in this performance that is dance, pop concert and film in one.
Closed Eyes is about the consequences of the construction of the Afobaka Dam in Suriname. The Dutch colonial power needed electricity for an aluminium factory and they could get it from the resulting Brokopondo reservoir: not too deep but bigger than the province of Utrecht. It was an intervention that not only affected the planetary day length of a single nanosecond, but also destroyed the lives of many thousands of people.
Maroons, people descended from those who had fled the horrors of slavery on sugar plantations, were driven out again because of an industrial revolution by enterprising Holland.
A world on the brink of death
The evening begins with a fascinating film, in which we follow a boy running through the streets of Paramaribo, on the run from something unscripted, before eventually going overboard on the giant reservoir. In those minutes of drowning, at the bottom of that lake, the hour-and-a-half-long performance unfolds that contains insanely propulsive music, not always understandable language and, above all, a lot of beautiful movement.
The three-piece ensemble with guitar, keyboards and percussion deserves special mention. Rarely have I gotten such a hall-filling sound from such a small band. From ambient sounds to rock-hard beats that automatically get you moving, at a level I would call an interesting cross between Nile Rodgers and Brian Eno. I wouldn't have been surprised if David Bowie had suddenly popped up to sing a line or two, although as Thin White Duke he probably wouldn't have had much of a place in this festively black ensemble. For now, he's as dead as John Lennon, but I digress.
The next revolution came afterwards. The usually rather impossible concrete foyer of the Rotterdam Schouwburg had turned into a churning dance party, where, after just under half an hour, Alida Dors granted her ensemble of young black dancers a glorious entry via the monumental staircase. You don't see such celebrations after National Theatre premieres, let alone ITA.
Dors brings the human scale back to theatre, and that alone is confidence-inspiring. With theatre facing as uncertain a future as the wonderful black dancers, musicians and filmmakers who make this show possible, we should cherish it very warmly. A gentle revolution. Maybe still in time.