In a time of fragmentation, Holland Festival 2020 connects makers and aucience

2020 was an extraordinary year for the Holland Festival. For the first time in its history the festival could not physically take place, because of the corona pandemic. In its place, the festival put an extensive programme online. The Holland Festival online programme 2.0-2.0 was the 73rd edition of the festival and the second time they had worked with an associate artist. This year, that artist was choreographer, director, writer and dancer Bill T. Jones. The intent of the festival’s online programme was to do justice to this year’s festival artists, as well as to the special position of the associate artist. From a physical event, the festival became a testing ground with a varied and cohesive selection of works all linked to the theme In pursuit of the we – in times of social distancing. The online productions were made free of charge, with the aim of reaching new audiences. Despite the physical distancing and isolation, the festival was still able to connect with its artists as well as with both familiar and new audiences. 

Facts & figures
The online programme used thirteen different formats including live streams, podcasts, video clips, exchanges of letters, masterclasses, talks and post-performance talks, films and an online exhibition. Thirty-seven programme elements by thirty-four artists and companies were online for eleven days. According to the Google Analytics data, the festival drew over 42,000 visitors to its own website. YouTube’s streaming service counted over 100,000 views of its Holland Festival programmes.

Associate artist and festival theme
Bill T. Jones had given the festival its theme In pursuit of the we. His work has always examined themes such as race, gender and (in)equality, but his gaze has gradually shifted from the individual to the ‘we’. His (cancelled) performance Deep Blue Sea would have begun with Jones alone on stage, and ended with a hundred dancers sharing the stage with him. This phenomenon returned in I know…, a digital ritual by Jones and video artist Ruben Van Leer. This on-screen mosaic brought together over a hundred video messages from people telling what they ‘really know’. The festival also produced The Problem, a video montage about the world of ideas behind Deep Blue Sea. Ikenna Azuike moderated a conversation between Jones and writer Ellen Ombre, visual artist Melanie Bonajo and activist/choreographer Naomie Pieter called Is there a we?. Writer and Jones aficionado Alessandra Nicifero put together the interactive portrait How Can I Recognize You?, in which Jones’ forty-plus-year career was digitally presented in text, photos and video images. Lastly, Jones gave a master class for young musical theatre makers, for the Holland Festival, in collaboration with the Dutch National Opera. 

Bill T. Jones and the Holland Festival went in search of this ‘we’. The world-wide pandemic and the protests following the death of George Floyd made the festival’s theme even more urgent and relevant. Inspired by the performance The Just & The Blind, spoken-word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain and choreographer/dancer Drew Dollaz entered into a live-streamed conversation with each other and the audience about the current situation and about institutional racism in the United States and elsewhere.

Musical world premieres
For the project When Paths Meet – now rescheduled for the Holland Festival 2021 – the world-famous singer, composer and instrumentalist Sami Yusuf is working with Cappella Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Andalusian Orchestra. Yusuf premiered a new song exclusively for Holland Festival 2.0-2.0, the ‘remotely-completed’ ONE. He used German texts by the 13th-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and Arabic texts by the 13th-century Andalusian mystic and poet Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari. The texts are connected by a theme: they both speak of one vision, one knowledge, one love. Since the world premiere of ONE during the online festival, it has had over 100,000 views worldwide. Alicia Hall Moran worked from her living room, and turned her performance piece the motown project into a music video, with all her musicians recording their parts from home. In Bitter/Sweet,Cappella Amsterdam and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century presented a tribute to the orchestra’s founder Frans Brüggen, as well as to Louis Andriessen, the composer of the work Sweet referred to in the title. During the recordings of the concert, recorder player Lucie Horsch was awarded the Dutch Music Prize by the Minister of Culture, Ingrid Van Engelshoven. 

Remarkable projects
The festival collaborated with the Bergen (Norway) National Opera on an audio project by Scottish sound artist Zoe Irvine, entitled This Evening’s Performance Has Not Been Cancelled. Audience members could speak by phone with staff members from various European opera houses and festivals, including Holland Festival representatives conversing about the Dutch National Opera’s production of Rusalka as well as The Murder of Halit Yozgat by Ben Frost and Staatstheater Hannover. A film was made during the rehearsals of The Murder of Halit Yozgat in June which was available for viewing via online stream. The festival took part in the initiative Festivals for Compassion, which presented a new solo composition by the nation’s composer laureate, Calliope Tsoupaki, Thin Air, performed for the festival by guitarist Wiek Hijmans. There was also work by Ho Tzu Nyen, Rokia Traoré, Snarky Puppy, Micha Hamel, BOG. and a recording of Susanne Kennedy’s Drei Schwestern. Garin Nugroho’s film Memories of My Body, the Indonesian Oscar entry in the Best International Feature Film category, opened the online programme. 

Listening and watching
In a series of podcasts made for the Holland Festival by the weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, host Stephan Sanders spoke with experts and critics about Alicia Hall Moran’s the motown project, Elaine Mitchener’s The Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde, Glory & Tears by the Collectief Love & Revenge, Jozef Wouters’ INFINI 1-16 and about the African-American theatre maker Rufus Collins. The only programme for which the public could buy tickets was Jem Finer’s Longplayer, a composition lasting a thousand years, for singing bowls, with visitors listening one at a time to a half-hour fragment in the tower of Amsterdam’s Lloyd Hotel.

The Holland Festival sees this year’s edition as a testing ground and is exploring the possibility of continuing with some of these new forms in future editions. The festival has given a stage to thirty-four artists, reached a new, large and younger audience and increased its online visibility.