After 10 hours of traveling, 11+ if you count some time on the tarmac in Houston, Allison and I arrived in at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and hopped on the train south to Rotterdam for our residency at the International Community Arts Festival. The airport and train station architecture has vaulted ceilings, lots of glass, steel, clean lines and, as Allison immediately remarked, quite a lot of yellow accents. While out the train window: a verdant green flat horizon, small canals interrupted by tall, white, modern windmills on one side, and old, stout wooden ones on the other. Lines of trees, evenly spaced; squat wooden farm houses that instantly make me wonder, “what history has this place seen?”; then mid-century buildings that have a sense of scale we don’t see in the US, an aesthetic that is expansive yet friendly to the human form.
After a 30 minute break in our hotel, we met Jasmina Ibrahimovic of Rotterdam Wijktheater (Rotterdam Neighborhood Theatre), and Australian theatre artist Tania Cañas who drove us across the “swan” bridge over the Nieuwe River to the south side of Rotterdam where the sanitation yard is.
Allison and I walked into the large break room to meet our future dancers.
We offered hellos, handshakes, much name repeating and some Texas pecans and pralines. (Allison “never-miss-a-meal” Orr and I take the community engagement strategy of bringing food very seriously.) Many of them have been working in sanitation for 20+ years – Ton (pronounced Tone) has 37 years on the job, Mabrouk has 27 years and Marcel with 25 is the new kid on the block.
These guys dressed in orange and blue jumpsuits serve this city of 630,000 on a daily basis (including weekend shifts every 3 weeks). Periodically they have worked with choreographers and directors and are quite experienced performers! With support from the mayor and many others, Krisztina de Châtel rehearsed with them daily for four months on a piece where drivers maneuvered carefully with dancers in the same space. We also just found that one of our trash/art heroes Mierle Ukeles worked with Roteb (as the Municipal Sanitation Department of Rotterdam is called) in 1985. And Jasmina and Rotterdam Wijktheater, our host here and organizers of the International Community Arts Festival, have created a devised theater piece with three sanitation workers. Needless to say, for these garbage guys making art, well, it’s not their first rodeo!
There is a buzz of excitement as these men talk to us about their work. I’m a little nervous and giddy trying to find rapport cross-culturally, yet there is something really familiar about this conversation. As they begin to show us vehicles, it hits me that people are often so open when it comes to talking about their jobs. All we have to do is ask. So easily and comfortably, they share the work that fills their day, their knowledge and experience, their process, the challenges of the job and how they feel about their work. Through Dutch-accented English, and the universal language of bodies and gesture, I get a window on someone else’s culture. This is one of my favorite things about my job as a community-based artist. And the best thing is, it’s never what I expect. I go in with some assumptions, sometimes educated expectations, and they always get challenged, or I get more information, more context that fills in the details in a way I’d never expect. It’s like a painting being filled in with color; like a Dutch Master, bright light reveals shades and hues that we take for granted in our daily lives. I always learn something I didn’t know about the job and, more importantly, about the people who do it.
Tomorrow Allison and I will ride out with a couple employees on the job. I’m not sure what to expect hauling trash in the Netherlands. I will job shadow Mabrouk who doesn’t speak English–and who knows how we will manage! One thing I am sure of, I will learn something new and will certainly be surprised.