Elka Rifkin Comes Home to The Watermill Center

It all happened with a literal leap of faith. “A friend of mine said, ‘I want to take you skydiving for your birthday.’ It scared the hell out of me, but the desire to say yes instead of no or maybe has literally changed my life… It’s why I ended up back in Water Mill,” said Elka Rifkin, the new director of The Watermill Center. “It feels like coming home.”

The Watermill Center is the creative offspring of Robert Wilson, the peripatetically prolific playwright, director, choreographer, composer and artist perhaps best known for his Einstein on the Beach. Wilson, who’s collaborated with artists from Allen Ginsberg to Lady Gaga, purchased an untended 8.5-acre property in 1991 and, over the years, transformed it into the verdant, flourishing Watermill Center where artists and community share, support, inform and inspire one another.

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The center offers its stages, studios, libraries and living spaces to visual artists, writers, dancers, musicians, choreographers and even astronauts who either push, reject or just ignore traditional boundaries. “That goes back to Bob Wilson, whose aesthetic informs everything that happens in the summer…He comes from the idea: why do what’s already been done? What’s interesting is to do something different,” said Rifkin. The chance to be part of this communal creation is what first drew her to volunteer after meeting Wilson in 1998.

Few understand Watermill Center’s methods and goals as well as she does. From the days of tents, when the building was under reconstruction, Rifkin worked with Wilson to develop artist residencies and other programs. She first became director in 2006, but the artist/educator admitted, “I missed working with children.” Rifkin left a few years ago to direct Bridgehampton’s Ross School, and later traveled the world leading educational initiatives. But before long, both Long Island and Watermill beckoned. Now, as the summer sun ripens creative juices, it’s time for Rifkin to direct an expansive cast of characters to conjure installations, performances and events that she described as “magical.”

This year, more than 700 international artists applied for the summer programs. As she combs through potentials for the summer residencies, she’s keen on artists responding to something specific about Watermill’s collection, location or aesthetic. “We’re looking for people with interesting ideas that need time and space to experiment.” The result may be a performance in their native country or a premiere at Lincoln Center. Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramović, Tilda Swinton, Lou Reed, Trisha Brown Dance Company, Harvey Keitel and Anish Kapoor have all participated in Watermill’s activities. And the public can, too.

This summer the center presents three community events. There’s a lecture series running through August that brings a wide variety of experts to share their visions. On Discover Watermill Day, the public is invited to experience what this year’s residents have been crafting. And the annual Watermill Benefit is an enchanting midsummer dream. Dappled sunsets give way to torches as costumed performers and guests stroll through woodlands filled with artworks. This year’s guest artists, Bruce High Quality Foundation—the cutting-edge Brooklyn-based collective known for upsetting art world apple carts—conceived “As We Lay Dying,” to fill the grounds with sculptures, videos, sound and a sense of mystery.