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It was important for guests to watch their step at the 18th annual Watermill Center Summer Benefit Gala on Saturday evening, for fear of accidentally trampling atop a performance piece, or accidentally becoming part of one.


This story first appeared in the August 2, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Entry into the party was up a narrow mirrored stairway lined with hedges and illuminated by torchlight. Robert Wilson, the center’s creator, greeted guests halfway up the walk near an installation called “Milk the Cow,” which consisted of a performer rolling on the grass underfoot, periodically drawling a greeting, grabbing at ankles or exposing her cartoonishly-large rubberized faux-breasts and smearing poppy-red lipstick across her cheeks near a half-dozen buckets of cream peppered with ripe cherries.


Continuing through the entryway, gleeful guests like Katie Lee, Cindy Sherman, Ross Bleckner and Jay McInerney carefully stepped along large rocks and around a very still, shrouded woman strapped to what looked like an electric chair. Dancing around her were a few petite performers clad in elaborate suits made of black, brown and blonde women’s wigs, who gyrated like marionettes having their strings cut while a recording of a woman laughing hysterically played on loop. “You never know what’s going to happen at Watermill,” Lee laughed, shrugging her bare shoulders at the still-unmoving shrouded woman.


Once on the west terrace, a “musical steamroller” by artist Peter Coffin lazily circled Charlie le Mindu’s “glitterpool,” in which a bevy of women in G-strings and triangle bikini tops bathed themselves in silver oil and glitter. Astride the endlessly circling steamroller were five besuited musicians who make up the group People Get Ready, as well as one of the “glitterpool” girls, apparently bored of bathing. Overhead, a red paint-smeared rock climber looped endlessly around a circular series of bars, occasionally draping his limp body across a few to rest. “He’s a clock,” one of the wig-wearers whispered while apparently on break. “Get it?”


Fabiola Beracasa, Stacy Engman, Roger Waters and May Andersen wandered further into the sun-dappled woods alongside the cocktail-swilling crowd. An oversize swingset open to public use enraptured Andersen, who stayed until well after the dinner began. Others were more entranced with a glass box full of fluorescent lightbulbs and wisps of smoke, dubbed “smoke and mirrors,” and a treadmill concealed by foliage, on which a man with a red-painted face strode purposefully underneath a red neon sign that read “SEXISTO” or “EXISTO,” depending on when you were watching.


After surveying the art, performance or otherwise (and some of it went up for auction, later raising close to $1.5 million for the center), dinner guests headed down to the marquee tent for the latter half of the evening, which featured performances by Rufus Wainwright, Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem and People Get Ready, as well as an auction presided over by Simon de Pury.


Back in the woods, a pair of performers buried up to their necks remained, crooning off-key love songs into microphones laid on the earth in front of their mouths as televisions resting against tree trunks played silent solemn Spanish soap operas.


“I’ve felt like that before,” Wainwright smiled, raking a hand through his hair as he surveyed the scene and the earth-bound duet. Alan Cumming gently clapped him on the shoulder, saying, “This is such a special thing, this party. People are just…free!”

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