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Around 6 p.m. on Saturday, a long line of people in exuberant costumes snaked down Water Mill Towd Road. It was a few minutes before the doors opened on the annual Watermill Center benefit and the crowd bobbed and craned their necks to try to make out what lay behind a wall of trees.
They have learned from 21 years of coming here to expect a wild spectacle from Robert Wilson, a showman who uses every trick at his disposal year after year to conjure up his version of the Ziegfeld Follies, only instead of chorus girls there are performance artists. Wilson set a high bar for himself last year by inviting an at-her-apex Lady Gaga for an appearance.
She was there this year, too, if only in spirit — the singer was the subject of a series of video portraits by Wilson, though perhaps because her stock has dropped, she didn’t quite pack the punch she might have had once. Instead, she was upstaged by the gang of performance artists Wilson enlisted for the occasion.
“There’s nothing like it,” Lisa Perry said. “Everyone always says, ‘Isn’t this the greatest event in the Hamptons?’ You don’t see anything like this in the world.”
Perry, and husband Richard, were making their way through an eclectic path in the center’s backwoods that featured more than 30 performers — a couple, Gintare Minelgaite and Baboo Liao, in nothing but tighty whities and Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald masks; an opera singer, Joëlle Beli-Titi, performing from a hole in the ground; two guys fighting through what seemed like a foam wall, a segment from a new piece by Greek artist Dimitris Papaioannou. Jim Jarmusch and composer Phil Kline improvised what the filmmaker called “some kind of drone music” inside the Watermill building.
All the artists performed for about two hours before dinner for an equally diverse crowd that included Kim Cattrall, Philip Glass, Isabelle Huppert, artist Daniel Arsham, Constance Jablonski, Kelly Rutherford, Kuwaiti art collector Sheikha Paula Al Sabah and the Whitney Contemporaries founder Lisa Anastos.
In the Hamptons, some events never change, and perhaps that’s part of the appeal. Earlier in the day, Super Saturday, the massive garage sale for cancer research, unfolded uninterrupted just like it has for the past 17 years, despite a robbery earlier in the week of its storage facility. A stampede of shoppers — Kelly Ripa, Katie Lee, Ali Wentworth and Alec and Hilaria Baldwin among them — descended on Nova’s Ark Project in Water Mill inhaling every bargain in sight.
“I come here every year,” Gayle King said. “I don’t need another shoe or dress, but you get caught up in the art of the deal and I like a good sale. I got three pairs of shoes for $250!”
A town over in East Hampton later that night, Jessica Seinfeld as she does every year coaxed to her home those celebrity parents who frequent the South Fork of Long Island — the Baldwins, Seinfeld besties Wentworth and George Stephanopoulos, Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick, Nacho Figueras and Delfina Blaquier, Rachel Zoe and Rodger Berman — for the Baby Buggy Summer Dinner, this year sponsored by Giorgio Armani.
“It’s especially important right now because the world is so chaotic and people want to feel like they can help somehow,” Seinfeld said of the nonprofit, which she established in 2001. It provides diapers, cribs and the like to families in need. “It’s microcosmic. If you help a baby, you help a family. When you help a family, you help a community. When you help a community, you affect change in a real way.”
“Ahem!” Wentworth breathed into the mic as guests shuffled around their tables finding their place cards. “We’d like dessert to come out before 3 a.m., so let’s start this evening. Thank you for being here. Cystic Fibrosis is incredibly…” she cracked to nervous laughter. “Pardon me! Wrong dinner.”
At Watermill, some traditions are observed every year — for instance, Wilson’s habit of uncomfortably long pauses before he starts the live auction. But mainly, he keeps everyone guessing — some years are provocative, others tame. “It was very childlike and fairytale-like. It was much more soft and gentle this year,” Cattrall said. Paul Williams, the legendary singer-songwriter, was a first-timer. “It’s an amazing amalgamation of San Francisco in the Sixties and Andy Warhol’s Factory,” he said.
Wilson was off in the woods for most of the afternoon giving personalized tours of the performances until it was time for dinner. He arrived to the dinner with some flair, looking knightly in a robe with a gold trim — or was it a caftan? — that recalled Obi-Wan Kenobi.
How does he top the gala every year? “I don’t know if it’s to top it. It’s just bringing in another wave of young artists. That’s what exciting to see,” the Jedi Master of performance art said. Some of the artists write him letters, others are recommended. “I always feel like when you’re collecting art, the artwork finds you and you don’t have to look for it.”