The art of walking comes to Holkham Beach

Walking will become an art form on the Holkham Nature Reserve next week thanks to legendary theatre artist Robert Wilson who offers the climax of Norfolk's Cultural Olympiad contribution. IAN COLLINS checks out the route.

Holkham Bay is, as we know, one of the world's great wonders — and next week, thanks to one of the world's great artists, it will be turned into a wild and wonderful theatre set.

The walk from Wells to Burnham Overy Staithe for a meeting with a Coasthopper bus is, of course, sublime even if along the way we don't meet with Gwyneth Paltrow sweeping over the sands in Elizabethan costume en route to swoop on an Oscar.

Once in these dunes, I met with a pack of corgis pursued by the birthday-celebrating Queen Mum.

And in a vastly varied terrain within a nature (and naturist) reserve beneath huge skies and against a backdrop of ocean, here in any August is our great outdoors at its richest and rawest.

However crowded the car parks the most amazing thing is that we can quickly escape into solitude to commune with the natural world which is of course the essence of perfect peace.

No wonder that Robert Wilson — who has been called the world's foremost vanguard theatre artist — seized on this setting 18 months ago when Norfolk was being searched for a suitable tract of dramatic terrain to be transformed into a Walking project.

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In collaboration with the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and as the culmination of the county's contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, his production has now turned into an invitation to see our loveliest landscapes – and perhaps our very selves – as never before.

Now 70, Texan-born Robert Wilson is a living legend. Of his restless, roving career Susan Sontag said: 'It has the signature of a major artistic creation. I can't think of any body of work as large or as influential.'

Louis Aragon summed him up as: 'What we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us.'

Half his lifetime ago he shot to fame with Einstein on the Beach, a partnership with composer Philip Glass which changed the face of opera.

Before and since then he has created highly original drawings, paintings, sculpture and furniture and worked as a cutting-edge director, choreographer, actor, video artist and sound and lighting designer.

He has collaborated with leading avant-garde artists such as William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson, Rufus Wainwright and, long before dreaming up his upcoming Walk on the Wild Side in Norfolk, Lou Reed.

Walking is itself a collaboration with Dutch visual artist Theun Mosk and theatre-maker Boukje Schweigman, and, on the phone from Spain, where he is overseeing one of his celebrated opera productions, he tells me that the Holkham venture returns him to his roots via a quest to slow theatre down, and to erase the gap between art and life to give us time to look and think.

For the Olympic Games of 1984 he planned a performance which was to have run for 12 hours in six parts, but in the event was halved for a more manageable (and affordable) marathon. One of his shows – staged on a mountain in Iran – lasted a whole week.

Outlining the Norfolk project with the precision for which he has long been noted, he says that the idea is for a three-mile walk normally taking an hour, but slowed to perhaps four times as long to allow space for relaxation and reflection in a break from busy lives.

'Walking begins with a meeting place – with a deep, dark conical space dug into the earth resembling a bottomless pit, enclosed in a high-walled courtyard open to the sky,' he explains. 'A deep, loud sound like a drone will be playing which could be the earth shaking.

'Twelve people will stand evenly spaced in a circle in this courtyard for a period of time and then, exiting via a low doorway, they enter the landscape – walking slowly, in single file and in silence.

'Eventually, they pass through two narrow walls of timber so that eyes that have been free to look all around can only look up and ahead.'

Processing in slow motion through more landscapes they come to a seeding area where they linger with refreshments of fruit and water amid a heavenly soundtrack which brings to mind Gregorian chanting or an angelic choir singing.

'It's a recording of crickets,' says the director-designer. 'Crickets live for 21 days and I slowed down their chirping to what it would be if they had the human lifespan of 70 years. 'It makes for an incredible sound, to which insects like to chirp along.'

The walk continues through pine trees in which the wind may be whispering or howling, while 'pine needles on the ground give the foot a different experience'.

On to the beach and into the dunes the line of walkers then comes upon a conical-shaped mud structure – made from earth extracted from the pit seen at the outset. Entering through a low, round doorway the party listens to the calm, tinkling sound of temple bells (the opposite of that unsettling drone at the beginning).

Free to rest and reflect here for as long as he or she wishes, each walker then leaves to savour a view into 'the infinite space of the ocean'.

A key idea here is that we are in our element in the elements, whether or not the weather on the day is a wash-out. 'That's all part of the experience,' says Robert Wilson. 'My mother always liked to take a walk when it was raining.'

This will be the UK premiere of the work. Norfolk & Norwich Festival's artistic director William Galinsky said: 'Walking has provided a fantastic opportunity for Norfolk & Norwich Festival to get involved in London 2012 Festival. We not only get a unique event in which internationally renowned artist Robert Wilson responds to our gorgeous natural landscape but Walking will also give us an opportunity to build on Norfolk's cultural reputation and show that we can do amazingly unusual and fantastic things in this area.'

Helen Lax, regional director of the Arts Council England East, adds: 'Walking promises to be one of the most exciting and thought-provoking events of the summer. It is a celebration of a stunning part of our region, allowing audiences to take time to appreciate the beauty of the North Norfolk coast.'

Robert Wilson will be with us for the launch of Walking, before rushing off to Northern Ireland, where he is directing and performing in Samuel Beckett's one-man show Krapp's Last Tape for the Enniskillen International Beckett festival.

And in the meantime this pusher of artistic and geographic boundaries has been finishing a new stage musical with composer Tom Waits and playwright Martin McDonagh and decamping as usual for summer workshops with students and seasoned professionals at the Watermill Center 'laboratory for the arts and humanities' on New York's Long Island.

Luckily arts careers can now last as long as the Biblical lifespan of three score years and ten – cue an even slower recording of crickets chirping – and the one-man arts world that is Robert Wilson is clearly in his prime.

He recalls: 'When I was 12 my mother said, 'I don't know what Bob's doing but he's got a lot of projects.'

'So my father sat me down for a very serious Talk About Life. He said I would never get anywhere if I spread my energies so widely rather than focusing on one thing.

'Somehow, I never saw it like that.' And on the line from Spain I hear a deep chuckle from a creative explorer still enjoying a wonderful walkabout.

t Walking will take place on the Holkham Nature Reserve from August 20-September 2, half hourly booking slots between 11am-2pm daily, �15, under-25s �5, 01603 766400, or in person at Norwich Theatre Royal.