Since it began in 1983, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival has become the foremost showcase for contemporary experimental performance in the United States. The festival has presented some of the best-known contemporary artists in their fields, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, and Merce Cunningham. In addition, the festival has introduced younger talents such as Laurie Anderson, Mark Morris, and Bill T. Jones as well as welcoming international artists like Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, and Robert Lepage.

Now in its 15th year, the 1997 Next Wave Festival opens tomorrow night with "Der Fensterputzer (The Window Washer)," the latest production by Ms. Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. The festival continues through December 13, offering along the way a week of performances by Mr. Cunningham's company and the American premiere of "Time Rocker," a collaboration between Mr. Wilson and rock star Lou Reed, performed by the Thalia Theater from Hamburg, Germany.

For the cognoscenti, these may not be new names. But for most people, the Next Wave artists represent a window onto the world of innovative 20th century performing arts. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music (universally known as BAM), executive director Harvey Lichtenstein has created a highly visible platform for these artists, who previously plied their trades in lower Manhattan lofts or, if they were lucky, state-subsidized European theaters. And he christened them "the Next Wave" not by the come-and-go standards of, say, MTV but in comparison to Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, the artists around whom Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall are built.

"Harvey's whole operation is predicated on the notion that he's an outsider, geographically and taste-wise," said John Rockwell, a former cultural correspondent for the New York Times who's now director of the two-year-old Lincoln Center Festival. "He's passionately committed to these artists, and it's very clever from a marketing viewpoint. Instead of a second-rate Lincoln Center, he's a first-rate BAM."

Indeed, for those who want to keep up with forward-looking art, the festival has become a must-see event equivalent to the Whitney Biennial. The performance artist Laurie Anderson commented, "For me, the Next Wave Festival has become what the Kitchen was in the 1970s: a place where you could take the temperature of what's going on with artists in New York." Ms. Anderson presented her four-part, two-evening "United States" in 1983 at the BAM Opera House, which seats 2000 and whose stage is 50 feet high and 50 feet deep. "The festival gave me a chance to do something on a much bigger scale than I ever had before," she said. "On tour I've had to break it down into pieces, but only in my hometown was I able to do the thing the way I imagined it."

The choreographer Mark Morris, who is currently directing his first Broadway show (Paul Simon and Derek Walcott's "The Capeman"), made his debut at BAM in 1984, dancing a 20-minute solo to Indian vocal music dressed in a dhoti, and his company has returned to the festival several times. "It's not like I was discovered there, like 'A Star Is Born,' but I was thrilled to be asked to be in the festival," he said. "It definitely helped me be taken seriously."

Now, after 15 years, the Next Wave Festival itself has become an institution. "Harvey proved that there's a genuine audience for innovative work in 1000-seat theaters in New York City," said Mr. Rockwell. "Everybody in this business wants to create a brand name. You want the public to say, 'Wow, if I go to the Met -- or ABT, or the City Ballet -- I'm going to get a guaranteed quality experience.' People now assume the Next Wave is going to be challenging, interesting, even great. They trust his taste, and/or they've been won over by his marketing."

Joseph Melillo, whom Mr. Lichtenstein hired to assist him as producing director for the first Next Wave Festival, said, "No one's more in awe of the fact that we're celebrating the 15th anniversary than me." It was Monday morning, four days before the festival's opening, and Mr. Melillo had pulled up a chair to Mr. Lichtenstein's desk in his fifth-floor office at the Brooklyn Academy. "I wrote a letter to a friend over the weekend saying that I feel like I'm standing on this metaphorical cliff looking down on 15 years of time," said Mr. Melillo. "My sense memories of the first festival in 1983 are so clear."

And what's the strongest memory?

"Terror," he said without hesitation. "Were we going to throw a party that people weren't going to show up at?"

"It was scary," agreed Mr. Lichtenstein, a 67-year-old former ballet dancer who has been programming adventurous dance, theater, and music at BAM since 1967. Still, when he decided to elevate an avant-garde performance series into a full-blown festival, he said, "It scared the hell out of us."

What made these grown men quake was their decision not simply to present finished work they'd already seen but to produce two shows from scratch. The first Next Wave Festival opened with "The Photographer," a collaboration among composer Philip Glass, director JoAnne Akalaitis, and choreographer David Gordon. Conflicts developed between Mr. Glass and Ms. Akalaitis (who had previously been married for several years); at one point, Mr. Glass tried to have the director fired. Mr. Lichtenstein smoothed things over, the show went on, but it was a shaky start.

The other new work that season sounded dubious: an adaptation of Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" as a revival meeting, with a gospel group called the Five Blind Boys of Alabama collectively playing the title role. Fortunately, Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's "Gospel at Colonus" turned out to be a triumph, and its success helped put the Next Wave Festival on the map.

Becoming an institution doesn't mean that the Next Wave Festival has stopped taking chances. Last year Mr. Lichtenstein and Mr. Melillo opened their season with an event that not even the most jaded New York theatergoer could dismiss with "been there, done that": the French equestrian theater troupe Zingaro, featuring 26 dancing horses and a band of Rajasthani musicians performing under the Bigtop at Battery Park City.

"That was a real crapshoot," Mr. Lichtenstein recalled. "The cost was about $2 million. We calculated the loss, after four weeks of selling 100% of the tickets, at $800,000 to $900,000, which we couldn't afford. So we took the shot at doubling the amount of performances and upping the price for the second month. It became a $3 million gamble, and the loss would be a little less than half a million." In addition to Philip Morris Companies, Inc., which has underwritten a big chunk of the budget each year since 1985, the festival sought further co-sponsors for Zingaro, including Hermes, Air France, and Visa, to cover the deficit. The result? "We sold out every performance," said Mr. Lichtenstein.

Selling tickets to unknown quantities was only half the battle for the Next Wave Festival. The other half was getting people to Brooklyn. Although Mr. Lichtenstein had produced the Living Theater, Peter Brook, and Jerzy Grotowski's Polish Theater Lab at BAM as far back as the late '60s, in those days Manhattan theatergoers were more timid. Making the pilgrimage to see theater in Brooklyn required almost as much devotion as trekking to an ashram in India. Since then attitudes have changed, Brooklyn has changed, and BAM had something to do with those changes. By aggressively cultivating the artists and tastemakers who populated Soho in the 1980s, the festival acquired one of the hippest audiences in town, notable for their range of ages, races, and hairstyles.

"We have developed a very strong and loyal audience," Mr. Lichtenstein acknowledged, "but it took a long time."

Asked to pick their favorite shows in 15 years of producing, Mr. Lichtenstein and Mr. Melillo unanimously chose "The Gospel at Colonus" and two of the many multimedia collaborations directed at the festival by Robert Wilson: the Philip Glass opera "Einstein on the Beach," which was revived in 1984 and 1992, and "The Black Rider" (1993) with music by Tom Waits and texts by William S. Burroughs. They also pointed to Mr. Brook's seven-hour adaptation of "The Mahabharata" (1987), which took two years to produce and required the transformation of a long-abandoned, boarded-up theater two blocks away from the Brooklyn Academy into what's now the BAM Majestic Theater, a handsome semi-ruin where half the festival's events take place.

Of course, the festival has also had its share of disasters. "The prime example is 'The Birth of a Poet,'" Mr. Melillo said, referring to the 1985 opera by novelist Kathy Acker and composer Peter Gordon, designed by painter David Salle and directed by Richard Foreman. Even the famously indulgent Next Wave Festival audience openly jeered at this fiasco, walking out in droves. Mr. Lichtenstein cited Martha Clarke's 1990 "Endangered Species," an extravagant music-theater work featuring circus animals. Ticket sales were so disappointing that the festival closed the show two weeks into a scheduled five-week run.

The frequent return of such Next Wave blockbusters as Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson has led some to snipe that the festival should be called the Last Wave or at least the Same Wave.

Mr. Lichtenstein takes a longer view. "Outside of New York, the big performing arts center are still very conservative in their opera and symphonic presentations," he said. "The Kennedy Center has never done Pina Bausch or Robert Wilson. You can become stale and depressed doing the same old thing. But somehow, we've managed to keep ourselves as risk-takers. I think we still manage to keep jumping off the cliff."

New York Times, October 4, 1997

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