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.
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
"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,