NEXT GENERATION: BAMís Next Wave celebrates 20 years on the edge

Since its debut in 1983, the Brooklyn Academy of Musicís annual Next Wave Festival has become New York Cityís foremost showcase of theater, music, and dance that is . . . what do we call it these days? Once upon a time, we might have called it "avant-garde," meaning ahead of its time. Nowadays the term "avant-garde" seems passť, meaningless, even pretentious. New Yorkers are savvy cultural consumers. With advanced telecommunications and high-speed Internet access, word travels fast, and new becomes old faster than ever. 

So forget "avant-garde." Letís just say the Next Wave Festival reliably focuses on contemporary live performance that is more adventurous and innovative than most of the work thatís seen in mainstream theaters and concert halls, not to mention in the mass media. In the two decades since it first appeared, "Next Wave" has more or less become its own genre, and the festival has created a crossroads where imaginative artists and audiences encounter one another.

The lineup of events for the 20th manifestation of the Next Wave Festival, which begins October 1 and runs through December 22, is a familiar mixture of established heavyweights and intriguing new faces. BAMís executive producer Joseph V. Melillo, who planned the very first Next Wave Festival, used the metaphor of tectonic plates to indicate the layers of meaning and intention reflected in this yearís program. The top layer had to do with paying tribute to the master artists who form a kind of Next Wave Honor Roll. 

"Thereís a group of American artists for whom the Next Wave Festival was created originally who happen to be creating mature work," Melillo said in a recent interview. "I wanted this festival to be their celebration. I wanted to take a moment and, to quote Arthur Miller, say: Attention must be paid to these artists. Look at what Philip Glass is doing, what Meredith Monk is doing, what Steve Reich is doing, what Robert Wilson is doing."

Glass, the renowned composer who started the Next Wave Festival with The Photographer/Far from the Truth, will open this yearís series with Galileo Galilei (Oct. 1 & 3-5), a new opera directed by Mary Zimmerman, who brought ancient myths to Broadway last season in the hit show Metamorphoses. Monk, a multimedia performer and creator who collaborated with theater artist Ping Chong on The Games at BAM in 1984, returns this year with mercy (Dec. 3-7), for which her artistic partner was installation artist Ann Hamilton. Reich, whose long history with BAM included the 1984 premiere of the large-scale symphonic and choral piece The Desert Music, is back with Three Tales (Oct. 16 & 18-19), a digital documentary-video opera about air travel, atomic bomb testing, and cloning co-created with video artist Beryl Korot. And theater visionary Robert Wilson, whose landmark 1976 production of Glassís Einstein on the Beach was reconstructed at BAM in 1984, brings in his musical version of Woyzeck (Oct. 29-Nov. 16), Georg BŁchnerís stark drama about a decent man driven to commit murder in a morally bankrupt society. The production, commissioned and performed by Copenhagenís Betty Nansen Theatre, features a score by Tom Waits (who also wrote the music for Wilsonís The Black Rider and Alice) and Kathleen Brennan.

"These were the artists," said Melillo, "to whom BAM had turned over its large venues in those early years in the 1980s. At that time, it was experimental work. They had lots of ideas and lots of energy. Today, 20 years later, New York City is going to be able to see the work of masters who have honed their crafts."

In addition to providing a haven for the above-mentioned four artists, he said, "Everything about this yearís roster relates to a core value of the Next Wave Festival at BAM. Weíve always been a place where performing artists and visual artists have collaborated, the way Meredith is doing with Ann Hamilton. We are a place where music-theater of a certain brand -- such as Robert Wilsonís pieces with Tom Waits -- has been presented consistently. So have experiments in technology and new media, like Steve Reichís work with Beryl Korot. And essential to the festival is balancing American work with that of international artists. This season our dance offerings include Grupo Corpo from Brazil, Sasha Waltz from Germany, Angelin Preljocaj from France, and Sankai Juku from Japan, so you get a sense of the global playing field. Thatís the spine of the Next Wave Festival."

Alongside the business-as-usual aspects of the festival, there emerges a particular thread this year of Big Stories from myth, history, and literature. In addition to the classic stories of Galileo and Woyzeck, Yukio Minagawa will present Macbeth in Japanese (Dec. 4-7), and British director Deborah Warner will show her award-winning production of Medea (Oct. 1-12), which originated at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and features her longtime collaborator Fiona Shaw in the title role. The festival also includes two different works based on Biblical accounts of the last days of Jesus Christ: Water Passion After St. Matthew (Dec. 11 & 13-14) by Chinese-born composer Tan Dun, who wrote the Oscar-winning score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and La Pasiůn Segķn San Marcos (Oct. 30 & Nov. 1-2), Jewish-Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijovís rendition of the Gospel according to St. Mark, performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

"I donít usually say this aloud, but I am dedicated to storytelling," said Melillo. "I believe thatís how all artists communicate. This yearís festival is more overt about taking great classic pieces of literature that have sustained the test of time and watching them be re-imagined by the non-traditional artists of our generation."

Another thematic strand apparent in this yearís festival is The Body. The dance performances in particular explore this theme. In addition to its 1992 milestone piece 21, Brazilís Grupo Corpo will perform a work created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company in 2000 called O Corpo -- Portuguese for The Body (Oct. 22 & 24-26). "This mass formed by bones, flesh, blood, organs, muscles, nerves, nails and hair" serves as inspiration both for the choreography by Rodrigo Pederneiras and the score by Amaldo Atunes. 

Likewise, Sasha Waltz, a highly regarded choreographer in Europe who recently assumed co-leadership of BerlinĎs prestigious Schaubuhne theater, will be making her New York debut with KŲrper (Bodies) (Nov. 13 & 15-17). One review said of Waltzís piece, "The body in KŲrper is sometimes a mass, a heaving, undulating group slickly working through a mind-boggling complex dance; at other times the hypnotic to-and- fro of slippery, sensual doublework explores the co-dependency of partnership. Then there is the body alone, exposed and vulnerable in the vast space of her theatre."

Clearly, in todayís world, we live in such a high-tech, disembodied culture that dancers more and more hold the place of body- consciousness. This emphasis on the body, Melillo said, "is about beauty as well. You cast away everything and look at the form of the body in time and space. There is this phenomenon today of choreographers from all parts of the world getting fixated on the human body in their work. I didnít go looking for it, I responded to it."

Stagebill, July/August 2002