Peering into the future of the performing arts
For two years now, in addition to its regular schedule, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has been peering into the future of American music, theater, and dance. The result has been an innovative series called ''The Next Wave,'' devoted to encouraging and popularizing the most promising new developments on the artistic scene.
Experimentation has been the watchword, and most entries have ranged from bold to radical. Yet this is no esoteric affair catering to devotees of the far-out. In fact, the most spectacular success of ''The Next Wave'' has been to demonstrate the presence of a large, diverse, and enthusiastic audience for work that wanders far from traditional paths.
At this point, convinced that similar audiences can be found far from New York, the BAM is taking its wares on a national tour. The 1983 ''Next Wave'' - expanded to a full-fledged festival - will take place in Brooklyn between October and December, with such uncommon events as a ''visual opera,'' a 1913 ''cubo-futurist'' work from Russia, and a gospel-music version of a Sophocles tragedy. Then some of the most imposing productions will travel across the United States, stopping at performing-arts centers from California to New England.
Also on hand will be a ''humanities component'' including special audience magazines, seminars, panels, and exhibits - all designed not just to expose these unconventional works, but to illuminate them for as broad an audience as possible.
Although it is young, with just two seasons under its belt, ''The Next Wave'' sprang from a BAM tradition of presenting forward-looking events, including work by such artists as Peter Brook and the Living Theater in the '60s and '70s. The new element in 1981 was a substantial audience that had been slowly growing over the past decade or so. When the series got under way, ''people were coming out of the woodwork to buy tickets,'' according to BAM president Harvey Lichtenstein , who discussed ''The Next Wave'' with me over lunch recently.
In some ways, the first ''Next Wave'' was more successful than its follow-up turned out to be. Whether by design or not, the events - from a dance program by Laura Dean to ''Music Plus'' concerts by the Brooklyn Philharmonia - tended to deal with relationships between music and movement, via choreography or musically inspired staging. This gave a strong sense of focus to the series.
The second season was more diffuse in its choices. And problems arose with individual works. Glenn Branca had trouble gearing the BAM sound system to his heroically noisy Third Symphony. Also, two works by Robert Wilson (a version of ''Medea'' and an evening of Negro spirituals) had to be canceled - evidently an occupational hazard with Wilson, whose astonishing but risky shows are largely created and refined during actual rehearsals.
Both seasons had major hits, however, with reverberations that are still being felt. Philip Glass's opera ''Satyagraha,'' about Gandhi's early career, sold out all performances, despite its slow-motion staging and bravely repetitious musical style; and its popularity helped nudge Glass's career to a new plateau of ''establishment'' respect. ''United States,'' a five-hour work of ''performance art'' by Laurie Anderson, also played to full (and cheering) houses. The inventive composer Steve Reich recapitulated 10 years of his music in two invigorating concerts; the seminal jazz drummer Max Roach collaborated with two innovative choreographers; and the dancers of Dana Reitz generated similar excitement with a smaller-scale work.
In expanding ''The Next Wave'' to a two-month festival and taking major works on tour, the BAM hopes to prove that enthusiasm for such works is as long-lasting and widespread as it is intense.
''The time seems right,'' Mr. Lichtenstein says. ''So many of these artists have reached a state of real maturity. And there's a new audience that shares their affinity with popular forms like rock and jazz.''
Moreover, by plunging into the production and commissioning of such works, besides simply presenting them, the BAM hopes ''to stimulate the whole arts scene'' and ''encourage collaborations that might not happen otherwise.'' Lichtenstein also feels the festival format will attract more diverse audiences to particular events - though he notes that audiences have already been very heterogeneous, not just the ''young, ready-for-anything'' crowd.
Major events in the 1983 ''Next Wave'' will include ''The Photographer,'' a Philip Glass work (about an early photography pioneer) that incorporates a play, a concert, and a dance, to be directed by JoAnn Akalaitis and choreographed by David Gordon. ''The Gospel at Colonus,'' adapted and directed by Lee Breuer, transforms ''Oedipus at Colonus'' into a contemporary gospel-theater piece. ''Victory Over the Sun'' will be a re-creation of an early-20th-century Russian opera, lending a historical slant to the festival by reminding audiences that experimentation is nothing new.
Other items will be ''The Way of How,'' a musical theater piece by San Francisco-based George Coates with music by Paul Dresher; and works by the Trisha Brown Dance Company in collaboration with Laurie Anderson, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Ashley. The Art Ensemble of Chicago will present its multifaceted jazz. And many other offerings will be included.
The ''Next Wave'' production and touring fund gets support from such heavyweight sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, among others. Is it surprising to see such colossi supporting such unorthodox art?
Not really, says Lichtenstein. Even if the ''Next Wave'' artists are new to most people in the United States, many have built solid reputations in Europe, where innovative USartists often incubate their work. Indeed, Lichtenstein adds, funding sources are eager to show that there is American support for such American artists as Wilson and Glass, who have premiered many of their most important works abroad, often because of financial necessity.
After the 1983 ''Next Wave'' festival, plans are to expand even more, with a longer menu of events and a keener emphasis on new music as well as new dance and theater pieces. Already the BAM is co-commissioning a new Steve Reich work, and may revive (and tour) the massive Wilson-Glass production of ''Einstein on the Beach,'' a masterpiece that has been performed often in Europe but only twice in the US. Also in the talking stage is a Wilson-Glass collaboration on the ''Arabian Nights'' theme.
''The Next Wave'' is young, audacious, and as busy as can be. If it has its wish, it will become a major force in the American performing arts, bringing the best and the boldest to audiences everywhere. As long as it keeps its sights as high as they have been so far, it deserves to flourish.