Miami's arts festival: wobbly but important step toward an ideal

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In theory, the New World Festival of the Arts is a splendid idea.

This country has always lacked a major, large-scale festival in the sense of the ones at Salzburg, Munich, and Vienna. The closest thing is the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Charleston, S.C., which, though often ambitious, is basically as intimate as the city that houses it.

But there is nothing intimate about Miami, and the emphasis - in this three-week extravaganza of dance, theater, orchestras, and chamber concerts - is on the 22 world premieres: a new Robert Ward opera, ''Minutes to Midnight''; a new Geoffrey Holder dance-theater work; a new ballet company; a fanfare for the festival by John Corigliano; new plays from Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, and Tennessee Williams; new pieces for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (more or less in residence here).

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Also featured are a new Robert Wright-George Forrest (of ''Kismet'' fame) musical, ''I, Anastaisa.'' Its tunes were supplied by Rachmaninoff, based on the failed ''Anya,'' though ''I, Anastaisa'' is said to have been totally rehauled and reconceived. Films, contemporary art, revues, and other events round out the three weeks.

The event was budgeted at $4.8 million, much of it coming from the Dade County tourist tax. A deluge of international tourists was predicted, but a trickle actually arrived. Ticket booths meant to be found in the lobbies of key hotels were nowhere to be found the opening weekend. American Express had been expected to mount a major ad campaign, but it withdrew. Many performances have been heavily ''papered,'' or filled with people given free tickets. The local ad campaign has switched from ''get your tickets before they're all sold'' to ''Miamians must now support this remarkable venture.''

Unfortunately, of the four events I took a look at, only the ballet, under the directorship of Norbert Vesak, offered something of some quality. The troupe is not the finest, but the star guests were Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones - two of the brightest dancers in the ballet firmament. They danced an elegant, saucy, athletic ''Don Quixote'' pas de deux as their chief offering.

The rest of the evening was devoted to an occasionally stolid ballet by Oscar Araiz, choreographed to Ravel's ''Rapsodie Espagnole'' with some fine groupings, a good sense of gesture matched to score, and a primitive if rousing finale that can only be described as a Spanish shawl dance.

Lynn Seymour's ''Rashomon'' is pepperier stuff - the tale of a bandit, a wife , and husband (who is murdered) told three times from each character's viewpoint. It was an unusual mixture of Japanese poses, lewd gestures, sensitive interactions, and astounding feats of dancing prowess and brute strength that blended into a generally engrossing whole. The Pamela Marre set was part of the action: Tight strips tied to the floor bend and stretch menacingly at climactic moments.

Mr. Vesak's contribution was a hodge-podge called ''Tchaikovsky Dances,'' music culled from the composer's opera ''Eugene Onegin,'' much of it from arias, played here without singers. A few chandeliers comprised the set, the dancers were awkwardly costumed. Mr. Vesak's sense of groupings and of variety of balletic step and gesture seems as limited now as it was when he was head of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York while Mr. Herman was Sir Rudolf Bing's assistant there.

Even given the untidiness of the ensemble - working together a mere two months - Mr. Vesak's ''Tchaikovsky Dances'' were inadequate, particularly in the trivial way he utilized Miss Gregory and Mr. Bujones. The barely competent orchestra was used for the first and last thirds of the program, under the uninspiring direction of Akira Endo.

The Holder outing was performed at the Fontainbleau. The stage was small, the amplification strenuous, the lighting just adequate to Holder's vision. The subject of his evening was the creation and Job - tales told to gospel sounds under the title ''Ballets, Ballads, the Blues and the Bible.''

From where I was placed in the room for the first half, I could see a scant one-third of the stage. Much of what I could see, if I stood on my chair, seemed to need serious reconceptualizing, trimming, condensation. Some moments rang true to a clear artistic vision, but I will not comment further on something I did not see from an adequate vantage point.

''Job'' (for which I was moved to a better location), had less dancing, much more singing and talking - and the first 20 minutes inspired an annoying sense of impatience that was never dispelled. Bernard Ighner's music is repetitive in the worst sense, harmonically without interest. His lyrics added new meaning to the word basic.

The Israel Philharmonic was the star attraction of the early part of the festival, the only concert (actually two concerts, same program) to sell out at the ensemble - ragged, coarse, careless - but since the hall (Theater for the Performing Arts) is an acoustical disaster, it is not fair to discuss the orchestra's overall merit. Their music director Zubin Mehta led a solid ''Miraculous Mandarin Suite'' (Bartok) and a fussy, distended Mahler Five - quite unexpected from a maestro who usually shines with this score.

And then there was the opera - an artistic statement on the nature of nuclear warfare and the potential for total self-destruction. Any chance it had for success was scuttled by the late Daniel Lang's libretto. It seems highly probable that if he were alive, changes would have been made. As it was, the plot line is rather trite, the dialogue stilted and awkward, the sentiments and ethics articulated in a dated vernacular.

Cosmic energy is Lang's term for the ultimate power - usable for tremendous good or total destruction. His most memorable line, ''it takes two to wear a halo,'' is indicative of the odd, untheatrical, non-sequitur approach to storytelling.

Current-event operas rarely work: They are dated before they can be produced. Roszak, in the story, is on the verge of discovering the formula for cosmic energy. The Secretary of Science is after it for the United States as a bargaining weapon. And the ensuing plot involves some harrowing scenes. Set designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen has devised a beguiling depiction of the cosmos - a shimmering, reposeful, mechanical, outer-space world with a revolving vertical disk that acts as a projection screen for the background slides to each scene. The scene changes occur seamlessly, the bomb sequence offers fine special effect, and the final dissolve back to the cosmos is memorably theatrical.

Robert Ward's music lacks a distinctive voice or style. There are scenes of some effectiveness and periods of musical power, but often important monologues are set to bizzare idioms. Beyond that, Ward's score chugs along unremarkably for most of the duration.

Emerson Buckley led the competent orchestra in a seasoned, earnest reading of the score.

The festival continues through June 26. The Holder work, one of the few through-festival events, will doubtless be honed and fine-tuned. There will be interest around the Williams and Albee plays. Miamians will be watching the New World Ballet with the hope that it will, in fact, become Miami's new classical, star-oriented, permanent dance troupe.

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