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

By Thor Eckert Jr. / June 14, 1982


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

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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).

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.