Catching the `Next Wave'. The annual festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is a good place to sample the future of theater, dance, and music
The much-discussed ``Next Wave'' Festival, held each year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has become the leading American salon for the progressive wing of the performing arts. At this stage of its history, though, a couple of questions come to mind:Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Does each year's lineup give a real overview of what's happening in forward-looking dance, music, theater, and performance art?
And has the festival lived up to its name - selecting artists who represent the next wave in substance and style, not people whose wave has already crested?
The record looks good on both counts.
To begin with the next-wave question, a study of past seasons shows considerable boldness on the part of BAM programmers. They championed such controversial artists as composer Philip Glass, choreographer Mark Morris, and performance artist Laurie Anderson well before they became the avant-stars they are today. And in some cases BAM has backed up its confidence by supporting unexpectedly large-scale productions.
As for the overview question, this season's recently concluded festival made a good case for the ``Next Wave'' as a dependable (if less than definitive) guide to offbeat developments. It is true, however, that BAM concentrates on experimenters who have already established a solid track record with critics or audiences, or both - skimming over those on the farthest margins of the commercial arts scene.
The latest ``Next Wave'' bracketed its offerings with major works by two artistic teams. The opener was a dance by Merce Cunningham and John Cage, two granddaddies of the modernist movement. The closer was an opera by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, two postmodernists at the cutting edge of the arts today.
Except for the fact that Cunningham and Cage are long-established artists, their ``Roaratorio'' made an ideal opening piece, since it stood for all the things the ``Next Wave'' has come to mean: innovative ideas, unconventional execution, and collaboration between artists in different media.
Described as ``an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake,'' it's a large-scale work based on ``chance'' procedures that allow for different combinations of sight and sound with every performance. Less variable is the rollicking and rascally feeling of the work, which is true to the James Joyce classic that inspired it. Joyce was hooked on puns, dreamlike effects, and unconventional storytelling. Cunningham and Cage also love ambiguity, visionary moods, and aesthetic events that don't fit easy patterns.
``Roaratorio'' begins with a jig and then goes through a catalog of other movements, while Cage's music fills the hall with good-natured Irish sounds. Sprightly rhythms and melodies often spring out of the sonic free-for-all, and Cunningham's choreography seems more earthbound than usual. Coming after the grandfatherly charm of his ``Grange Eve'' last season, this folksy quality could mark an emerging trend in his work - and the ``Next Wave'' is right on top of it.
The festival ended on an opposite note. Like the older Cage and Cunningham, director Wilson and composer Glass have rejected the academic complexity of much 20th-century art. But they have also rejected the freewheeling forms and happy accidents that Cage and Cunningham thrive on. Instead they're obsessed with structure and order - shunning spontaneity, avoiding improvisation, planning even the smallest detail.
This is clear in ``the CIVIL warS,'' a huge project that has never been staged in its entirety. The last act, originally produced by the Rome Opera, wrapped up the latest ``Next Wave'' on a note of stately - if mystifying - elegance, with a stream of shifting images that had no meaning except their own dreamlike interrelationships.