Serious Fun! Attests to Cultural Visions

The Lincoln Center festival, in its final year, features leading choreographers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'American Visionaries'' was the subtitle for this summer's last-ever edition of the Serious Fun! festival, slated for replacement by a more ambitious Lincoln Center series beginning next year.

The subtitle made sense, since all the major participants were American artists with visionary approaches to their artistic fields. But we live in an age when many creative people find more hindrance than help in the notion of national boundaries - and in this context, it's worth noting that many of the program's offerings were enriched by cultural ideas with conspicuously non-American roots.

A prime example was the world premiere of ''Degga,'' a performance piece devised by choreographer Bill T. Jones, percussionist Max Roach, and novelist Toni Morrison - three towering black artists who clearly find excitement and inspiration in both branches of their African-American heritage.

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Named after a Wolof word meaning ''to hear or understand,'' the work began with Roach pounding out a drum solo poised between age-old African tradition and the American jazz scene to which that tradition has contributed a boundless wealth of creative energy.

This balance was maintained when Roach's partners came onstage, Morrison reading passages from her Nobel Prize-winning literary oeuvre - itself highly sensitive to the commingling of African and American influences in modern Western life - and Jones performing high-intensity dances that eloquently bridged the aesthetic divide between the abstraction of Roach's rhythms and the specificity of Morrison's words. Lasting only an hour, the piece was a model of collaborative ingenuity, blending talents, cultures, and disciplines with invigorating skill.

Germanic romanticism was the keynote of another world-premiere performance, ''An Uncertain Hour,'' choreographed by Martha Clarke to 23 songs by composers ranging from Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf to Alban Berg and Arnold Schonberg.

As this musical accompaniment suggests, the work was drenched in the sense of emotionalism, mysticism, and sentimentality that romanticism thrived on during its heyday in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Wanderers wandered, lovers longed, feelings swelled to the breaking point, and nature brooded over everything via craggy mountains silhouetted at the back of the stage.

Continuing her longtime campaign to fuse dance with other forms of theatricality, Clarke allowed her singers and dancers to mingle freely onstage, giving their different activities an equal amount of visual and expressive weight. The aesthetic consistency and emotive force of this maneuver were enhanced by the fact that all the performers' movements tended to be very gradual, reflecting the influence of slow-motion specialist Robert Wilson, whose one-person ''Hamlet'' happened to be the opening attraction of the ''American Visionaries'' program.

Clarke's own trademarks were unmistakably present, however, in a general disdain for the force of gravity - leisurely somersaults and out-of-kilter poses provided some of the most striking moments - and a sense of visual mischief that might have seemed tasteless at times if not for its obvious roots in classic poetry and mythology. While her career has gone through ups and downs in recent years, Clarke remains a formidable artist with a stirring sensibility.

As does Trisha Brown, whose new ''M.O.'' takes its title from a familiar phrase - modus operandi, or method of operation - and from J.S. Bach's much-loved ''Musical Offering,'' whose 13 brief movements provide background, inspiration, and atmosphere for an equal number of choreographic passages danced by the excellent Trisha Brown Company.

Brown has been a leader in ''democratizing'' the body through dance, seeking equality for every limb and allowing the most ordinary movements to assume their own expressive dignity. This approach takes on new implications when accompanied not by modernist music but by Bach's many-layered polyphony, anchored in its own democracy of equally valued instruments and melodic lines. Taking the ''Musical Offering'' as a structural starting point, Brown has concocted a continually surprising series of kinetic ideas, steeped in modern-dance idioms yet inflected by the past through costume (flowing robes) and adherence to formal properties of the Bach score.

This may sound academic when described, but onstage it was thrilling and often touching to behold, finding an exhilarating equilibrium between Brown's thoroughly American impulses and the imperatives of music firmly anchored in the European baroque.

Which makes for great fun that couldn't be more serious. This is a festival that will be missed.

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