The grand old Brooklyn Academy of Music, host to Caruso and Bernhardt in their day, has become New York's most prominent home for innovative art. This has brought a healthy and stimulating change to the cultural landscape here. And soon BAM will reach out to other parts of the United States, extending its message that the new and untried can be popular and pleasing.
The vehicle for this message is its forward-looking ''Next Wave'' series, presenting works that seek ''to extend the boundaries of artistic expression.'' Such dances, concerts, plays, and whatnots have always been available in nooks and crannies of the performing scene. The new wrinkle is the academy's success in legitimizing trends that might otherwise still be struggling for public exposure and critical acceptance.
There's cachet in Brooklyn, it turns out, and a veritable mob of exploratory artists will never be the same for this discovery.
The third annual ''Next Wave'' festival, which ended recently, included 11 events by a long list of performing and visual artists. One of its most remarkable shows, ''The Gospel at Colonus,'' has already returned for a second engagement.
Two others will tour nationally in coming months - ''The Photographer'' this spring and summer, ''Available Light'' next fall. Also slated to tour are two of next season's highlights, a massive orchestral and choral work by Steve Reich called ''Desert Music'' and a revival of the astonishing opera ''Einstein on the Beach,'' by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass.
What's the secret of the academy's success? Why do audiences flock to unheard-of works and unlikely collaborations there, and often stay to cheer what they encounter?
One reason - not pleasing, perhaps, to some purists of innovative art - may be the atmosphere and architecture of the academy itself. It's a staid and stolid building, a far cry from the converted industrial buildings and lofts that house many exploratory artists. Even the scruffiest experimenter takes on a respectable glow in such surroundings, becoming more salable to a general audience.
As for the attractions themselves, the BAM honchos have chosen them carefully. For all their aesthetic adventurousness, ''Next Wave'' events tend to be G-rated all the way, morally conservative and apolitical. The cautious spectator can expect to be surprised without fear of being shocked. The radical artist who believes all rules are breakable probably won't be invited to the academy's stage.
This conservative streak, running through a program that's aesthetically liberal, may account for the ''Next Wave'' emphasis on music and dance, rather than drama and film, which tend to be more wild and woolly in their content nowadays.
In any case, I suspect the strong presence of dance is a key to the ''Next Wave'' success story. Spectators expect modern dance to be abstract and free of traditional formulas. By contrast, remove the story from a play or the melody from a musical work - as many current artists like to do - and conventional audiences cry foul. Ingeniously, the ''Next Wave'' programming gears expectation away from linear themes and narrative formulas by including a hefty dose of dance - and then sneaks up with the latest twists in performance art and music, which seem reasonably normal in this context.
What would be booed on Broadway or scorned at Lincoln Center, where norms are the norm, may thus be accepted in the carefully cultivated ''Next Wave'' climate - where such dancers and choreographers as Lucinda Childs and David Gordon set a properly nonlinear, nonliteral mood for the far-ranging music of an Anthony Davis and the bold theater experiments of a Lee Breuer.
That said, how did the latest festival stack up? Are the explorers headed in promising directions, or has the ''Next Wave'' already crested?
As a whole, it was a strong series, although the most keenly anticipated events didn't always pan out best. One happy surprise was the unbridled excellence of ''The Gospel at Colonus,'' which placed the ancient Greek tragedy ''Oedipus at Colonus'' in a black American church, and set Sophocles' poetry to gospel music. An unlikely idea, but director Lee Breuer and his superb cast brought it off, turning a little-seen play into a wonderfully accessible and uplifting experience. It's now back at BAM through Dec. 31.
Another evening of unexpected brilliance was ''Underwood,'' by the Caroline Carlson Dance Theater of La Fenice, an Italian troupe (led by an American) in its first United States appearance. Americana, with a gently surreal tinge, was the connecting thread of the work's many scenes, which raced from one dazzlement to another with great wit and just the right dash of nostalgia. The gestures of the piece often hovered between dance and pantomime, conjoining rhythm and specificity to stunning effect.
In other dance events, the Trisha Brown Company served a smorgasbord of styles, from a Brown solo (with monologue) to a splashy ensemble piece with spectacular Laurie Anderson music and Robert Rauschenberg decor. Molissa Fenley and Dancers offered their full-length ''Hemispheres,'' with Fenley choreography and Anthony Davis music heartily defining and enriching each other. (The music is now available on a Gramavision disc, GR 8303.) Nina Wiener and Dancers filled the hall with energy and color in ''Wind Devil,'' abetted by inventive Sergio Cervetti music and antic Judy Pfaff scenery.
Less successful was Israeli dancer Rina Schenfeld, too fey in her solo pieces with sticks, ribbons, and the like. And unexpectedly, the Lucinda Childs Dance Company made a less indelible impression with its ambitious ''Available Light'' - supported by shimmering John Adams music and a Frank Gehry setting - than with its more austere ''Mad Rush'' to a Philip Glass organ piece.
Among other events, the most problematic was ''The Photographer/Far From the Truth.'' Based on the melodramatic life of photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, it mimicked Victorian theater by incorporating different kinds of entertainment: a play, a concert, a dance. The staging of the play by JoAnne Akalaitis was visually stunning, but the text by Robert Coe was a tricky collage of old passages that didn't justify the effort of sorting things out. The slide show accompanying the concert portion was more riveting than the Glass music itself, while the music outshone the movements in the dancing section. In all, a provocative but not quite satisfactory evening that will tour beginning Feb. 29 in Madison, Wis.; March 2 in Minneapolis; and March 5 in Iowa City, Iowa; with later runs planned in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
Rounding out the series, the George Coates Performance Works (from San Francisco) presented a visual ''reverie'' that epitomized ''performance art'' by failing to fit any other label ever invented; sumptuous to look at, and sometimes funny to hear, it could have been a memorable show if any substance lay beneath its spiffy surfaces. A concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago was colorfully staged if not exactly tuneful. And a re-creation of a 1913 ''cubo-futurist'' Russian opera, ''Victory Over the Sun,'' seemed a fitfully produced period piece despite the apparent dedication of director Robert Benedetti to the project.