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:
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.
It also manifested a deep-seated kinship between the Wilson-Glass school and the Cage-Cunningham school. While the opera's structure is based on precise, slow-motion gestures and repetitions, its images have a randomness that Cage and Cunningham would love - from Robert E. Lee in a giant spaceship to a parade of trees marching silently across the stage. For all their differences, Wilson-Glass and Cage-Cunningham are equally concerned with exploring the tension between order and chaos in human experience.
Other offerings on the ``Next Wave'' program stood between the infrared of ``Roaratorio'' and the ultraviolet of ``the CIVIL warS'' and pointed to some tantalizing trends.
The clearest trend emerged from the theatrical offerings, which showed an interest in storytelling and topical subject matter - elements that have played little part in much recent experimental stage work. ``Social Amnesia,'' by the Impossible Theater of Baltimore, dealt with homelessness and other social problems in ambitious (though often disappointing) mixed-media terms, while ``The Angels of Swedenborg,'' by Ping Chong of New York, portrayed the 19th-century mystic in 20th-century yuppie trappings. Also on hand was an adaptation of Stravinsky's chamber opera ``The Soldier's Tale,'' by the Flying Karamazov Brothers and the Kamikaze Ground Crew, whose gimmicky approach drained away the work's charm.
Another trend was indicated in concerts by Jon Hassell and John Zorn, both of whom combined old and new elements: Mr. Hassell by blending African rhythms and electronic textures, Mr. Zorn by leading wild improvisations based on Ennio Morricone film scores. More impressive yet was the virtuosic Kronos Quartet, in three recitals that spanned the cosmos of contemporary string music from Philip Glass and Terry Riley to Thelonious Monk and even Jimi Hendrix, the late rock musician. Less thrilling were conductor Lucas Foss and the Brooklyn Philharmonic in ``Songs of Innocence and of Experience,'' an eclectic and uneven setting of Blake's great poems.
Always strong on dance, the ``Next Wave'' came through again with a rich selection - and illustrated the tendency of many young choreographers to choose music with a strong pulse and assertive texture, avoiding the loose mixes of sound favored by the Cage school. Michael Clark's troupe danced to crashing rock music that echoed the choreography's sense of rage and frustration, while Molissa Fenley set the first half of her energetic ``Geologic Moments'' to an amazingly dissonant and whimsical Philip Glass score.
Minimalism proved itself a still-vital force in ``Rosas Danst Rosas,'' by Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker of Belgium, and the timelessly slow ``New Moon Stories'' of Eiko & Koma, a disciplined duo of Japanese origin. More aggressive were the alternating fervor and farce of three dances by Mark Morris, one of the hottest choreographers around. David Gordon and his Pick Up Company did use Cage music in their provocative ``Transparent Means for Travelling Light'' but contrasted it with the traditional wail of klezmer music in ``My Folks,'' a strikingly personal work. Finally, festival veterans Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane borrowed zesty player-piano pieces by Conlon Nancarrow for their evening-length ``Animal Trilogy,'' a tantalizing mixture of choreography and zoology.
In the past, the ``Next Wave'' has stressed collaborative works so strongly that some critics have accused it of encouraging artistic marriages that have no logical reason for being - perhaps to exploit the Big Name-power that results when noted artists pool their forces. Not so this season, which emphasized pieces by troupes and teams that habitually work together - including some that are new enough to most audiences to qualify as genuine riders of the next wave.
By featuring and supporting such unusual artists as Eiko & Koma and the Keersmaeker troupe, BAM is fulfilling its self-appointed mission as pathfinder in the thickets of modern and postmodern performance.