`Downtown' shows please `uptown' hosts. `Serious Fun!' jumps imagined boundaries
New York — Updown is uptown. Downtown is downtown.
And if the twain ever meet, it won't be at Lincoln Center.
That's the conventional wisdom about New York's double arts community - split into an ``uptown'' of traditional work and a ``downtown'' of experimentation.
Fans of the former flock to places like Carnegie Hall and its staid cousins north of Midtown, while admirers of the latter thrive in southern climes like Greenwich Village and SoHo.
What would happen if a respectable ``uptown'' venue put on a show of convention-flouting ``downtown'' performances?
That's the question Lincoln Center invited by announcing it would host 10 programs of work by artists normally found in very different neighborhoods. The title of the festival: ``Serious Fun!''
I suspected the performers would be encouraged to stress the lighter and more accessible facets of their work - to suit the summer season and lure audiences with traditional ``uptown'' tastes.
I suspected wrong. Living up to both halves of its title, ``Serious Fun!'' proved to be an impressively well-rounded series - integrated by aesthetics as well as by gender, race, and even nationality.
As if to flaunt its versatility, the festival began and ended with works at opposite ends of the experimental spectrum. The boldest evening of the whole festival was its opening attraction: ``Overture to the Fourth Act of Deafman Glance,'' by Robert Wilson, who performed it with colleague Sheryl Sutton and four children.
First presented in 1970 as part of a much longer show, this ``overture'' shows Wilson at his most uncompromising. Side by side on identical stages, two characters dressed in old-fashioned clothes perform the dark ritual of approaching two children, giving them glasses of milk, then bloodlessly stabbing them.
Performed in dead silence at a glacial pace - three minutes of action stretched into an hour and a half - the play has no literal meaning, only an eerie flow of black-and-white images recalling realms of myth, legend, and the world of dreams.
The opening-night audience greeted it with enthusiastic cheers and a few vigorous boos. ``Serious Fun!'' was off and running - and it certainly wasn't going to coddle its spectators, whichever side of the north-south divide they hailed from.
By contrast, the ``fun'' part of the series held the stage on closing night, when three ``new vaudevillians'' strutted their stuff: Michael Moschen, who juggled artistically; Frank Olivier, who juggled hilariously; and Geoff Hoyle, whose skits featured characters like a three-legged dancer and a sticky-fingered clown.
``New vaudeville'' is the territory where avantgarde spectacle meets ``The Ed Sullivan Show'' and bygone Saturdaynight entertainments. A pleasant time was had by all.
The diversity of today's ``downtown'' scene came out at other points in the festival, too. Performing sections of ``Long Tongues,'' composed by Julius Hemphill, the World Saxophone Quartet and members of the Harlem Festival Orchestra combined black jazz idioms with an opera-influenced structure.
Conversely, the predominantly white Lounge Lizards played hard-driving rock with strong roots in the blues, bebop, and Latin rhythms. And in a triumphant collaboration, Jon Hassell - who plays an electronically plugged-in trumpet - blended his ethereal sounds with the jumping music of Farafina, a splendid West African troupe.
All of which brought out the pointlessness of drawing boundary lines around selected artistic styles and limiting them with labels - including trendy ones like ``uptown'' and ``downtown.''
The festival's dance events showed similar variety. ISO, a brand-new troupe, used costumes and props with an enthusiasm that recalled the Pilobolus company.
Charles Moulton and Douglas Dunn seemed more tricky than ingenious in their offerings, but Jane Comfort had the audience laughing out loud with a choreographed soap opera - performed in reverse! - and David Parsons redeemed the flash-bulb gimmickry of his solo ``Caught'' by the sheer artfulness of his movements.
Also presented were songs by Dollie De Luxe, a Norwegian duo who blend rock and classical music, and the Bobs, a new-wave acappella group.
Scott Johnson fronted a band playing his chamber music for rock instruments, and David Van Tieghem gave a rather wan run-through of his ``found sounds'' percussion show. Performance artist Ann Magnuson tritely satirized TV and other contemporary disappointments.
Ethyl Eichelberger earned many laughs with ``Leer,'' his half-hour ``King Lear'' takeoff; and the Urban Bush Women, a powerfully gifted black trio, used music and dance to explore their roots in both African and American cultures.
While the offerings sagged at times, the overall level of the ``Serious Fun!'' lineup was amazingly high. Here's hoping more of the same explodes next summer, bringing uptowners and downtowners together for additional surprises.