All sorts of artists, from Walt Disney to Jefferson Airplane, have taken a crack at "Alice in Wonderland" over the years. Given his penchant for flamboyantly dreamlike visions, it's not surprising that Robert Wilson would add his name to the list.
Simply titled "Alice," his version of the Lewis Carroll classic - created with musician Tom Waits and writer Paul Schmidt - made a visually rich opener for the perennially enticing Next Wave festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The annual festival is known as the first place in America to see top avant-garde performances, often with an international flavor.
What is surprising about Wilson's approach to "Alice," which ended its short run on Saturday, is the amount of content and commentary - some of it whimsical, some running provocatively against the grain - that flows beneath its sumptuous surfaces. Wilson is a predominantly visual artist who tends to bypass conventional meaning in favor of hallucinatory images that make their impressions through sheer sensory impact.
Alice's story might seem made to order for his purposes, but instead of reveling in its glorious irrationality, Wilson deepens and complicates it by looking into connections between Carroll's life and work, referring to shadowy aspects of the author's biography. Hence, the most important male character is not one of Alice's fictional counterparts but rather Charles Dodgson, the Victorian mathematician who wrote the "Alice" fantasies (under his Carroll pseudonym). Dodgson also worked as a photographer, often using young girls - including Alice's real-life prototype - as models.
In writing the text for Wilson's production, Schmidt appears to have been genuinely interested in the historical and psychological issues raised by Dodgson's career, including his relationship with the children he photographed. Wilson is a hugely powerful artist, however, and his preference for pure, highly formalized aesthetic values ultimately prevailed. "Alice" suggests murky undercurrents but rarely dives very far into them. Instead it revels in wild imagery - a performance of "Jabberwocky" by eight Victorian Vicars, for example, and a Caterpillar who grows to giant size before our very eyes. Originally created for the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany, the result is extravagantly beautiful even by Wilson's standard. Waits's music provides a spunky counterpoint.
OTHER theatrical events also appear on the Next Wave program, marking a change from previous years when theater frequently got short shrift. Steven Berkoff, best known for his villainous roles in James Bond movies, offers his version of Oscar Wilde's poetic "Salome," and the Cheek by Jowl troupe from England performs John Webster's classic of Elizabethan excess, "The Duchess of Malfi." Also coming is the postmodern "Chinoiserie" by Ping Chong, a gifted veteran of New York's avant-garde scene.
Dance events include two programs by the great Mark Morris Dance Group; "The Whispers of Angels," set to African-American music by David Rousseve and Reality; and "Nine Songs," by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan (a preview of which was published Oct. 17 on Page 13).
The musical lineup includes a recital by the justly celebrated Kronos Quartet; a concert of pieces "From Gospel to Gershwin" by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra under Gunther Schuller's baton; a joint Kronos/Brooklyn Philharmonic appearance conducted by Dennis Russell Davies; and four alternative-jazz programs hosted by Don Byron. Music and film converge in two screenings of Carl Theodor Dreyer's sublime "Passion of Joan of Arc" with a new Richard Einhorn score. Artists in Action presentations put the spotlight on works in progress by Vito Acconci, Ilya Kabakov, and the team of Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel.
Something for everyone, indeed.
*The 1995 Next Wave Festival continues through Dec. 17.
BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC SCHEDULE
'Salome' by Oscar Wilde. Acted by Steven Berkoff. Oct. 19-20.
'Chinoiserie' conceived and performed by Ping Chong. Nov. 14-18.
'Duchess of Malfi' by John Webster. Performed by Cheek by Jowl. Dec. 6-9, and 12.
MUSIC AND FILM
'The Passion of Joan of Arc' by Carl Dreyer. Oct. 25 and 28.
'From Gospel to Gershwin' by Gunther Schuller. Nov. 3-5.
Kronos Weekend, performed by the Kronos Quartet. Nov. 16-18.
'Nine Songs' by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Oct. 20-21.
'The Whispers of Angels' by David Rousseve/Reality. Nov. 28, 30, Dec.1-3.
Mark Morris Dance Group. Program A: Dec. 9, 12, 15, 17. Program B: Dec. 10, 13, 14, 16.