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Wehle's World
by Philippa Wehle

BAM's 1999 Next Wave Festival
Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, by Laurie Anderson
October 6-16, 1999
Bam Opera House
Attended October 13, 1999

Life is a Dream, by Scotland's Royal Lyceum Theatre Company
October 12-17, 1999
BAM Harvey Theater
Attended October 17, 1999

Operation: Orfeo, by Denmark's Hotel Pro Forma
October 20-23, 1999
BAM Opera House
Attended October 22, 1999

Morning Song, by Belgium's Jan Lauwers and Needcompany
BAM Harvey Theater
October 27-31, 1999
Attended October 31, 1999

Danzon, Germany's Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
Direction and Choreography by Pina Bausch
November 2-7, 1999
BAM Opera House
Attended November 2, 1999

Hiyomeki (Within a Gentle Vibration and Agitation) by Japan's Sankai Juku
Directed, choreographed, and designed by Ushio Amagatsu
November 10-14, 1999
BAM Opera House
Attended November 10, 1999

Geometry of Miracles, by Canada's Ex Machina
Directed by Robert Lepage
November 30 - December 6, 1999
BAM Harvey Theater
Attended November 30, 1999

The Next Wave Festival at BAM this Fall offered a captivating program including works from the New Europe '99 program, a citywide festival celebrating a new generation of European performing artists. Laurie Anderson's "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick," Scotland's Royal Lyceum's Company production of Calderon's "Life is a dream," Danish Hotel Pro Forma's "Operation:Orfeo," Belgium's Needcompany in a new performance art piece, "Morning Song," Pina Bausch's "Danzon," Sankai Juku's "Hiyomeki" and Robert Lepage's "Geometry of Miracles," were visually striking and thought provoking; provocative at times, whimsical at others; all of the best ingredients, in my view, to making a festival what it should be, a nerve center, an electrifying brief moment in the year when people come together to discover and celebrate new artistic voices as well as unknown works by great contemporary artists.

The Festival got off to a great start with Laurie Anderson's latest music-theater work "Songs and Stories From Moby Dick." Working with actors for the first time, this was also her first with period costumes and her first based on someone else's writing. The piece also introduced us to a fabulous new instrument, the talking stick, a digital sampling machine shaped like a harpoon that responds to the performer's gestures. The seemingly simple set - two tall white columns on either side of the stage, an unadorned raised platform in between with steps leading up to it, large black side speakers and a giant screen - was wired for extremely complicated transitions of images, some pre-recorded, others live, projected with the help of five or six video screens in the back.

As the show opened, the stage was bare but for a normal sized book front stage left, its pages flipping over with no help from human hands. Laurie Anderson, red boots, black leather jacket and pants, her back to us, fiddled on her signature electric violin as projections of rolling waves on the screen behind her and blue smoke billowing down from above set the scene.

"So here is the island of Manhattan," she sang. "On a dreamy Sunday afternoon ..." while pages of Melville's novel turned to the year 1842 on the screen behind her and the sound of ship bells tolled the beginning of Anderson's refashioning of Melville's classic tale, a refashioning that is mostly Anderson and maybe 10 % unadulterated Melville.

"Books are the way the dead talk to the living,"Anderson informed us early on and she filled her stage with images of books, pages from books, letters from words in the text and especially an enthralling library scene in which she spoke of the research on whales and plaintively wondered why our libraries are filled with tears. And as always, Anderson regaled us with her droll and fabulous stories. Little Laurie Anderson seated in a giant white chair telling us of a huge, monstrous disembodied head of a whale which sank to the bottom of the sea carrying a sailor inside; big Laurie in her tiny white chair, reading to us out loud with her voice distorted to sound like a man's, were only two of the delightful moments in an exhilarating evening.

As she narrated, Tom Nelis [of Anne Bogart's SITI fame] playing Captain Ahab in tall black hat and black frock coat, madly pursued the Great White Whale. Flying about the stage on his crutches [he had fallen into the orchestra pit and was seriously injured], he was a perfect projection of the madness in Ahab's mind. Despite the crutches he danced a quirky dance, often joined by other dancers who executed their numbers with grace and elegance.

In the background, whale and ship constellations swam by, numbers and letters danced on the screen and Anderson continued to sing of the fate of whales who are lost if their songs are drowned out, of the great sperm whale with its tiny eyes who sees nothing directly in front of him or of Melville's trip to the Galapagos where he got lost among cannibals, and the cook delivered his sermon to the sharks and gave them the benediction.

Throughout, Skuli Sverrisson playing bass onstage was mesmerizing. He barely moved in fitting contrast to the lively dance numbers and to the magnificent Laurie Anderson's homage to the great Herman Melville.

While Anderson revisited a classic novel in her inimitable post modern fashion, Scotland's Royal Lyceum Theatre Company's production of Calderon's "Life is a Dream," directed by a young Catalan director from Barcelona, Calixto Bieito, offered audiences a chance to see a 17th century classical masterpiece beautifully interpreted as such with no frills. Written in 1635 and considered the Spanish "Hamlet," "Life is a Dream" is a fascinating, violent, passionate and very modern tragi-comedy that raises key philosophical questions of interest to audiences today: fate vs free will, dream vs reality, the responsibility of governors vs the rights of the governed, and especially the possibility of forgiveness and change.

For Bieito it is the primacy of the text that matters. Consequently, the actors must be true, simple, open and generous, as he said in an interview. Although the play's action takes place in Poland, Bieito's set, stripped to the barest of essentials - a round playing arena covered with gravel, a few chairs, rays of light to delineate the action, an ornate mirror floating overhead and the plaintive strains of flamenco singing - suggested a colorless No Man's Land. The costumes, Rosaura's stunning orange brocaded dress or Estrella's turquoise evening gown, the King's multicolored dressing gown and his crimson pajamas added splashes of vibrant color to an otherwise bleak setting. Clearly in such a production it is the acting that counts and it was excellent.

"Life is a Dream," a tragi-comedy, tells the strange tale of King Basilio who imprisoned his son Segismundo at birth to keep him from becoming the bloody ruler astrologers predicted. Hoping to free his son of his destiny, the King releases Segismundo to rule the country. No sooner done, the prophecy becomes reality and Segismundo rules for a day with extreme cruelty. Half human, half wild animal, he rapes the beautiful Estrella with alacrity and rejoices at casually throwing an old servant out the window. Horror stricken, his father returns him to the tower and tells him it was all a dream. Rescued by Polish rebels who return him to the throne, he surprises all by forgiving his father and becoming an enlightened leader.

There was never a dull moment in this action packed production including the expert clowning of Sylvester McCoy as Clarin, Rosaura's servant. George Anton as Segismundo was especially artful in his transformation from a pitiable prisoner in chains howling with pain to enlightened monarch. In the end, the mirror moved downward to reflect the audience, including us in Calderon's Pirandellian world of role playing and illusion reminding us, perhaps, that life is fiction, and that if you believe a dream can come true, it will.

Denmark's Hotel Pro Forma, never before seen in the United States was another refreshing discovery. Kirsten Dehlholm, the creator of this fascinating piece, is one of Denmark's "Living Treasures" and well she should be. A textile artist before she became interested in performance art, she made costumes and sculpture installation pieces. As these became increasingly alive in non theatrical spaces - museums and public spaces - she began to develop her own special brand of theater of images inspired admittedly by Robert Wilson. "Operation:Orfeo," [1993] Kirsten Dehlholm's first proscenium theater experience, is hard to define. It is billed as "a hypnotic collage of theatrical phenomena" but this leaves out the work's important musical element composed of a mixture of John Cage's 1979 "Hymns and Variations" and pieces by Danish composer Bo Holten based on Renaissance choir music along with one quotation from Gluck's "Orfeo."

The piece began with twenty minutes of a cappella singing in the dark. Asking the audience to be silent and attentive for twenty minutes in the dark might have been asking a bit much but in fact the experience was quite pleasant, not unlike the meditative, hypnotic experience of watching Sankai Juku or standing in front of an abstract expressionist painting and tuning in on its shifting depths and dimensions and enjoying a sort of luminous afterglow.

When the stage lights did come up, the audience was in for a treat. The set - a steep white staircase set in a square frame - is an amazing structure. Rising up to the flies, it represented both Orpheus' descent into Hell as well as his ascent when he loses Eurydice. Lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug used optical illusion to make three dimensional space look two dimensional thereby recreating the flatness of film rather than the depth of a theater space.

A vocal ensemble composed of thirteen performer/singers all dressed in identical black robes with crowns on their heads [thirteen replicas of Orpheus] created startling patterns on the stairs as they moved gracefully, slowly, like Artaud's hieroglyphs, from step to step, lying down one above the other, or striking majestic poses, Throughout, a lone dancer who may or may not represent the narrative of the myth, slowly moved up and down the stairs, a lost Eurydice, perhaps, doomed to remain forever in Hell.

Operation: Orfeo was a truly elegant and beautiful ritual performance.

An entirely different feeling was evoked by Belgian Jan Lauwers and his Needcompany's "Morning Song," a visionary theater/dance work, another of this year's innovative New Europe '99 offerings. On a stage divided into thirds - a few chairs and microphones stage front, a large dance area with a sofa and a fully-equipped kitchen, stage left - eight performers frantically explored their personal and collective histories. Seated on stools, they began by introducing themselves and the evening's major theme, inspired by Albert Camus' drama "Caligula" in which the Emperor Caligula declares: "People die and are unhappy" and one his men comments: "This truth does not prevent people from enjoying a delicious meal." Indeed the players seemed voraciously hungry, hungry to survive at all costs. ["Why leave a little bit on the plate as his parents told him to do," as one character shouted, "that's so bourgeois."] And he obliged by avidly eating everything on his dish and wiping up the juices with a piece of bread. Another spoke of vomiting when he's had too much. They all seemed hell bent for destruction but enjoying every minute of the journey. One is reminded of the French film" La Grande Bouffe," in which the characters gather in a country house to prepare elaborate meals and eat themselves to death.

Actually, these characters may be dead already or dying. Harry, the revolutionary freedom fighter [played by the Argentine actor Gonzalo Cunill] definitely died years before in 1973. Liliane Grandiflora [magnificently portrayed by Viviane De Muynck], the Mother of Them All, patient, vibrant, sexy and vivacious, seemed the only one left to tell her family's complicated tale of misfortune and she lived to be 103.

"Morning Song" may not have been to everybody's taste, especially when one of the players vomited and his choking and burping were magnified over the loudspeaker, but for me, it was playful, good natured, and just plain fun, rather like a Vaudeville show, filled with zany antics. The performers talk of a missing cat, someone finds it frozen in the refrigerator; the dead cat is catapulted across the stage; the chef opens his mouth and fireworks come spewing out. Even the choreography, composed mainly of wobbly leg numbers and flailing arms, with a focus on repetition, had a comic edge to it though it was also quite beautiful.

The play's subtitle "No beauty for me there, where human life is rare, part two," says it all. The stage was filled with the celebration of life in all of its complexities illustrated by the extended Grandiflora family: Liliane's brother Leonard, the chef, her ex-husband [played by Ritseart Ten Cate, founder of Amsterdam's fabled MickeryTheater] fetching in a brown bear costume, her daughter Lena who married Harry who is in love with Liliane, not to mention his former girlfriend Ushi called Sushi by some and Tchi, the Chinese cabdriver whom Lena would have preferred to marry. "Loud is not enough,"written on the jacket of one of the dancers, captured the evening's exuberant spirit.

"All the world's afflictions end up in the kitchen," says one of the players and throughout the show the audience got to enjoy the aromatic smells of the garlic, peppers and onions being prepared for the spaghetti sauce simmering in the pot, a meal that was of course promptly eaten.

Pina Bausch's return to BAM is always welcome and very much anticipated. "Danzon" [1995] - the name of a rhythmic Argentine dance popular in 19th century Mexico - like other Bausch pieces, is composed of a series of fragments or tableaux, masterfully presented, danced, and performed as always.

On a completely bare stage, two dancers in white evening gowns lay flat on the floor, swinging arms to a blues numbers as Jan Minarik, a familiar member of Bausch 's company, crawled in from the wings wearing only a diaper. Sucking his thumb, he busied himself with putting rocks between their legs and on their stomachs as if to weigh them down and keep them from taking off to dance their youth and beauty. A gorgeous black dancer convincingly tells us " so I am here and you are there" as Dominque Mercy [another favorite Bausch dancer], dressed as a woman in blue sleeveless silk short dress and blue feathered cap was asked by the women to do something nice for them. He obliged by reproducing an awkward bow he had executed for the Queen Mother. Other turns included pulling dresses over the head of one dancer and simultaneously onto the body of another, or guys sticking their heads into a dancer's dress to make big breasts, dancers cavorting in a pile of hay, screaming, giggling, or telling stories beside a campfire. All of this against a filmed backdrop of vast expanses, rust colored canyons and rocks or gorgeous blow-ups of golden fish swimming back and forth.

These are familiar lighthearted Bauschian games, but in "Danzon," they seemed somewhat forced, less magical than in previous Wuppertal productions; tamer perhaps. It all seemed too haphazardly constructed. Where were those unforgettable Bauschian moments freeze- framed in our memories from past productions? the vicious guard dogs in the midst of 1,500 pink carnations in "Nelken "with stuntmen dropping four stories to the ground or the savage male-female battles in "Kontakhof"? Jan as a baby in diapers crawling across the stage or across a bridge hanging over the stage, Dominique wearing movable rabbit ears or Mechthild Grossmann throwing a tantrum, seemed more sad than playful - yet the piece was meant to be light-hearted.

Even Bausch's solo - her first since 1978's "Cafe Mueller" - would have been a treat had one been able to make out the subtlety of her spare movements, but it was performed in semi-obscurity and the gigantic fish swimming on the screen behind her - her partner in this unusual pas de deux - dwarfed Miss Bausch and outshown her in his fascinating, repeated circling.

Equally anticipated was the return of Sankai Juku, another favorite, last seen at BAM in 1996, with their now classic Butoh-inspired piece"Hiyomeki," choreographed, designed, directed and performed by Ushio Amagatsu and four other male dancers. It is always a challenge to watch Sankai Juku. Their work requires the most intense concentration to capture the slightest gesture, the delicate shifts of position. Theirs is the opposite of the techno-driven theater so prevalent on our Broadway stages, and this is a plus, but it is not easy to make the transition from the urban buzz to the quiet serenity of Sankai Juku's spiritual world.

On a bare stage covered with fine sand, other-worldly figures wearing in Amagatsu's words "their innocence, wonder, fear, and mortality on the outside," entered the ritual space under a large metal ring rising above them. Dressed in long sleeveless white gowns, their white powdered bodies and shaved heads now a familiar look, they gently moved about, slowly rearranging their bodies as they performed their ritual of mind/body/soul unity, their special dance of darkness. A work in seven sections composed of solos by Amagatsu alternating with dances for the group,"Hiyomeki" was remarkable for its pure artistry, its haunting beauty and the extraordinary physical control of these superb dancers who left us with a keen sense of what it means to live in a spiritual realm so completely unlike our Western madness.

Interestingly, "Geometry of Miracles," Robert Lepage's controversial piece on the encounters of two remarkable 20th century figures, the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the Russian mystic, Georgi I. Gurdjieff, offered a chance to explore these questions further; the way of the West vs the way of the East. Although both Wright andGurdjieff were searching for balance and unity in their work, something beyond the moment, they went about it in completely different ways. One was an architect, the other a mystic.

Gurdjieff's quest was for the "harmonious development of man" and to this end he developed a special choreography, movements to help awaken the heart, the mind and the body to a higher state of consciousness. Intricate movements, complex postures that no doubt took years to master.

Wright's search was to harmonize nature and architecture. To this effect, he founded Taliesen, where the Fellows worked not only on Wright's organic architectural projects but also on personal and spiritual development thanks to Olgivanna, right's third wife, who had studied with Gurdjieff in Fontainebleau and brought his teachings toTaliesen.

Robert Lepage's objective was to intersect the two trajectories, to trace the links between these two great men, a difficult project at best, given the complicated nature of Gurdjieff's philosophical work and the complexity of Wright's architectural achievements. Although not completely satisfying, the evening raised numerous questions. Is it enough or even right to distill the Gurdjieffian movements into a brief ritualistic dance number repeated in fragments to counting throughout the piece? Is it sufficient to cast an actor who looks a bit like Frank Lloyd Wright and dress him in flowing cape and cane with characteristic porkpie hat and white hair, to recreate the extraordinary personality of America's great architect? And what about Gurdjieff powerful charisma capable of attracting devotees from all over the world? here reduced to scenes of love making with Olgivanna, sessions with students imitating his every gesture and word, or a figure seated gazing into a giant eyeball?

Obviously not. What Lepage and his co-authors did do is to take us through a series of tableaux based on their interpretations of slices of Wright's and Gurdjieff's lives from 1929 to 1959. Using projections, live performance, music and movement, Lepage and company explored these moments with his characteristic playfulness, his theatrical inventiveness, his sense of humor and his love of jokes and visual surprises. Wright's drawing table, for example, a central object in the opening scene, turned into a multitude of different objects throughout the play: from drawing board to ping pong table to dinner table to office desk, to a platform on which Lenin appeared or a surface on which Gurdjieff attempted to make love to Olgivanna. In the opening scene, a naked devil with two little horns, a creature from the fourth dimension, played by the same actor who played Gurdjieff, materialized from behind the drawing table, lay coquettishly on Wright's lap and offered to give Wright his youth back if he could solve a riddle which Wright did in a flash, drawing delighted applause from the audience. Kevin McCoy, playing Herbert Johnson, president of the Johnson Wax company, tap danced a letter to his secretary, Marge about the new office building plans. The scene switched to Wright's house where Johnson had been invited to dinner to discuss the project. Instead of a building plan, however, Wright's apprentices astonished Johnson by rapidly moving wine glasses and white dinner plates around to create the Johnson Wax building in miniature.

On a more serious note, the piece was also a meditation on shape, with sections titled Circles, Squares and Spirals, and a set filled with geometrical designs - a circle on the stage floor which revolves, various geometrical shapes [triangles parallel lines, circles] projected onto a large screen, and repeated group movement patterns which were meant to serve as a coded reference to the Gurdjieffian sacred dances.

What struck me most in this production is Lepage's keen interest in the relationship between master and disciple. Indeed, one wonders if this was not the focus of his exploration. His questioning of that connection. As with other Lepage works, "Geometry of Miracles" is a collective creation, and Lepage enjoys a close working relationship with his company, the opposite, it would seem, of Wright's and Gurdjieff's guru status. As he once told me in an interview, he feels much more comfortable functioning as a member of his company rather than an authoritative figure. He prefers to be an actor among actors as he put it. For him, a director is not a great untouchable master. He may be in charge but he's not the only intelligent, sensitive person at rehearsals. Seeing "Geometry of Miracles" in this light, I could better understand Lepage's exploration and appreciate once more the talent and inventiveness of Lepage and his Ex Machina company. [Wehle]

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