Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it’s no surprise that BAM150 is both celebratory and promotional. But the story of the arts institution that’s survived a century and a half is certainly worth commemorating. And director Michael Sládek, best known for Con Artist, the documentary about 1980s New York art world celebrity Mark Kostabi, makes this particular pleasure to watch by adeptly interspersing high-definition performance footage with backstage moments, archival material, and historical commentary.
The performances highlighted in BAM150, from the 2011-2012 Next Wave season, illustrate the range of programming that continues to draw enthusiastic audiences to BAM: The Berliner Ensemble production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Robert Wilson; Les Arts Florissants and Opéra Comique’s production of Jean Baptiste Lully’s Atys; and the Beijing Dance Theater’s Haze, choreographed by Wang Yuanyuan. Sládek also provides a behind-the-scenes look at the day to day running of the organization, gala events, and openings: the Berliner Ensemble sets being loaded into the BAM opera house, the opening night of the Bridge Project’s Richard III starring Kevin Spacey.
BAM has morphed over more than a century to become one of New York’s most prominent cultural institutions. Interviews with historian Mike Wallace, author Philip Lopate, critic John Rockwell, among others, record the evolution of the organization, which came about as the result of rivalry between New York (Manhattan) and Brooklyn in the 1850s. Although it opened in 1861 as a concert house for classical music, the Academy soon embraced theatrical performances, presenting the likes of Edwin Booth, Sarah Bernhardt, and Eleonora Duse. Then in 1903 the theater burned down, but it was rebuilt shortly after at its current location. BAM lost some of its luster as Manhattan came to dominate the arts scene, and by the 1960s, when Brooklyn, as the historians note, was considered by many to be the “borough of fear,” the tide turned completely and the theater was in danger of being shut down. But BAM’s fortunes would see yet another reversal, with the arrival in 1967 of Harvey Lichtenstein, who took over the reins as executive director.
Astutely programming work that wasn’t seen anywhere else in the city, Lichtenstein was the one of the early champions of Meredith Month, Mark Morris, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, and Robert Wilson, who talk about the importance of BAM in their careers in the movie. Lichtenstein was particularly successful in initiating long running series like Dance Africa and the Next Wave festival establishing brand name value to the programming that continues to flourish to this day. During his 32-year tenure at BAM (he retired in 1999), he established himself as one of the most influential performing arts administrators in this county, and is rightly credited with shaping BAM into a cultural mecca unlike anything the city had seen before.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 18—29. For more information click here.