Recurrently, one hears or reads that the avant-garde has died, this time for good. Few would deny that works of art with the outward characteristics of an avant-garde continue to be produced -- works that are in some way shocking, irreverent, obscure or at the least antitraditional. But what's generally meant by the pronouncement is that nothing fundamentally new is going on.
What's happening on today's artistic front lines, it seems to me, suggests just the opposite. Far from being dead, the avant-garde is the only thing that's truly alive. Virtually everything else is either a slicking-up of old formulas, or too trivial to deserve the name of creative activity.
A little reflection along historical lines will show that this has ever been the case. The arts are vital to the degree that they are innovative. That this still holds was brought home to me last week by a tour of eight performances within a four-day stay in New York. New York may be a more ugly, brutish and sinister city than ever (as a transplanted native with abiding attachment, that's the way it strikes me), but it remains the same unparalleled cauldron of artistic ferment it always was.
Most of the performances I saw fell under the general heading of dance, but one of the hallmarks of the vanguard is that it's no respecter of categories. Take, for example, "Vienna: Lusthaus," the latest multimedia phantasm by Martha Clarke, now in a two-month run at Joseph Papp's Public Theater.
In recent seasons Clarke has concentrated on evening-length concoctions that straddle the line between dance and theater too evenly to be regarded as one or the other. "Vienna: Lusthaus" is in this vein. It's an impressionistic panorama of sights, words and sounds conjuring a prewar Vienna of the mind, the vortex of a decadent empire that gave us Freud and Hitler and everything they imply. What you see on entering the theater is an empty room that by its bare tilted walls, gaping black doorways and steamy light instantly summons an ominous, corrupt atmosphere. This picture becomes the backdrop for scenes of lust, vice and latent cruelty beneath a veneer of aristocratic civility. Nude figures join in furtive couplings. There are passing, giveaway references to Jews. An elegantly uniformed man with a riding crop evokes both the Spanish Riding School and concentration camps. Periodically, the stage is set awhirl with waltzing to the strains of Strauss.
The cast, which includes such noted performers as Lotte Goslar, Rob Besserer and Lila York, is divided between dancers and actors and calls about equally upon both sets of skills. A musical score by Richard Peaslee, feverish lighting by Paul Gallo and Robert Israel's haunting decor enhance the mesmerizing effect.
"Vienna: Lusthaus" is a brilliant kaleidoscope of surfaces and imaginative in technique, but it delves only so far into its troubled psychosocial milieu. Far more penetrating is Robert Wilson's "Hamletmachine," in a superb performance by actors from New York University's s Tisch School of the Arts, running through June 28.
According to Ruskin's hardy old dictum, all art "aspires to the condition of music." In the sense that progressive refinement of form leads to increasing abstraction, the observation still applies to most media, but it takes on different guises. If Clarke bends dance into stylized theater, Wilson's theater approaches the condition of dance. Though it is but one of many ingredients, movement -- of actors, objects, texts and ideas -- is cardinal in "Hamletmachine." The script, by East German playwright Heiner Mu ller, has been realized by Wilson as a species of movement theater.
Indeed, the performance is tantamount to a human "mobile." Essentially the same sequence of actions, incidental sounds and music is repeated five times, with all the performers, props and decor facing a new direction in each cycle. It's like a Rubik's Cube, each rotation making new, previously hidden facets visible. The ritual repetitions also provide a sense of tragic inexorability that mounts in powerful crescendo.
In particulars the drama is only vaguely related to Shakespeare, though characters from and allusions to "Hamlet" do occur. In essence the work is an freewheeling extrapolation from its model, the point of which is that the contemporary world is literally a Hamletmachine, turning us all into disturbed protagonists, haunted by ghosts and blundering recklessly toward personal and maybe universal doom. Both the conception and execution reconfirm Wilson's singularly inventive genius.
Even less easily classifiable is "Cooking With the Elements (Creation up to 1900)," the uneven but awesome production at the Theatre for the New City conceived and directed by Theodora Skipitares. Skipitares, a sculptor turned puppeteer, dwells in the hazy penumbra between performance art and dance theater. Her uncannily touching puppet figures range from the tiny to the huge -- a minuscule fetus revolving in the womb of another puppet in one scene of "Cooking"; a row of giant human noses suspended from a rack like sides of beef in another. They are manipulated by silent attendants in dark clothing, much in the manner of Japan's Bunraku theater. Skipitares works here with such collaborators as composer Virgil Moorefield, lyricist Andrea Balis and choreographer Gail Conrad. The overall effect mysteriously fuses folk primitivism with a sharply contemporary sensibility.
The traits that mark today's avant-garde were no less evident in earlier times, which, indeed, set the stage for contemporary developments. The other five performances I caught were divided among three programs by the Martha Graham Dance Company and two by the New York City Ballet, all centering on past achievement but pointing in a forward direction.
It's impossible to do justice to these events here, but specifics apart, the lesson to be drawn from each is the same. Critic Susan Sontag entitled a book dealing with vanguard currents "Styles of Radical Will." The point is that radicalism in the arts isn't in itself a style. Rather, it's a spiritual state, a form of will, an attitude toward possibility. Things that are held to be "inconceivable" in the arts remain so only until an artist comes along who conceives them, wresting new forms and methods from resistant media in the process. What else can be meant by "creativity"?
Graham was celebrating, in a three-week season at City Center that ended this afternoon, her 60th anniversary as an independent artist, with programs stretching from her earliest vehicles as a Denishawn dancer (1916) to a work like "Temptations of the Moon," which she created this year at the age of 92. Even today, the quantum leap Graham took from a solo like "Tanagra" (1926), still in the picturesque Denishawn mold, to the shattering "Heretic" three years later, with its violence, weight and tension, seems cataclysmic. It's also astonishing to behold in Graham's early work how much she anticipated, not only the art of disciples such as Erick Hawkins, Paul Taylor or Merce Cunningham, but of artists at much further remove. Skipitares' use of eastern stage modes mirrors the Asian theatrical hues of Grahams' "Every Soul Is a Circus" (1939); Wilson's modular repetitions are foreshadowed by those of "Heretic."
Every creative career has phases and reaches an apex of originality at some point, beyond which iconoclasm ceases, though masterworks may continue. For Graham this point arrived perhaps in 1958 with "Clytemnestra," her first and only full-evening work. For George Balanchine it came a year later, in the historic "summit meeting" between himself and Graham, the great figureheads of neoclassic ballet and modern dance working in tandem to produce the two-part "Episodes." The solo Balanchine made in his part of "Episodes" for Paul Taylor, still with Graham at the time, has been revived this season for the New York City Ballet's current Lincoln Center season (ending next Sunday). Taylor himself taught the astonishingly bizarre, complex segment to NYCB's Peter Frame, who has caught the Taylor look remarkably well. But the performance of "Episodes" was also a reminder that this ballet -- the most refractory, the most arcane, among all Balanchine's works the most extreme in its distension of classical tradition -- attained a depth and renegade intensity he was never to surpass. Like "Heretic," however -- and indeed, like "Hamletmachine" or "Cooking With the Elements" -- the newness of "Episodes" is eternal. Such works are ahead of their time at any time.
A paradoxical afterthought -- in the perennial revolt against tradition that lies at the heart of any avant-garde movement, there are the seeds of . . . a tradition! The idea was wonderfully expressed by dancer-choreographer Steve Paxton (himself a pioneering radical) last week, speaking to a meeting of dance critics about the passing on of the heretical impulse from one generation of moderns to the next:
"If you don't do what your predecessors have done, you're doing just what they did."