The World Came to Brooklyn, All Thanks to Harv the Marv

At the end of the recent, nicely named “The Harvey Gala,” Harvey Lichtenstein-who was being honored for his glorious 32 years as head of the Brooklyn Academy of Music- danced on stage. It was wonderful! The audience rose to him, and he kept dancing, and never wanted to stop.

Harvey,or”Harvthe Marv”-as everyone calls him, including people who don’t know him, like me-is 70 now, and retiring from the leadership of BAM and the Next Wave Festival, which have transformed the performing arts of New York to an astonishing, unequaled degree. He began his professional life as a dancer. The joyful, liberated spirit of the dancer within him accounts for a lot. We cannot let this week pass without paying tribute, then, to this Diaghilev of Brooklyn, who’s also “the last samurai,” and even a “Prospero.”

I can remember the bleaker times of the late 1970′s when no one went to Brooklyn. Not even Bianca Jagger went. The trendy, all-black East Village image came later (and seems to have calmed down now). There’s another remarkable achievement! It was as if we awesomely sophisticated Manhattanites were crossing into the dark, unknown territory of a foreign country until Harv the Marv somehow made it hip to go to Brooklyn.

How did he do it? When he took charge of the Academy in 1967, it had a great history-Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt and Jascha Heifetz had performed there. But its future was perilous. Before he got there, the Academy was offering dramatic readings and leasing space to a karate class. He had nothing to lose!

At the same time, he set out to attract a Manhattan audience by offering a radical alternative to the mainstream fare of Broadway and to the big culture houses like Lincoln Center. (That alternative-call it choice, or urgently needed life-blood-is just as relevant today.) To be sure, he raided the existing downtown arts scene. He followed his own gut instinct and taste, giving the avant-garde a showcase, a home.

In his first, dangerous days, for example, he gave the revolutionary work of Merce Cunningham its first major New York season, and staged the New York premiere of Alban Berg’s atonal Lulu . There quickly followed Twyla Tharp; Robert Wilson’s The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud ; and the return from exile in Europe of the subversive Living Theater, a troupe I’d seen in London when a naked Julian Beck sat on my knee and said, “I’m not allowed to travel without a passport.”

Harvey Lichtenstein doesn’t believe in passports, either-not in cultural ones, anyway. (The Brooklyn Bridge has always been open.) But look at some of the innovative American artists he has steadfastly supported-Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Laurie Anderson and that favorite BAM dumpling, Mark Morris. I got to know them through BAM. We all did.

In one of the several loving tributes during “The Harvey Gala,” the writer and director Jonathan Miller wittily referred to BAM’s unique contribution in the context of a New York that’s “the most spectacularly provincial city in the world.” The audience laughed, seeing the truth in it. Not to worry, though. Mr. Miller sees his own hometown, London, as unspectacularly worse. It’s why he joined the international opera scene, and directs straight theater only in Dublin. He’s disillusioned with the pervasively bourgeois, seeing both the West End and Broadway as basically conformist and provincial, like Finland in the 50′s.

What is undeniable is that the world-renowned artists that have also been produced at BAM expanded all horizons. Harvey Lichtenstein made the world accessible. It has been as vital a contribution to the cultural life of New York as Joseph Papp’s principled campaign for free Shakespeare in the Park. His greatest legacy has been the open, wholly enthusiastic embrace of the international.

The unstoppable impresario within him got the crumbling old Majestic, an abandoned movie house round the corner from BAM, reopened at a cost of $5 million to house Peter Brook’s nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata . The new venue was modeled after Mr. Brook’s own Paris theater, the Bouffes du Nord. The Majestic has now been proudly renamed the Harvey Lichtenstein Theater (and will doubtless be known as the Harvey). But look, too, at some of the Next Wave Festival’s international names that were new to New York once upon a time: Apart from Peter Brook, there are the productions of Ingmar Bergman. ( The Image Makers , directed by the 80-year-old legend, has just played BAM via the Royal Dramatic Theater of Sweden.) The seminal experimental work of Jerzy Grotowski was first produced in Brooklyn; the great Giorgio Strehler’s Tempest was the finest I’ve ever seen. On balance, I could have lived without the cutting edge of hip horsemanship, Zingaro. But where would the New York performing arts scene have been without the supreme work of William Christie, or of Robert Lepage, Pina Bausch, Peter Sellars and Ariane Mnouchkine?

Until the 1970′s in London, there used to be the invaluable annual World Theater Season-the equivalent, on an international level, of BAM today. The World Theater Season virtually educated an entire generation in England-first introducing London to the work of Brecht and the Berlin Ensemble, the Moscow Art Theater and Noh theater. Today, the finances-and even the will-just aren’t there to support it. But in “spectacularly provincial” New York, BAM holds the fort, and miraculously so, it seems.

Do I have any criticisms of Harvey Lichtenstein’s tenure? Do the lights go down before a performance? There are bound to be niggles. A new, younger generation of European innovators has tended to be dominated by the older icons. He strangely seemed to undervalue the brilliant new work of the London-based Théâtre de Complicité (which became the hit of the Lincoln Center Summer Festival, even though the troupe has had to play in inadequate theater spaces). He boldly introduced-thank goodness!-the Cheek by Jowl troupe to New York, and the unforgettable all-male As You Like It , in particular. But none of Deborah Warner’s revolutionary London productions with Fiona Shaw have made BAM yet.

To an extent, BAM’s favorites are now aging a little. So yesterday’s avant-garde becomes today’s cultural establishment. It’s inevitable. But great producers stand by their artists, as Harvey Lichtenstein always has. And his contribution over 32 years has been, quite simply, mind-blowing. He didn’t just put Brooklyn on the map, but the world.

So there were many loving tributes during “The Harvey Gala,” as I say. Philip Glass played Études for Piano, Paul Simon and the band played a set, Trisha Brown danced a scherzo she’d specially choreographed, and, among much else, Erland Josephson-one of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest actors-read a scene beautifully from Chekhov. And then Harv the Marv danced! And in its joyful freedom, the dance was his credo and heartfelt thanks.