In 1983, former BAM President Harvey Lichtenstein hired Joseph Melillo to initiate a brand new project at the Fort Greene arts institution. “New York City did not have a contemporary performing arts festival, and there were several in the world,” Melillo told me over the phone recently. “And New York City we believe is one of the great cultural capitals of the world; it should have a contemporary performing arts festival,” Melillo and Lichtenstein knew at the time. And with that, Melillo began the Next Wave festival at BAM, now in its 33rd year.
Which is well and good because, through it, we’ve been able to discover some of New York City’s most trailblazing dance, theater, opera, music and film. And yet, Melillo realized recently, perhaps this was not as good as he could do. At a time when we see an ever-growing number of disturbing political events, highlighting again and again how little we really understand about life beyond our own borders—let alone selves, and neighborhoods—Melillo thought: why not confront some of that ignorance by seeking out the other in art?
For the first time at Next Wave festival this year, BAM, in partnership with the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, hosts the Brooklyn Paris Exchange. During two festival weeks, two Next Wave performances selected by Melillo will travel to the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris and, in turn, BAM will host two productions from Théâtre de la Ville, selected by its artistic director, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Voilà, un échange. Best case scenario, both audiences can gain a deep understanding of the other’s emerging arts culture; worst case scenario, audiences will be aware they’re looking at something brand new.
The idea for the exchange emerged from the friendship between Melillo and the Théâtre de la Ville’s Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who had previously presented two shows at BAM. Melillo recounted, “I, with great respect and affection said to him, ‘You don’t know anything about Brooklyn, and you particularly don’t know anything about Brooklyn artists, and what is now going on.’” Melillo clearly spoke with a sense of humor, but at the same time, he was not joking. And, he offered Demarcy-Mota, in return, “‘I am going to say I don’t know what’s going on in young, emerging artists in the Parisian artistic community.’ And we talked about, maybe we should start changing that reality with each other.”
For the exchange, Melillo selected two radically divergent but equally compelling performances to travel to France. Choreographer Nora Chipaumire (of New York Subway ad fame), born in Zimbabwe, and current resident of Brooklyn, will present a searching and powerful performance about her father; and Steve Cosson from The Civilians theater, located a short walk from BAM, will show Parisians his play about the afterlife (which, incidentally, includes one very French reference, Cocteau’s Orpheus.) In turn, BAM audiences will get a taste of some “circus” theater, popular and emerging in French art circles, as well as a performance of “hip hop inflected” dance—which is somewhat ironic, because its roots are so firmly here. Nonetheless, it is the French interpretation of it.
I was able to catch both Cosson and Chipaumire during breaks from their rehearsals leading up to their Next Wave premieres. Chipaumire carved twenty minutes out of her lunch break to talk to me about her piece, “Portrait of Myself as My Father,” and about the opportunity to bring it to Paris. “It sets the tone as a non-native-born American to go and present Brooklyn,” Chipaumire explained, about why her art was such an appropriate export. “It is totally what America is all about.”
The Zimbabwe born Chipaumire did not grow up studying dance, but says her connection to it is much deeper than that. “In my country, dance wasn’t something that people really go to school for, but the physical culture is not something that is alien to African people. They live in their bodies, it’s very physical,” she told me in her light hearted sing song. At 23, she moved to California not to study dance, but, as she put it, “because I wanted to see the world.” Eventually, she did get a masters in dance from Mills College in Oakland, but her first field of study was law. That should not be a surprise, she told me. After all, “Mick Jagger studied economics.”
Through her performance, Chipaumire attempts to understand her absent father. “You get old enough, and you’re able to consider what your parents’ life really were about,” Chipaumire reflects. “My father was divorced from my mother since I was five. He was outside of my world forever and ever—but I carry his name.” She first started developing the piece in 2014, but it debuts for Next Wave at BAM and, of course, in Paris.
“It’s kind of glorious to be the first,” Chipaumire said about the inaugural exchange. And she thought seeing herself on subway posters was a thrill. “I got a holy smacking shock looking at myself, and made a holy sound and shrieks!” she recalled, after seeing herself along the B line. But this, she thinks, could be better. “It’s New York in Paris, so it’s going to be mad. We’re so excited, it’s as good as flying.”
Meanwhile, Steve Cosson from The Civilians theater took time out of his rehearsals to discuss the Brooklyn theater scene he will bring to paris—what he called “A DIY trip to the Underworld.”
Cosson’s play, The Undertaking, was a result of a series of interviews he conducted—replicated verbatim—with people whose jobs related, in some form or another, to the afterlife: a nurse practitioner who works in palliative care; a soldier who was in Iraq; a guy who dropped out of embalming school; and an energy healer who assists people as they die. Why? As Cosson explains, “You don’t know life if you shy away from the end of the story.”
So what about any of that is DIY? “They basically do it with a bottle of wine and a few tequila shots and some music—and some other things that I won’t give away,” Cosson explains. I laughed and said this of course means everyone in Brooklyn—and Paris—will now do the same. “Yeah,” Cosson laughed back. “We intend to start a trend.”
Melillo says that Cosson’s work falls, fittingly, into a very American category of young emerging theater called “devised work”—that which is not adapted from previous pieces, and has no inspiration other than questions investigated by the playwright. “That is very New York and very new American,” Melillo explained. “This younger generation of artists in our community conjure [work] from within.”
Cosson says he liked this kind of creation because it is less restrictive than the traditional American “Aristotelian” rubrics. “At BAM, you have an audience that has an expectation that the form of the work is going to be freer—though it still has to deliver,” he adds. “There is a price for freedom, as we say in America.” (This sounds grave, and is true, but he said it with a little laugh.)
Meantime, at BAM, audiences will get a taste of what Melillo describes as “physical theater,” and that French-made hip-hop dance.
“I am not an urban or social anthropologist,” says Melillo, “but there is something about urban communities and big metropolises, and the kind of art that is of interest to the individuals who live in those communities,” he reflects, that are similar. Their products might be different, but exposure is the first step to opening minds not only to new art, but to the people who make it. After all, at the core of all of it is an attempt to understand human life, not just the French, or American, or Zimbabwean variety. Melillo continued, “There just seemed to be some relationship between this kind of energy, from the 21st Century, that is simpatico.”
The Undertaking debuts at BAM today, September 21, and runs through the 25 before traveling to Paris, where it will run from October 5 – 8th. Portrait of Myself as My Father runs at Théâtre de la Ville in Paris from September 28 – October 1.
Image of the Richard B Fisher building, and those from Portrait of Myself as My Father via Julieta Cervantes; The Undertaking image by Zach Hyman.