Music

Theatre Alice, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York Michael Nyman premiere, Philadelphia
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The Independent Culture
If America's cutting-edge culture seems increasingly imported, it should surprise no one. Those who lionised progressive artists when they were trendy in the 1980s now distance themselves in the current political climate, from which the National Endowment for the Arts may not survive.

Even though Robert Wilson has been working increasingly in the US - often in his home state of Texas with Houston's Alley Theater - his more important works (such as the installation HG currently on show at the Clink Street Vaults in London) are still developed in Europe. So it is with Alice, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland developed at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre with Tom Waits, the songwriter who represents the apotheosis of lounge-lizard sleaze. The resulting cabaret musical had its US premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday.

It's just the sort of large, ambitious, ungainly work that American theatres claim they don't have the money to create. Always a meticulous visual stylist, Wilson has grown increasingly verbal and socially relevant without losing his idiosyncratically surreal sense of abstraction. Yet the more hallucinatory aspects of Alice's adventures here seem hastily conceived, lacking archetypal gravity. The caterpillar became a mere sight gag, inflating its huge tail. Only Humpty Dumpty has transcendent eloquence in a weary, irascible speech about the importance of walls and boundaries. Waits's music also lacks the assurance of The Black Rider (their previous collaboration): much of it consists of Victorian-style ditties and hymns, though with appropriately grimy harmonic dissonances.

Alice's adventures, though, are really just a framework for a behind- the-scenes look at Carroll and his disturbing obsession with the real- life Alice Liddell. We see Alice having to burn her letters from the author, presumably because of their sexual overtones. We also hear the author courageously defending his repressed sexual feelings in a moving speech about how Alice seemed to calm a part of him that was otherwise never at rest. In effect, he defends the right to fantasise - an increasingly fraught issue of late, at least as far as US government funding goes.

No such political considerations explain why it's taken so long for Michael Nyman to receive his first US commission - a work for Philadelphia's eight- strong Relache ensemble, premiered the Friday before last. Yet the event may still be a sign of the times: one can foresee commission money going increasingly to non-US artists, perhaps because their American hosts are then less accountable to powerful conservatives back home. A disturbing thought.

In any event, Nyman tentatively attempted to make himself at home with the wind-heavy, rhythmically pulsating Relache ensemble. The new piece, HRT, which was much in the style of earlier pulse-driven works like MGV, stands for "High Rise Terminal", a linguistic term for the prevalent American habit of ending sentences with an upward, interrogative-mode inflection. And so went the direction of the piece's typically interlocking phrases, in what Nyman admitted was a catalogue of his compositional techniques.

Those who love Nyman would enjoy it for being more of the same; those not so devoted might consider the piece redundant. In the final third, though, there was an abrupt shift toward a more chromatic style, with many of the instruments playing in uncomfortably high or low registers, as though Nyman was turning the whole thing upside-down and discovering new textures and motivic relationships. If only he'd done that sooner - the US is full of post-minimalist composers who need leadership in new directions.

n 'Alice' continues at the Brooklyn Academy to Saturday. Booking: 001 212 307 4100

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