“It’s not about the cult of personality… well, ok, tonight it is!” –Joe Melillo

Last night’s tribute to Joe Melillo at the Segal Center was a real treat. Roselee Goldberg proved an excellent moderator for the evening as she, with great finesse and having prepared for the event by “interviewing” each of the panelists beforehand, guided us through the interstices of Joe’s professional and personal connections. It became immediately evident that these panelists were not simply people with whom Mr. Melillo had artistic dealings; rather, they represented intimate and ongoing relationships, which Joe clearly cultivates through his visionary calling.

The evening got underway with a special visitation, a pre-recorded video message from afar, featuring a close-up shot of Daniel Bernard Roumain and his violin. Roumain began by creating a percussive soundscape with bow, strings, and violin-body. Then, after a beat of silence, he addressed the camera saying, “Joe,” and then launched into a gorgeous composition, clearly invented for and dedicated to “Joe.” I could almost hear the name “Melillo” scratched out in some of the violin strings in this semi-chordal, percussive, and ultimately harmonious and moving piece. When he finished playing, he plainly addressed Joe with such loving and laudatory sentiments that it became apparent that we were in for an evening of genuine tribute.

From there we heard from Mr. Melillo’s long-term artist-collaborators, representing (one each) the various disciplines presented by BAM over the past 25 years—dance (Susan Marshall), theatre (Marianne Weems), music (David Lang), and visual art (Dan Cameron).

The overriding message of the evening was that, thanks to Joe Melillo, there is a place in New York—a place in the United States—that is ultimately committed to producing, in the words of David Lang, “uncompromising, weird, challenging, often disturbing work” on a scale that no other presenting house is equipped or willing to handle. Each of the artists on the panel affirmed that Joe is a visionary’s visionary. He not only establishes and nurtures long term relationships with artists who show the seeds of greatness, even early in their careers, but he also forges connections between these artists, most of which last lifetimes and produce unforeseeable hybrids of global artistic influence. More than once Joe was referred to as a “matchmaker.”

In addition to presenting the most cutting edge, large-scale performance in the world for its New York audience, the artist-panelists also agreed that Joe exerts a powerful force in determining the course of artistic reception in the U.S. Followed by exuberant nods of agreement by the other assembled artists, David Lang commented that Joe challenges “our imagination of where we think art can go.” Not only does Joe open up creative avenues in the minds of the artists with whom he works, he also does much of the exploratory work for other theatres throughout the country. Later in the conversation, someone (I think it may have been Melillo himself, but my notes unfortunately omit the name of the speaker…) even asserted that BAM “does the R & D [research and development] for the presenters in the rest of the country.” These are all bold claims, but sitting amidst the evidence being presented last night, it is hard to see how any of this is the result of hyperbolic thinking.

On a final note, two new BAM initiatives were mentioned. The first, which has been underway for a year or two now, is the Bridge Project, the “global BAM” producing project, which teams up international teams of artists who create and tour new works of theatre. The recent co-productions directed by Sam Mendes exist under this umbrella. The second, about which I did not know, is the construction of a brand new BAM theatre space in the Fisher building on Ashland Place. The new space will function as a flexible, 250 seat space, dedicated not only to producing works of theatre that are not appropriate for the scale of the other BAM spaces, but also to hosting community events and educational programming. This is sure to be a welcome addition to the Fort Greene neighborhood, which often does not have sufficient access to BAM’s more large-scale programming. It also promises to be an exciting new destination for the plethora of smaller-scale, high quality works of performance in the country and from across the globe.

Congratulations, Joe! Now for the next 25 years. . . .

–Brad Krumholz

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