On This Day in History, April 9: He Introduced Avant-Garde to BAM

April 9, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Harvey Lichtenstein was born in Brooklyn on April 9, 1929, the son of Samuel  and Jennie Lichtenstein.

Samuel Lichtenstein, a factory worker, immigrated to the U.S. from Poland at the age of 17, and Jennie Lichtenstein arrived in New York from Russia as an infant. Lichtenstein grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn Technical High School, just a block from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

Much music was heard in the Lichtenstein household. His father was an enthusiastic amateur violinist, and one of Harvey’s youthful heroes was the conductor Arturo Toscanini, then in charge of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Harvey’s memories of Brooklyn in his youth include stickball (two sewers), the parachute jump at Coney Island, boat rides in Prospect Park, hitching rides on the back of trolley cars, and cheering on the ball players at Ebbets Field.

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Lichtenstein planned to study engineering when he enrolled at Brooklyn College, but he underwent an artistic conversion when a girlfriend introduced him to modern dance during his sophomore year. He took several dance courses at the college and after graduating in 1951 with a degree in history and English literature, won a scholarship to study at the Connecticut College School of Dance. He then studied modern dance and ballet privately with Martha Graham and Benjamin Harkarvy in New York before winning another dance scholarship to Bennington in Vermont. For one summer in the early 1950s, he took dance classes with Merce Cunningham at the experimental Black Mountain arts school in North Carolina. His experience in this interdisciplinary artist’s community helped to stimulate his later interest in mixed-media performance collaborations as president of BAM.

He danced professionally for a few years before he began his administrative career in 1964 with the New York City Ballet. Lichtenstein initiated and ran subscription campaigns for the New York City Ballet and New York City Opera Companies. In 1967, he became BAM’s executive director and thus began a new era in theatrical production in Brooklyn. Under Harvey Lichtenstein’s direction. BAM established itself as indisputably the leading avant-garde performing arts center in the U.S. A prime international showcase for innovative music, dance, and opera, its annual Next Wave Festival is especially recognized for wide-ranging modern dance and ballet programs and mixed-media performance art collaborations.

BAM’s inventive programming was complemented by Lichtenstein’s skill in obtaining sustained financial backing in recruiting constantly growing audiences for the avant-garde with the help of sophisticated fund-raising and promotion campaigns, especially those targeted to major corporations.

The Next Wave’s popularity, along with an impressive program of more traditional fare, brought Brooklyn’s cultural life out from under the long shadow of Manhattan and restored lost glamour and vitality to the oldest multiple-stage performing arts facility in the U.S.

The New York Times once stated: “Harvey Lichtenstein is presiding over an artistic beehive that many Manhattan theater producers have begun to look at with an admiration bordering on envy.”

Among Lichtenstein’s many honors are a service award from the Association of American Dance Companies in 1980 for his work in promoting modern dance and sponsoring young choreographers and the 1986 Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit from the West German government for his contributions to furthering West German-United States cultural relations. In January 1987 President Ronald Reagan nominated Lichtenstein to serve as a member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body to the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 1999, the same year he stepped down as BAM’s executive director, ending a 32-year tenure, he received the National Medal of Arts.                  

— V.P.

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