Pageant: Portion of Robert Wilson's ‘Civil Wars’

“The Knee Plays” may be the sole American-produced portion of the work, but they are imbued with the spirit of Japan - of Bunraku puppets, classical Japanese dance and Noh and Kabuki theater. The designs are by Jun Matsuno, along with Mr. Wilson and the “knee plays” composer, David Byrne, and the superbly spare and original choreography is by Suzushi Hanayagi.

Mr. Wilson is a creator of massive spectacles, and sometimes his more intimate work has looked schematic and simplistic. There was a bit of that during the first few ''knee plays'' on Thursday. But then Mr. Wilson exerted his spell, or one began to comprehend what he was about. The settings are constructed out of square modules that recall Japanese screens and recombine into different shapes. The ''plot'' traces the transformation of a tree into a boat into a book into a tree again, almost as a cycle of nature, with mythic and historical incidents along the way. The most striking scenes are the 8th, 9th, 10th and 12th. The 8th offers mysterious floor patterns from Miss Hanayagi's nine dancers, clad as always in white doctor's smocks. In the 9th, a Japanese basket seller's elaborately constructed piles of baskets break into a sweet, lurching dance of their own. Snow falls in the 10th scene, and Miss Hanayagi has a poignant solo. And in the 12th, a black-clad puppetmaster guides a white-clad dancer with an outsized baby-Buddha plaster head to the discovery of a book. All of which means little in words, but much in stage pictures. Mr. Byrne's score sounds nothing like the music of his rock band, Talking Heads, or his music for Twyla Tharp's ''Catherine Wheel'' on Broadway. It was inspired by the solemn and jaunty sounds of New Orleans brass bands, and played live with great skill by seven Minnesota musicians. Over these instrumentals, Mr. Byrne recites slightly intrusive texts that read rather like his song lyrics. It is difficult to believe that we have seen the end of either ''The Knee Plays'' or ''The Civil Wars.'' Harvey Lichtenstein of the Brooklyn Academy of Music said Thursday that he was trying to assemble the complete work for presentation next fall. One hopes he has the commitment, ingenuity and courage to succeed for New York where Los Angeles so lamentably failed.