HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: Los Angeles Festival 1990

I saw God.

That's my one-line review of the 1990 Los Angeles Festival, the 16-day extravaganza that brought 1,300 artists from more than 25 countries to Los Angeles in September for what was billed as a celebration of the music, dance, theatre, film, video, visual art and literature of the Pacific Rim.

Now that it's over, it's time to talk frankly about what a radical undertaking the festival was. In the dozens of interviews that littered the landscape for months in advance, festival director Peter Sellars expostulated on the theme of Pacific culture and Los Angeles as the city of the future. Yet never once was Sellars heard to say the single most obvious thing about the festival that he co-curated with Judy Mitoma of UCLA's World Arts and Culture department: It was a return to the origin of arts festivals in sacred ritual.

The 1990 Los Angeles Festival was ostensibly the latest sequel to the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival -- a landmark in Los Angeles cultural history (famous for, among other things, commissioning and then cancelling Robert Wilson's 12-hour epic the CIVIL warS ) -- and the 1987 Los Angeles Festival, which hosted the American premiere of Peter Brook's The Mahabharata. Those two festivals were programmed by Robert Fitzpatrick, the classy, Canadian-born former president of the California Institute for the Arts who departed Los Angeles in 1987 to serve as president of Euro Disneyland in France. When Sellars was hired to take over as director of the Los Angeles Festival, he could easily have packaged the world's greatest hits in the esteemed tradition of Anglophile festivalmakers like Fitzpatrick, PepsiCo Summerfare's Christopher Hunt and the Adelaide Festival's Anthony Steel. "I was all ready to bring a bolt of my Mozart opera productions and whatnot," Sellars has said. Then he took a good look at Los Angeles, noticed that the population was dominated by Asian and Latin American people whose cultural traditions had nothing to do with Mozart or Europe, and changed his mind. With the same scholarly/postmodern attitude he has used to get to the essence of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, Handel and Mozart, he applied his zealous attention to the question: What is a festival?

I don't know that Sellars consciously pursued this question. Nevertheless, he managed to produce in Los Angeles an arts festival that established a living connection with the totemic clan feasts of ancient times, mounted "to transmit to the rising generation the traditions of the clan," as George Thomson wrote in Aeschylus and Athens: A Study in the Social Origins of Drama. A festival that looked for inspiration beyond even the Greeks to fertility rites "inspired by an intense realization of the interdependence between the human community and its natural environment." A festival rooted in the ancient impulse toward "communions, orgies and games" invented for the purpose of "welcoming new life, mourning death and giving praise to the deities."

That's right, it was a religious festival, a celebration of spirituality. Of course, selling the Los Angeles Festival that way would probably have caused no less of an uproar than if it had been billed as a celebration of babykilling. That's why you never heard the words "religious" and "spirituality" officially attached to the festival -- in the cultural climate we live in, those words are taboo, especially within the arts community, which feels itself to be under attack by the religious Right. A handful of fundamentalist Ronald McDonalds has commandeered virtually all public discourse on spiritual life, exploiting the spiritual self-neglect epidemic in our secular mass-media culture to cement in the public consciousness a grotesquely simple-minded definition of religion: You're either a dogmatic, fearful polyester-clad Christian TV-believer, or you have no inner life.

Sad to say, the American arts community has done little to counteract this insidious mythologizing. The response to the National Endowment for the Arts crisis has been, for the most part, a shallow, defensive, almost bratty clinging to profane language and sexual imagery as if those things represented the soul of art. Many artists, certainly the best ones, convey in their work a moral vision of life in which everything has its place: work, worship, family, sexual pleasure, pain, evil, giddy frivolousness. Yet that vision has not found its way into our public discourse. In the recent uproar over artistic freedom, censorship and subsidy, the artistic community has failed to assemble a spiritual or moral overview -- it's as if Sen. Jesse Helms has tricked us all into making fun of the very idea of having such a thing. One side gets to talk about God, the other slde gets to talk about sodomy, and it's as if those two human concerns can never be embraced by the same individual.

How tiresome it's become, hearing performers make jokes onstage and off about Jesse Helms and how forbidden it is now to use this dirty word or that one, to show two men or two women kissing. It was just such an occasion, a late-night cabaret performance in the Open Festival (the non-curated adjunct to the Los Angeles Festival), that made me appreciate just how radical and how necessary a religious arts festival, a celebration of spirituality, is at this moment in American culture. As the zany comedienne posed under the spotlight to make some glib reference to Helms's "dictating the morality of the country," I couldn't help thinking, "Well, what is your morality?" And recollecting the roster of performers I'd been seeing who'd traveled from Korea, Alaska, Mexico, Java or the Polynesian Islands to share their blessings and sacred rituals with the people of Los Angeles, I realized that Peter Sellars has mounted the most profound possible response to Jesse Helms by finding a way to address spirituality, to reclaim spirituality as an urgent ingredient in art. It is also a challenge to American artists: What is your morality? Where is your soul? How does God fit into your picture, and how do you expect others to locate the divinity in your work?

MIND YOU, NONE OF THIS WAS EVER written about in press coverage of the Los Angeles Festival. I couldn't understand why. I began to suspect that Sellars was perpetrating an elaborate hoax, pretending the festival was one thing while its real agenda went completely unspoken. (Sellars has always been quiet about his devotional predilections. His stage productions make frequent use of religious images, but you have to hunt for them, like Ninas in a Hirschfeld drawing.) But the festival's subtext didn't go completely unspoken. I did come across two essays confirming the centrality of spiritual issues to the festival, written by Sellars's two most important colleagues in putting the festival together: curator Judy Mitoma's "Art and Spirit in Los Angeles" and associate artistic director Norman Frisch's "The Hidden Agenda," which comes right out and says, "We looked for the most overly political and most overtly spiritual work we thought we could get away with presenting." Where did these essays appear? Not in the ticket brochure distributed to nearly everyone who could vote in Los Angeles. Not in the special Sunday supplement on the festival in the L. A. Times. Not in the 343-page "press reader" handed to every critic, or any of the other voluminous press materials available. No, the key to the festival was buried in a demure, thin booklet -- like the glossy, contentless souvenir programs hawked at rock concerts and Broadway shows -- that sold for $5 at the T-shirt booths set up at each festival venue.

In other words, like most truths, it was carefully hidden in plain sight.

To break a taboo, such as making "religion" and "spirituality" speakable words in the context of contemporary American culture, is almost always a political act. And yes, the Los Angeles Festival was a political festival as well -- another no-no and another attribute that somehow Peter Sellars found it convenient (and probably wise) not to trumpet too loudly in the press. In fact, you could say that the festival took place at the intersection of religion and politics. I was going to say that the Asians supplied the religion for the most part and the Latin Americans the politics, but I realize those are cultural cliches -- the spirirual Orient and the fiery Latin rebel. The fact is that the intersection of religion and politics takes place at the center of virtually all Pacific cultures (Korean, Mexican, Polynesian Chilean, Filipino, etc.). That's exactly what makes those cultures profoundly alien to American mainstream culture, which is so eager to avoid religion and politics that it will climb mountains of junk and swim through oceans of trivia to get away from them.

The Los Angeles Festival was ingeniously designed as a corrective to this American attitude. Ingenious because it sold itself neither as exotica (an array of dazzling freak shows) nor as medication (a bitter potion to choke down because it's good for you). In fact, it sold itself pretty much the same way its two predecessors did, as a celebration of world culture, without the slightest hint of apology for the omission of international superstars along the lines of Peter Brook, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pina Bausch or Ariane Mnouchkine. In his public pep talks, Sellars spoke with such infectious enthusiasm and conspiratorial awe about likay (the Thai street theatre) and kagura (an ancient Japanese dragon dance performed by farmers), the Mornington Island aboriginals and the Wooster Group as if they were household names in the global village, that by the end of the festival, they were. After all, Los Angeles had never heard of Pina Bausch or Ariane Mnouchkine either, until the Olympic Arts Festival brought them to town.

In the United States, we have developed an attitude of healthy distrust, even cynicism, toward religion and politics. We associate these most interesting of human concerns solely with churches and governments, institutions that are subject to all the usual abuses of power and that in recent years have time and again betrayed the tender trust we have placed in them. Part of the Los Angeles Festival's ingenious strategy was its ability to redefine religion and politics for maximum inclusiveness, transcending the institutional trappings of churches and governments. Which deity was being acknowledged was less important than that The Deities were being acknowledged. (The most common objects of reverence were not Jesus and Buddha but our mother the Earth and the spirits of our individual ancestors.) It didn't matter so much who the person speaking was, as long as The Voice of The People was being heard. (I can't recall hearing a single government official or authority figure speak for any culture; the artists invariably represented themselves, sometimes incompletely, sometimes with surpassing eloquence.) This generosity of spirit, this extreme extension of the invitation created a vital link between religion and politics, revealing a continuum between the inner life and the public life, with artistic expression providing the natural meeting ground between them.

Continuum became the operative metaphor, as one Pacific culture after another demonstrated how for them, art and everyday life and spiritual practice were not three separate things but all part of an integrated way of living. In addition, most of the performances could not be categorized simply as dance or music or theatre because they came from cultures which did not conceive of these as separate forms; characteristically, dancers would be accompanied by live musicians and singers, with the storytelling function passing freely among them. And designations such as "traditional," "contemporary" and "avant-garde" simply didn't apply. Although some of the forms were thousands of years old, they were being actively interpreted each minute they were performed, and many companies included two or three generations of the same family. In that sense, past, present and future became yet another continuum along which the work existed.

A continuum has no hierarchy, all points have equal value; there is no center. The Los Angeles Festival was the most decentralized festival I've ever experienced, artistically as well as geographically. That, too, was a radical strategy. In contrast to the previous two Los Angeles Festivals, which took place in a handful of venues familiar to white middle-class subscription audiences, this one literally sprawled all over the map, from the Arboretum in the northeast suburb of Arcadia to Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, the southernmost tip of L.A. before you hit the harbor.

Rather than confine foreign performers to establishment theatres that might have seemed imposing or alien to non-English-speaking audiences, the festival utilized various ethnic community centers, which had the added benefit of providing to Angelenos who had never been there guided tours of say, the Million Dollar Theater (a Spanish-language movie palace downtown), Koreatown, or the Thai temple in North Hollywood. Seventy percent of the performances were free of charge, and most of those took place outdoors. Special stages were constructed so that performers accustomed to appearing in the open air (the Royal Court of Yogyakarta, Java, the Thai likay, the Mornington Islanders, Wallis and Futuna Music and Dance, El Gran Circo Teatro de Chile, etc.) could make their American debuts in circumstances closely approximating those at home.

Admirable gestures, right ? Not everybody thought so. From the volume of complaints about how hard it was to get to performances, you might conclude that people in L.A. never drive anywhere. (I have to admit that my rent-a-car heard its share of a lost driver's curses, too.) The L. A. Times seemed to take a special pleasure in crowing when the audiences for outdoor events failed to match the figures projected by...the L.A. Times. And plenty of people within the arts community who should have been thrilled declined the invitation to momentarily slip away from Western theatregoing traditions. Los Angeles critic and dramaturg Charles Marowitz snidely dubbed the festival "Peter Sellars' Ethnic Island Jamboree" and, ignoring all the free outdoor events (meaning most of the non-Western performance), proclaimed the central event of the festival to be Nixon in China at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Undoubtedly, the essence of the Los Angeles Festival was a slap in the face to traditional theatregoing audiences who shared Marowitz's feeling that "in Los Angeles...a festival, to be truly effective, needs to concentrate its energies in three or four venues so that its variety can be experienced with something like continuity." However, among the audiences and performers at events featuring Thai, Mexican, Hawaiian Korean and Polynesian culture, I heard no compiaints about inaccessible venues or sparse crowds; the general attitude was one of pride and gratitude, not just for being invited to the party but for having a seat at the head table.

I realize that I haven't properly "reviewed" any of the events in the Los Angeles Festival. How could I ? There simply isn't space to do justice to the 32 events I managed to see during the two weeks of the festival (and I missed nearly all the films, art shows and music concerts). I can say that every single day of the festival I had to make a conscious effort to expand my mind and my soul to take in what I was seeing without reducing it to my own incomplete vocabulary of experience -- and it was a privilege to do so.

IF I HAD SPACE, I WOULD WRITE ABOUT the unforgettable opening ceremony of the festival. (The producer of one European festival pronounced it "Year One.") On a hilltop with a magnificent view of the Pacific, the various tribes from around that ocean's rim gathered in a circle, suited up for their performances like major-league teams on the opening day of baseball season. Five angelic children from the Cambodian Dance Project of Van Nuys performed a magical ceremonial dance scattering flower petals from silver cups. Then Sellars, saying that "as guests we must recognize our hosts," brought out Vera and Manuel Rocha, the elders of the Gabrielino Indians, the tribe native to Los Angeles. "Mahia," they said, translating the word to mean both "Greetings to the earth" and "Welcome to our land." In a shaky voice that brought tears to my eyes, Vera declared, "This is one of the biggest things that will happen in our lives. For 150 years, we have been hiding so as not to be exterminated. We thank the Great Spirit." A representative from the Lakota Nation set in motion the activities of the day, and of the festival, by performing the Native American ritual invocation of the seven directions -- the west, the north, the east, the south, Father Sky, Mother Earth, and the Spirit Within.

I've been to many festivals, but none that opened with such passionate ceremonial blessings. I didn't even know I had spiritual feelings that could be awakened by such simple invocations. I'd soon discover that virtually every performance in the festival would open with some form of blessing -- except those by white North Americans.

If I had space, I would write about the extraordinary day I started out watching the Turquoise Clan of the Jemez Pueblo mattachines perform their mesmerizing dance to the Virgin of Guadelupe outside a Mexican church on Olvera Street; then raced to the Koreatown Shopping Plaza to watch a troupe of Korean shamans trom the Chindo Islands perform their sikkim gut (ceremony for the dead) on a stage set up between a pair of escalators and a see-through elevator full of busy shoppers; and ended up at a screening of Mana Waka, a documentary about the creation of three Maori war canoes introduced by a contingent of Maori elders and the director, a young Maori woman who described it as "not film in the Hollywood sense but film as treasure." Or the day that started out at 10 a.m. with the 20-member Children of Bali at a Mexican-American community center in Lincoln Park, continued with Bread and Puppet Theater in Griffith Park and the likay performance at the Thai temple (where I spied on the altar, among the traditional offerings of fruit and flowers, a six-pack of Pepsi), and wound up at 5 a.m. when the all-night Javanese wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) sent the last shimmering tones of the gamelan to greet the dawn.

If I had space, I would write about my own personal favorite act in the festival, Wallis and Futuna Music and Dance. These 32 denizens of a couple of Polynesian islands under French protectorateship who'd never ventured farther afield than Australia bowled over Los Angeles with precise dances of unforeseen delicacy, sweet harmony singing that translated paradise into musical terms, and thighs that created a new erotic ideal in the lusty hearts of all who witnessed them. In contrast to the Native Americans, the aboriginals. the displaced Inupiat and the dirt-poor Ikooc from Oaxaca -- whose faces and demeanors told important and sobering tales of physical hardship, unyielding natural habitats, and genocidal relationships with the white man -- Wallis and Futuna exuded unbounded confidence and we-are-the-people joy. And talk about demolishing the line between "traditional" and "contemporary" art! Their final performance ended with the customary lakalaka, a song written specially for the occasion, whose verses translated: "This is my performance/No one can touch it/And it will leave its mark on Los Angeles/Until I die." In other words, as rap star M. C. Hammer declared in the song that was Number One all summer, "U Can't Touch This."

If I had space, I'd write about the Wooster Group's performance of Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Anthony, which aroused violent paradoxical feelings in me: On one hand, it perfectly embodied the chaos, the decay, the spiritual discontinuity of American culture; on the other, it aroused an almost patriotic recognition that, hey, that's my chaos, my decay, my spiritual discontinuity, my culture. Or I'd write about Dennis Cooper and Ishmael Houston-Jones's brilliant performance of The Undead (directed by Peter Brosius, designed by Robert Flynt, performed by a company of six) in which I

recognized my own tribe of gay men floating, flying, drowning, frozen in suspended animation by the unceasing Totentanz of AIDS. Or I'd write about Guillermo Gomez-Pena, the visionary MexicanAmerican performance artist whose 1990 (the first part of a projected trilogy) held out the shining, intellectually hard-won possibility that "the border is not an abyss that will have to save us from threatening otherness, but a place where the so-called otherness yields, becomes us, and therefore becomes comprehensible."

Finally, if I had the space, I'd write about the festival as festival. The 1990 Los Angeles Festival was about as ambitious as they come, and up until the very last minute they said it couldn't be done -- yet it came together with a precision that exceeded all expectations. Near the end of the festival, at an impromptu roundtable discussion of funders and festivalmakers, one person after another thought out loud about how the previous two weeks had forced them to reconsider their role as mediators between the cultural superstructure and the changing world. "Selling theatre to 12 million people who speak 84 languages isn't something arts administrators are trained to do," was one of the understatements of the day. "What is a festival?" another producer wondered. "As a supermarket, there's nothing for us here. We're burned out buying acts off the shelf. The Los Angeles Festival makes me rethink the question again: What should we do with our power to create cultural events ?" Sellars himself let his hair down (figuratively speaking -- his patented pineapple 'do remained intact) and said any number of surprising things. Like, "The Pacific Rim was a catchphrase, sucker bait handed to the press. The real interest was in art that is community-based, collectively created, not made by solo geniuses. Art that is kept alive over a period of time because a few people cared."

Sellars was conscientious about giving credit to the plethora of colleagues who helped get the festival on, from Judy Mitoma to Mayor Tom Bradley from the commissioner of cultural affairs to the church leaders and community groups who helped raise the festival's $5-million budget one $10,000 pot-luck dinner at a time. He had a lot to be grateful for. Behind the scenes, there was plenty of grumbling among, for instance, overseas artists who were invited to the festival and then (because of budget cuts) had to pay their own way, not to mention staff resentment at his managerial style of avoiding conflict and confrontation. Skilled at PR, but less adept at managing logistics, staff morale and other fine points, Sellars is seen by his associates as the kind of fancy chef who makes a big mess, and then walks away leaving others to clean up.

Still, there's no question that none of it would have come together without him as focal point, without his stamina as media event, his say-so, his reckless disregard for mainstream cultural protocol, the spiritual temperament he hides behind the crayola scrawling of an enfant terrible.

Standing in line to see the Children of Bali, I heard the man behind me say, "That guy really gets around. I've seen him everywhere!" His companion said, "The one who looks like an overgrown Bart Simpson? That's Peter Sellars, director of the festival." Yeah, right. The one selling the T-shirts that say, "Overachiever and proud of it."

American Theatre, December 1990

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