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CRITIC AT LARGE

L.a. Festival Raises Its Curtain Tonight

September 03, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It was a dream, spoken out loud during the memorable summer of 1984, that the Olympic Arts Festival would be only the beginning. Even before the final tallies were in, it was obvious that the festival was going to succeed beyond the hard-eyed hopes of the planners. "Encore!" was an inevitable cry.

What the festival confirmed was a Southern California appetite not simply for culture but for culture shock--for challenges to perception and propriety and all traditional conveyings of art.

The appetite for the performing arts at their grandest was demonstrated as well, and the Royal Opera could likely have stayed all year. But it was the wide and eager enthusiasm for the unprecedented, the cultural cross-pollinizations, the brainstorming departures from artful tradition that made the idea of an ongoing arts festival irresistible.

And now, three years later, the Los Angeles Festival is upon us, opening tonight with a circus about circuses, Canada's Le Cirque du Soleil, performing in a tent in the heart of downtown, hard by the Temporary Contemporary Museum at 1st and Alameda streets.

You could hardly ask for more perfect symbolism--a circus, that most ancient and popular assemblage of the performing arts, smartly updated and styled, but still demonstrating that, among all the things they are, the arts can be crowd-pleasers on a large scale.

Festival II is necessarily scaled down from the once-in-a-half-century grandeurs of the Olympic festival. But now, as in 1984, it reflects the wildly eclectic and world-embracing taste of its director, Robert J. Fitzpatrick.

The focus this time is even more heavily on the kinds of groups and performers and happenings that might never, in the customary course of cultural events, be seen in Los Angeles--"things somehow special, somehow different," as Fitzpatrick told Times reporter Judith Michaelson; things too special, too doubtfully profitable to tour.

"Enjoy 24 Days of Culture Shock" was proposed early as an ad-line for the festival, and as high concepts go, it's close on. The centerpiece of the festival is unquestionably Peter Brooks' monumental three-part, nine-hour birth-life-death drama on the human condition, "The Mahabharata," based on an epic Indian poem longer than the Bible. It premieres Saturday and some of its performances have been sold out for weeks.

The 31 companies, the 350-plus performers and 37 productions from 11 countries that make up the main festival are, at that, only part of the dazing richness of these next weeks. A Fringe Festival on the model of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and modestly foreshadowed during the 1984 Olympic Festival, is offering additional hundreds of events--theater (primarily), art, poetry, music and dance. As before, even those who are fearless about cultural indigestion will be unable to take it all in.

Remarkably, the Los Angeles Festival includes "An Evening of Classic Jazz" Friday night at the Embassy Theater, an event concurrent with the annual Labor Day weekend Classic Jazz Festival at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel, also opening on Friday.

Jazz might not seem to qualify as something special, something different, except that it has seldom been allowed into the parlor of the arts; its strains have been more apt to be heard faintly from the saloon next door. But acknowledging that jazz is a distinctly American art form is, in the context of the arts festival, a welcome, deserved and overdue tribute.

The success, or the scale of the success, of this Los Angeles Festival is an even more suspenseful matter than the outcome of the Olympic Arts Festival.

The earlier festival had all the hype, excitement and anticipation of the Games themselves--the buntings, the villages, the international press--to whip up interest and encourage attendance. What remains to be seen is whether the appetite for arts at their liveliest is still unappeased in these papal but non-Olympic times. The early ticket sales look to be healthy, but word-of-mouth enthusiasm will make the ultimate difference.

The hope in 1984 was that a Los Angeles arts festival could become a regular event, to be held every two or three years. The festival opening today will, to some extent, enjoy the momentum from 1984. The $6-million question (that is the approximate budget this time) is whether 1987 will confirm an arts festival on this scale as a permanent part of the city's cultural future, and make a Festival III in 1989 or 1990 a viable idea.

Robert Fitzpatrick will be off overseeing Euro Disneyland in Paris, and it is a subsidiary question whether someone else of his political adroitness and unslakable cultural curiosity can be found, assuming he cannot be detached from the park.

Meantime, the artful fun and games begin.

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