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What We Need Is a Good Fest

The L.A. Festival was a fine celebration of our diversity. Now the times have caught up with-- in fact, cry out for--an adventurous arts event.

July 07, 2002|MARK SWED

Bicycling along the coast one recent morning, I did just about everything wrong. Having predicted that the sun wouldn't break through the gloom, I overdressed. I didn't eat or drink enough. And I miscalculated the crowds, not expecting to have to dodge so many distracted drivers, Roller-bladers, joggers and skateboarders that early. Overheated, lightheaded and irritated, I groaned past the one snack bar that doesn't blast commercial rock radio, and picked up a few bars of a Bach "Brandenberg" Concerto wafting in the wind.

Instantly refreshed, I knew at that moment we need a new Los Angeles Festival.

As the summer heats up, the Southland's cultural landscape can begin to look like one big beach town. A numbing backbeat encourages us to leave our brains at home no matter where we are.

There are a few exceptions. SummerFest La Jolla, in its second year under violinist Cho-Liang Lin, is turning into a wide-ranging chamber music festival of note. The venturesome arts hound should be able to sniff out something interesting now and then in an out-of-the-way venue, such as the MAK Center series at the Schindler House in West Hollywood, the two Southwest Chamber Music concerts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, or the occasional ambitious offerings at the downtown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, the California Plaza and Hollywood's John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. But generally the musical summer in the Southland is depressingly predictable.

Want something new, for instance, at the Hollywood Bowl? Well, this year's innovation is a market where you can put together your own dinner. As the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra prepare for their concert series, which begin this week, picnickers no longer need to plan. But it is also typical that thinking outside the box at the Bowl these days is directed at the box seats and picnic baskets rather than at the shell.

Hence the need for that rejuvenating jolt of surprise and substance that a summer festival can bring to, say, the dog days and smog days of August. Los Angeles, of course, has a history of summer festivals. Eighteen years ago, the arts festival that was produced to accompany the Summer Olympic Games was a groundbreaking success that lasted from the beginning of June to the middle of August. It began by introducing Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Dance Theater to America. It brought London's Royal Opera to the Music Center. It offered a distinguished sampling of Asian dance, music and theater that included the U.S. debut of Sankaijuku's butoh-style dance and Tadashi Suzuki's reworking of "The Trojan Women."

We heard or saw Mozart, Michael Tilson Thomas, Merce Cunningham, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Derek Jacobi (as Cyrano). Giorgio Strehler's unforgettable Piccolo Teatro di Milano was on hand, as were the Canadians who staged Tolkien's "The Hobbit" with 48 rod puppets, and Cricot 2, a politically charged theater company from Poland. In its American debut, Ariane Mnouchkine's Parisian troupe Le Theatre du Soleil performed astonishing Shakespeare on a television sound stage.

In fact, the modern history of performing arts in Los Angeles could be divided into before and after the Olympic Arts Festival. An example of the festival's impact was the degree to which the Royal Opera's performances of "Turandot," "The Magic Flute" and "Peter Grimes" kick-started the latent Los Angeles Opera, which began as Music Center Opera two years later.

Organized by Robert Fitzpatrick the massive Olympic Arts Festival (which involved 1,500 artists from 18 countries) led to what was hoped would becoming a permanent Los Angeles Festival. Although Fitzpatrick could no longer count on an Olympic-sized budget for his smaller second festival in 1987, he nevertheless introduced Peter Brook's monumental "Mahabarata" and Cirque du Soleil to the U.S. that September.

Following the 1987 festival, Fitzpatrick, who was then president of CalArts, exchanged Los Angeles for Paris, where he was hired to run EuroDisney, and the Los Angeles Festival was handed over to theater and opera director Peter Sellars. In his two festivals, Sellars broadened the international scope of presentations, at the same time making them far more grass-roots. The arts elite expressed disappointment in the lack of stellar imports. Sellars, however, looked deeply into the Southland's multicultural potential and amplified it with a large contingent of indigenous arts from Africa and Asia.

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