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L.A. Fest Aims to Reinvent Culture

Peter Sellars sees city's multi-ethinc mix as the key to making the arts again central to society

Avant-garde stage director Peter Sellars (``Nixon in China'') himself takes center stage this week in his role as artistic director of the multicultural Los Angeles Festival. Below, Mr. Sellars, who credits the books of Monitor arts contributor Jamake Highwater with helping shape his artistic sensibilities, chats with Highwater about the perceptions and goals that set this festival - opening Friday - apart from many others.

PETER SELLARS is one of the most sought-after stage directors in the world today - partly because few others so brilliantly balance an understanding of the new with a profound appreciation for the old.

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Sellars feels equally at home directing a Mozart opera or a rock video for Herbie Hancock. He draws no distinction between ``high art'' and ``low art'' or between the art of the past and of the present and future. For him, the sublime is timeless, and culture is a fact of life. In fact, there is no gap at all between life and culture, he is apt to say.

Now Sellars' protean ideas are about to take form in the third Los Angeles Festival, a descendant of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival which became a continuing part of the Los Angeles scene with its next edition, in 1987. At the conclusion of that event, Sellars was named artistic director for the next festival, which has been in the planning for three years and will take place from Aug. 31 through Sept. 16.

This year's expansive program includes over 600 performances - with hundreds of local artists as well as musicians from Mexico, dancers from Java, and performers from Australia.

``What interests me most about my [festival] involvement ... is the fact that it comes out of a different set of cultural models from the ones I found in Europe and on the East Coast of America,'' Sellars told me in a recent interview. ``The clich'e in the East is that there's no culture in Los Angeles. But, in fact, there's plenty of culture. It just doesn't look like the `official' culture of the East Coast.

``As I see it, the task of the Los Angeles Festival is to explore the very rich culture that has grown out of the experiences of the different people who live on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

``Of all the cities of the Pacific Rim, Los Angeles is the most likely model for the future. More different types of people are living here than in any city in the history of the planet. Los Angeles is a greater multicultural center than Alexandria at its height.''

Sellars points out that in just one high school in Hollywood the students speak 85 different languages. He also notes that L.A. has the largest populations of several nationalities outside their native lands, including Philippino, Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, Korean, Burmese, and Cambodian.

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It's L.A. as the likely wave of the future that most fascinates Sellars.

``Are we looking at something like the event that occurred in New York during the 1930s, when thousands of European refugees brought to America a brilliant cultural gift that became part of our artistic mentality?'' he asks. ``Is this new legacy the result of the refugees from the Pacific? And are we ignoring the gift they bring to us because we're having trouble measuring it by the inappropriate European standards which have come to mean too much to the arbitrators of taste in New York?''

Sellars regards the festival as an ongoing experiment. He says he hopes to continue as its director through the '90s, a considerable commitment for someone involved in a global stage career.

That career blossomed early. At 26, Sellars was named director of the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. More recently his daringly updated productions of the four major Mozart operas have been presented in New York, Paris, and Vienna. His production of the innovative John Adams-Alice Goodman opera ``Nixon in China'' was seen in Houston, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, N.Y., and at the Holland and Edinburgh festivals. At the moment, Sellars is completing a book of essays on contemporary performance and getting ready to direct his first feature film.

When asked about the relationship between his work as a stage director and his role as festival director, Sellars explains, ``What is crucial right now in America is that we restate a context - that we reinvent our culture. That's what the Los Angeles Festival is attempting to do. ...

``The `official' artistic vocabularies and standards that are used to evaluate and to discuss the arts have become too narrow. Those standards have become so confined to just one small part of the immense amount of art being produced by people all over the world that those standards can no longer provide a cultural context for either the public or the artist. And that goes for both the concert pianist and the pop singer.

``The Los Angeles Festival stresses the presentation of works by alternative communities. It stresses art that is community-orientated, the result of collective imagination and creation.

``The Los Angeles Festival creates the kind of artistic world that I didn't have when I was growing up. My generation had a strange time of it: We inherited a disaster. ... People in the theater had already split between those who were only concerned with commerce and those who had utterly no interest in popular success. The problem for me was that there was nothing in the middle.''

Sellars' youthful idols were artists like film director Alfred Hitchcock and operatic composer Giuseppe Verdi - people who were able to reach a large, enthusiastic audience and whose popular successes didn't make them any the less innovative.

``I want to get culture back to the center of the society. The arts are not marginal. Art is not a political and economic after-thought. ... There is no economic or political life until you have a cultural life. ...

``As far as I'm concerned, the Los Angeles Festival is like a tribal community. And it has something to tell America: We live in a country that has proposed the astounding notion that all people are created equal. As I see it, the only way that grand idea can be demonstrated is through culture. And that's very important, because cultural equality always comes before economical and political equality. And that is an ideal that's worth achieving!''

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