LOS ANGELES -- The youthfully brash Compagnie Maguy Marin closed the Los Angeles Festival over the weekend with a mesmerizing performance of Marin's "May B." But if the ritualistic, slowly accumulating dance theater piece was the festival's last presentation this year (save for a few repeat performances of Peter Brook's "The Mahabharata"), it also may have signaled the dawn of a new era of cultural visibility for the City of the Angels.
The heavily stylized 90-minute "May B," inspired by the writings of Samuel Beckett and first shown in France in 1982, is in itself symbolic of the adventurous new thrust propelling the performing arts here in recent years. Brilliantly virtuosic in execution, more surface than substance, "May B" breaks no revolutionary ground. It is, however, belligerently and unremittingly unconventional in outlook, style and means.
Moreover, on the day "May B" began its two-performance West Coast premiere run, festival officials and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley announced that controversial theatrical Wunderkind Peter Sellars would be replacing outgoing festival director Robert Fitzpatrick.
Could Washington's loss become Los Angeles' artistic gain? Angelenos are betting that it can and will.
The momentum toward a kind of aggressive pace-setting in the performing arts has been gathering here on various fronts for years. It was Fitzpatrick who gave the rolling ball its more vigorous recent push, first with his Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 and then with a spinoff, this year's inaugural, biennial, month-long Los Angeles Festival, which for $6 million has brought 31 international theater, dance and music companies for 166 performances at eight principal sites throughout the city.
The Los Angeles Festival has gotten the jump this year on the Brooklyn Academy of Music's more venerable Next Wave Festival by including the American premiere of "The Mahabharata." The nine-hour epic will be seen next month at BAM, as will the Compagnie Maguy. The range of festival offerings, almost all vanguard in flavor, has been staggering, ranging from theater troupes from South Africa, Spain, Great Britain and Sweden to such trend-setting dance companies as those of Merce Cunningham, Karole Armitage, Susan Marshall, Michael Clark, Rudy Perez and Japan's Muteki-sha, to a full spectrum of contemporary classical, jazz and multimedia performances.
It would be hard to dispute Sellars' boast, at the press conference revealing his appointment, that "there is not a festival in this hemisphere that can touch it."
Fitzpatrick is moving on to head a $1 billion Euro-Disneyland project, but will remain active on the Los Angeles Festival board. Sellars, at 30 still the madcap prodigy of the field, would seem a logical successor to the boldly visionary Fitzpatrick, though Sellars is an artist and the latter fundamentally an administrator.
As head of the Kennedy Center's ill-fated American National Theater a couple of years ago, Sellars imported such radical fare as New York's Wooster Group (one of the Los Angeles Festival attractions) and pioneering multimedia artist Meredith Monk, and also staged pugnaciously untraditional versions of modern and classic plays, including Sophocles' "Ajax." In Washington, these tactics mostly earned him critical lambastings, fiscal deficits and dwindling audiences.
Undaunted, the rest of the world has continued in hot pursuit of Sellars' talents. "Ajax," a flop at the Kennedy Center, was subsequently a smash hit at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse and has since completed a major European tour. Upcoming Sellars' projects besides the Los Angeles Festival directorship include a "Lear" film with Jean-Luc Godard and the John Adams opera "Nixon in China," scheduled for performances this season in Houston, at BAM and in the Kennedy Center.
Sellars' gleeful, unabashed advocacy of the vanguard arts may just find a more receptive atmosphere in Los Angeles than in conservative-leaning Washington.
Downtown L.A., which has mushroomed mightily around the Music Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art, might be defined as two square miles of nouvelle glitz completely surrounded by freeways. As one making a first visit to the West Coast in six years, I was struck by an incident in the lobby of my Los Angeles hotel that epitomized the probability of the impossible in these environs. The hotel of which I speak, which spells the "Grande" in its name with a conspicuous final "e," has a colossal entrance doorway suggesting Pharaonic opulence. Inside it, one faces a sleek, high-tech escalator.
At midday Sunday, before attending an evening performance of "May B," I heard an odd, Zorba-like fiddle music coming from this direction. Investigating, I indeed saw six tuxedo-clad violinists arrayed at intervals along the motionless down escalator, sawing away with their bows. Meanwhile, fleets of stretch limos began pulling up at the entrance, discharging throngs of well-dressed guests, many with enormous looking gifts in hand.
The occasion? The christening of the recent offspring of Telly ("Kojak") Savalas, the appearance of whose give-away bald dome and burly shoulders was soon to confirm the rumors of his imminent arrival.
Where such scenes as this can still be nonchalantly enacted in real life, who's to say what limits may not be transcended on stage?
Most of the iconoclasm of Marin's "May B" had a familiar look, but that didn't keep it from testifying to a powerfully distinctive choreographic sensibility. In attempting to convey the feel and atmosphere of Beckett's dramatic and literary works, Marin said she was "seeking the meeting point between movement applied to theater on the one hand, and dance and choreographic language on the other."
The modes she employs toward this end for the 10 dancers of her cast evoke, at one time or another, the white-faced contortions of the Japanese Butoh-style; the obsessively repetitious transformations of Pina Bausch; the slow-moving tableaux of Robert Wilson; and a number of other models of the postmodern sensibility in international dance theater.
The dancers suggest characters from Beckett, sometimes quite explicitly -- as in a reference to the rope-linked Pozzo and Lucky from "Waiting for Godot," the quintessential master-slave duo -- and sometimes very generally, as Everyman and Everywoman groping and grunting fearfully through an indifferent universe. Marin invokes music from Schubert, a marching band, and a hauntingly incantatory tape by Gavin Bryars to reinforce the grotesquerie and hilarity of these creatures' common plight.
The 35-year-old, Toulouse-born Marin is in the forefront of a wave of venturesome French choreographers who have achieved international recognition in recent years. Her "Cendrillon," as performed by the Lyons Opera Ballet, was seen at the festival, and also earlier this year in two separate runs in New York and on Bravo cable television as well.
In some ways, Marin's works betray an affinity to those of American multimedia artist Martha Clarke, whose "Vienna Lusthaus" has been seen recently in Washington. Clarke's style is utterly different, but Marin, like Clarke, is better at simulating a veneer than in probing beneath to deeper emotional or psychological layers -- "May B" is more a matter of ingenious histrionics than of revelatory insights. Like Clarke, too, Marin is a veritable wizard at extracting thrilling performances from a company of versatilely trained artists.
In any case, Marin's work is clearly set apart from what Peter Sellars declared he hopes to avoid in future festivals -- it is not "another 86 episodes of Masterpiece Theater.