There are routine upheavals in Southern California that blow people and things apart, but every once in a few decades we experience an explosion of a much more rarefied quality that brings a city together. The Olympic Arts Festival galvanized and united Los Angeles not from the stoic imperative of rebuilding from the ashes of a riot, fire or an earthquake, but from a completely different impulse. In the summer of 1984, the city was abuzz because the world’s best athletes and the world’s best artists were arriving at our doorstep all at once.
True, the world has been arriving in California since the place was a Mexican territory: from China to work on the railroads; from Russia to scope out the fish and fur of the northern coast; from England and the Persian Gulf to live in Beverly Hills and play the stock market; from Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Eastern Europe to escape sundry wars and oppressions; and from everywhere on Earth to break into the movie and music industries.
Getting here was always a victory of sorts, maybe tempered by alienation and homesickness, but a victory nonetheless. As Joan Didion points out in her latest book, Where I Was From, among the defining California myths is that farmers and sharecroppers and horse thieves from Iowa and Indiana, who had trudged over the Rockies and rolled into the Central Valley, were a “blessed” people — not for anything they had accomplished but for the mere fact that they had arrived. Still, California’s welcome mat has been frayed for almost as long as foreigners have been showing up here. Heaping wrath on newcomers based on their ethnicity or numbers or whatever — throwing them in camps, on occasion — has itself devolved into a kind of Olympic sport.
1984 was a departure from all this, an aberration, for two reasons: The foreign guests were only staying two months at most — the brevity of their visit upped their ante. Plus, they had actually accomplished feats the rest of us could only dream of. The guests of 1984 could jump higher, speak Shakespeare better and sing clearer than almost anyone we had seen on our fields and stages. It was a brilliant idea to connect an arts festival to the Olympics, for it melded concepts that are almost always at odds with each other: athletic and artistic excellence. One is usually considered manly, the other effeminate. But the death-defying acrobats of China’s Acrobatic and Magic Troupe put a quick stop to the idea that performance is swishy by definition. Furthermore, Olympic Arts Festival director Robert Fitzpatrick (then president of CalArts) made sure that the artists and athletes would not be competing for attention. He scheduled the cultural events around the sporting ones.
In a single blast, we saw artistic representation from 15 nations in venues from Long Beach to the Valley. There was a theater festival co-produced by the Mark Taper Forum, a dance festival co-produced by the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, minifestivals of chamber music, jazz, country & western and contemporary music, with the Filmex cinema exposition folded into the mix. We saw London’s Royal National Theatre and Covent Garden Opera, Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater from Germany, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Les Ballets Africains from Africa, the Korean National Dance Company, China’s Chengdu troupe from Szechuan, among many, many others. (What we didn’t see was Robert Wilson’s Civil WarS, which stalled out of town from lack of funds.)
City streets were bathed in Arts Festival banners. In an image that sums up the festival’s impact, I remember riding the Wilshire bus and observing a frumpy, middle-aged woman from Odessa sitting beside an Asian teenager — at least she looked like a kid with her Los Angeles City College book bag. Both women wore Arts Festival tags around their necks because they’d volunteered to be ushers.
It was all too big and too good to sustain. After the festival was repeated in 1987, complaints started emerging about Fitzpatrick’s elitism. Somewhat ironically, given the charge against him of Eurocentrism, Fitzpatrick went off to run Euro-Disney, and Peter Sellars took over the triennial Los Angeles Festival. Responding to the complaints about Fitzpatrick’s Eurocentrism and high ticket prices, Sellars embarked on a visionary quest — banning European artists and performers in favor of those from the Pacific Rim and slashing ticket prices to make attendance accessible. Sellars spent more money than the festival had in the bank to invite, for example, an indigenous Balinese dance company, whose primitive beauty Sellars had enjoyed on one of his sojourns abroad.
It was a noble experiment in populism that some say turned out to be more elitist than Fitzpatrick’s tenure. The Olympic Arts Festival was so popular (and expensive), people were turned away. Sellars’ festival was so eccentric and mismanaged, he couldn’t give the tickets away. By 1993, invitations to foreign companies had been retracted for lack of funds. It was over. Sellars was on a streak of sorts by then, having run the Boston Shakespeare Festival, the American National Theater in Washington, D.C., and our Los Angeles Festival into the ground, leaving many people around the country wondering what happened.