Olympic Arts Festival - as ancient as Games

Arts and culture will get their moment of glory before the sports events begin.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The last thing Leo Schofield wants to do is compete head-on with the Olympic Games. The director of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival describes his event as a pendant on the full necklace of the Games, but adds, "It can be a quite glittering object in itself."

To create this multifaceted jewel, the festival will bring together more than 3,000 visual and performing artists from around the world. The six-week cultural program begins Aug. 18, a month before the sports take center stage.

"We wanted to be a little quirky," says Mr. Schofield during a carefully scheduled block of time at his busy office, just a few blocks from the Sydney Opera House. "The program ranges from [opera singer Andrea] Bocelli and the Afro-Cuban All Stars up to a megaversion of Mahler's Symphony No. 8.... I think you'd have to be a confirmed couch potato not to find something you'd want to attend."

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Although many people are oblivious to the arts component of the Olympics, Schofield says, it's as ancient as the Games themselves. "You could have won a laurel wreath - the laurel wreath was the gold medal - for poetry as well as discus throwing."

In modern times, part of the mandate for the host city is to throw an arts extravaganza not just once, but four times. These are meant "to keep the country aware that the Olympics are coming there, as a prequel, if you like, for the actual Games."

In 1997, for instance, The Festival of the Dreaming highlighted indigenous artists, and in 1999, Australian performers toured internationally.

Among the new commissions for the culminating festival in 2000, choreographer Lloyd Newson will bring his British DV8 Physical Theatre dance company to his native Australia for "FunnyLand." Audiences will become part of the show as they are led past rides and along bouncing floors to the central performance area in a historic Sydney amusement park. The Dead Sea Scrolls will be on display for the first time in Australia. And the Art Gallery of New South Wales is planning a major Aboriginal art exhibit (see story below).

Another highlight will be the performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in the SuperDome, which will pool the talents of 1,000 musicians and singers. After the concert, gymnastics and basketball competitions will be held in the 21,000-seat stadium.

Under the category of quirky, Schofield describes a weekend outdoor event called Hemispheres: "It will be somewhere between a funky big rock concert and a world-music festival - with artists from Turkey, subversive Pakistani rock musicians from Britain doing anarchic songs, and ... a whole range of well-known world-music performers, in a big, open, neo-Woodstock-style presentation."

Although about 70 percent of the artists are Australian, he's pleased with the international collaborations. The Australian Youth Orchestra will perform with American violinist Pinchas Zukerman, for instance. And members of Australia's Flying Fruit Fly Circus will make jaws drop with the help of the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe of China.

Olympics organizers learn from their predecessors, and for Schofield, the primary lesson from Atlanta in 1996 was to schedule events so visitors would have the opportunity to cheer both the athletes and the arts.

"It was disturbing to me, on behalf of the artists, to see significant performers of world rank playing to half-empty houses [in Atlanta]," he says. To make the festival more accessible to the public, he's reserving fewer seats for officials, who often don't pick up their tickets, Schofield adds.

Schofield arrived in his position as festival director through an amateur's love of the arts - and a professional background in marketing. In the 1990s, he directed arts festivals in both Melbourne and Sydney before being tapped for the Olympics job.

He says he's encouraged by a level of advance ticket sales that's unprecedented in his experience. By mid-May, 35 percent of tickets (sold individually for each performance or exhibit) were sold. One reason is that corporations book hundreds of tickets at a time.

But there's another reason tickets are flying: a certain building whose distinct white forms prompt comparisons to sailboats or shells - the Sydney Opera House. Festival performances will be staged there, and the night the torch arrives to open the ceremonies, a special light show will engulf the white exterior in the orange glow of flames.

"I can think of no other city in the world that is represented by a cultural building," Schofield says. "There are Eiffel Towers and Big Bens and Empire States ... but none [of them are] cultural buildings. And most people who come to Sydney want to see a performance of something there. So it's a huge lure."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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