At the Olympic Arts Festival, the world puts its best foot forward

Apart from the ubiquitous advertisements hawking the official Olympic snack food, insurance company, or coin-operated video games, the official Olympics is finally beginning to show its tangible face here this month.

The Olympic Arts Festival has begun its work of creating what its director describes as an ''intelligent preface'' to the games -- a preface billed as the largest arts festival in United States history.

The urbane director, Robert Fitzpatrick, has made himself a student of how past Olympic Arts Festivals were lost in the skirts of the sporting events. His strategy this time is for arts not to compete with sports, but to create a sense of event, of quality, and of cosmopolitan celebration around the games.

The signs are everywhere. Star-spangled, pastel banners have appeared along streets and buildings around the city to alert Los Angeles drivers they are approaching an Olympic site. The message is that this is no ordinary time and place, but a locus of Olympic excitement.

The chief monument to this Olympiad -- a 25-foot high Olympic gateway topped by a pair of bronze statues of nude, athletic torsos -- has been erected and unveiled at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

And the Olympic cultural events themselves are rolling by like a whirlwind tour of world culture led by a savvy and enthusiastic guide.

If Mr. Fitzpatrick, who is also president of California Institute for the Arts, wanted to open the Olympic season with something unlike anything Californians had ever seen before, he succeeded.

Pina Bausch's Wuppertaler Tanztheater from West Germany performs a cross between dance and an abstracted, mostly wordless theater. Well-known among European aficionados of dance, Ms. Bausch and her troupe made their American debut in Pasadena, as the opening performance event in the Olympic Arts Festival.

At least on the surface, nothing could be less southern Californian than the relentlessly bleak, futility-ridden sense of life reflected in Ms. Bausch's work. In ''Cafe Muller,'' pale, corpse-like women stumble blindly through a stark cafe. Intense, absorbed young men thrash wildly about the stage in pathetic rituals of psychic misery.

Most striking, the Bausch dancers are disciplined and athletic, but not beautiful. They are tall and short, thin and chunky, the women clad inelegantly in plain, tired-looking slips.

The reaction was strong both ways. The first ballet was greeted with a few boos and some walkouts. The second, ''Rites of Spring,'' which featured a stage covered in peat moss that smudged the dancers, won a standing ovation.

Contrast the Bausch troupe's avant-garde modernity to the lush tradition of the Royal Shakespeare Company's ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' which opened at UCLA a few days later. Nothing unexpected here for anyone, simply the Bard played by the best.

Contrast the traditional resonance of the venerable RSC to the Olympian eclecticism of a more unorthodox Shakespeare. France's Le Theatre du Soleil made its US debut last week with three Shakespeare dramas played in French wearing Oriental constumes and the white faces of Japanese Kabuki theater.

Contrast Bausch's high somberness to the low frivolity of another Olympic debut last week. Los Angeles' own Groundlings, an improvisational theater troupe with a tiny theater of its own, premiered ''Olympic Trials: A Chick Hazard Mystery.'' The year is 1932, the Olympics have come to Los Angeles, and our hard-boiled private eye, evoked straight out of Raymond Chandler, has a murder on his hands.

The details of the murder are supplied by the audience, which is worked over from the stage by a cabby from New York who is writing a detective story. As he elicits the facts of the case from the small crowd, the cast seamlessly improvises their script around them. (Opening night had a manicurist done in with a nail file near the Olympic swimming pool, an unexplained lemon pie found near the body.)

It's a silly, loose, and boisterous spoof of the sordid, sleazy Los Angeles of detective fiction, perhaps the strongest literary profile the city has achieved.

This is the kind of range this arts festival has set out to offer. It has had its disappointments for planners. Among others, the most massive and daring work of the festival, an eight-hour ''planetary opera'' by Robert Wilson entitled, ''CIVIL warS'': a tree is best measured when it's down,'' won't be here. Organizers never found a way to cover its cost.

The festival's big ceremonial event will come at the Hollywood Bowl, the day before the games begin. The Olympic organizers have commissioned John Williams to write an anthem for the games, ''Olympic Fanfare,'' to be performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Placido Domingo as tenor.

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