International dance leaps into the Olympic arena

If you had come to see dance at the Olympic Arts Festival, one thing you would have wanted to be sure to bring along is an open mind. If you had come, and there have been thousands who have, the festival (now in its eight week) would surely be a fascinating and stimulating cultural experience.

It all started June 1 with Pina Bausch's Wuppertaler Tanztheater from West Germany, whose controversial dance-theater style included presenting ''The Rite of Spring'' on a stage plastered with mud, with action that was vivid, strained, and often brutal. While some walked out after the first intermission, those who stayed gave the troupe a standing ovation.

Eight weeks later, practically the same thing happened, but this time the crowd wasn't reacting to your latest avant-garde experiment, it was observing the oldest continuous dance form known to man: 5th-century Bugaku from Japan.

Thus, dance had come full circle: the ancient and the avant-garde, the old and the new, were linked by their ability to provoke, to present something far beyond the ordinary. Dance often entertains, sometimes stirs the imagination, and occasionally truly provokes and challenges one's thinking and perspective.

It is to the credit of the organizers of this festival that many of its offerings have done all three of the above - with standouts including the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Lewitzky and Merce Cunningham dance companies, and Sankaijuku from Japan.

But what was really remarkable was how Bugaku and Les Ballets Africains (LBA) - both presented here recently and both dealing with dance forms that are centuries old - had many of the same effects on their audiences as did the contemporary groups mentioned above.

Les Ballets Africains put on its show July 19-22 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where most of the dance events have been held, and to capacity crowds, as is to be expected at festival events.

LBA, a world-renowned troupe, has not made an appearance in North America for 13 years. So it was with great expectations that many flocked to see it here.

For those looking for a unique cultural experience threaded with some dazzling individual dancing, the show was a big success. For those looking for precision and dramatic or intellectual depth, it was something of a disappointment.

But then those qualities are not what this African troupe sets out to exemplify, anyway. Its stated purpose is to present ''the virtues of the traditional and social life of a continent.''

Of the five pieces presented here, ''The Sacred Forest'' most fulfilled their purpose. It is the story of a young couple desiring to unite in matrimony, and the rite of passage they must endure in order to be granted that privilege by society.

In the dance, the husband-to-be is whipped, tugged, and thrown around the

stage by fearsome warriors to test his fortitude, while his partner is threatened, kicked, and humiliated. At times this seemed brutal to Western viewers, afew of whom walked out. But the finish - with the entire village rising in colorful celebration of the couple's triumph - left us feeling enlightened and uplifted.

And when it comes to the pure spirit of dance and raw entertainment, there's hardly a company that can match LBA's ''Finale'': there were 30-foot stiltwalkers, drummers standing atop the arched stomachs of other men, giant walking masks, high-flying acrobatics: the whole stage surging and pulsating with motion.

On the minus side, a frenzy of movement persisted through out much of the performance, deadening its impact considerably. Also, there was a contrived, almost Hollywood-produced feel to a couple of the dances, especially ''Veillee de Cora.''

One interesting note was the large African contingent in the audience, as well as many from other countries. There was a pervasive international feeling to the evening, so fitting for the Olympics. Said one Angeleno: ''That's one of the things that excited me about this (Olympic Arts Festival) when I first heard about it - how companies from all over the world were coming. We need that exposure. That's what tonight did.''

Similar was the effect of ''Bugaku'' at the spanking new Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo on the same three nights. The costuming was even more spectacular, with many of the masks and silk gowns centuries-old originals. Particularly striking was the costume for the dancer in ''Ranryo oh,'' the story of a young Chinese king who dons a grotesque mask to instill fear in his enemies on the battlefield. His long, layered gown was simply stunning - bright orange trim with multicolored embroidered figures, a gold-plated mask with bulging eyes and nose, and a creepy dragon resting on top.

The music, in the ''Kangen'' style, was intriguing, enlightening, and enchanting. It was played by priests and official musicians who come from the Kasuga Shrine in northern Japan, where these traditions are still maintained. From the instruments - long, stringed zithers, kazoolike transverse flutes, and many-sized drums - came a simple, insistent, pure sound that set a mystical, peaceful mood.

Unfortunately, the dancing lived up to neither the music nor the costumes. It was stiff, repetitive, and even dull. Still, ''Bugaku'' was the type of evening that gives one an authentic look into another time, another culture, a look that will not be soon forgotten.

There's still a little bit left of the Olympic Arts Festival, for those interested in seeing a slice of the largest and, some would say, one of the finest collections of artistic talent ever arranged in this country. American Jazz Tap - July 31-Aug. 3; Twyla Tharp Dance - Aug. 4-5; Dance Theatre of Harlem - Aug. 6-11.

Accompanying ''Bugaku'' is an excellent exhibit of lacquer masks and silk gowns entitled ''Treasures from the Ka-suga Shrine,'' which will be at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Sept. 8-Oct. 14.

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