THE gentle jingle of a gamelan orchestra from a sultan's palace in faraway Java floats up from an outdoor stage at the Los Angeles arboretum. Under the starry sky the sultan's dancers, making their first visit to the United States, are acting out an ancient tale about gods and love and war for an enchanted but slightly bewildered audience. ``Is this the wedding scene?'' asks the person beside me. Though the printed program has a story synopsis in English, neither of us is quite sure. The Indonesian dancers are just a few of the 1,400 performers gathered here for a sort of cultural dim sum feast - the Los Angeles Festival 1990.
It opened last Friday with programs ranging from theater by the homeless to performance art from Japan, from outdoor wall paintings by local muralists to films from Thailand and Vietnam. By its close on Sept. 16, 175,000 people are expected to have sampled presentations at 70 venues - each event chosen to celebrate the cultural diversity of L.A.'s Hispanic, native American, African-American, Anglo, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Cambodian, and other communities, or to explore the arts of Pacific Rim countries.
In opening ceremonies last Saturday at San Pedro's Angels Gate Park, with the ocean as its backdrop, Mayor Tom Bradley called Los Angeles ``the most culturally diverse city in the world'' and thanked artistic director Peter Sellars for combing Asia for two years to find its best performers and invite them here.
Mr. Sellars, who has accepted the commitment to lead the festival for the next 10 years, called it ``the beginning of another level of cultural awareness.... We have invited a number of very, very distinguished and beautiful performers to come visit us to remind us of what culture does, how it works'' in their societies. - transmitting values and keeping alive an awe for life - ``and of how we can use it too.''
``The beauty is that it's simply the beauty. That is the explanation and The purpose of the 16-day festival, Sellars says, is ``to get an inundation of beauty, and to be surrounded by enough art and enough profundity of people who are living their lives at the most serious and most joyous level, and to begin to rethink where we are going....''
Throughout the holiday weekend, a lower-than-expected turnout (some 15,000 on Saturday) strolled through the park's outdoor pavilions, munching on ``Indian tacos'' (a Los Angeles hybrid with Mexican fillings on native American fry-bread), and checking out performers on the outdoor stages: the maroon-clad Halau O Kekuhi dancers from Hilo, Hawaii; the Kinnaro Taiko dance troupe from Los Angeles's Senshin Buddhist Temple; the Waiwhetu Maori Cultural Troupe, which traveled here from New Zealand; the King Inupiat Eskimo dancers; white-robed Korean shamans; and many others.
The above performances were free, as were 70 percent of all the festival's activities. The remaining ticketed events were virtually all sold by the opening, allaying earlier concerns that the $5 million event might plunge into the red.
Most of the festivalgoers I talked with were enthusiastic. Winter Dellenbach of Palo Alto, Calif., was impressed by the attentiveness of visitors at yet another venue, the African Marketplace. ``How many people would have come here, without the festival, to see performances by members of the black community?'' she asked. ``But people got interested in what they saw and were really paying attention.''
Diane Daniel of Los Angeles noted, ``Peter Sellars' idea worked. The festival is really allowing us to get to know areas we'd only drive through otherwise.'' Her son, Lavi Daniel, a young painter, added that his favorite event was a Japanese performance-art program called ``Legend of the Water Flame.'' ``It blew me away,'' ``It was the most transcendent work I've ever seen,'' he said. Even though I couldn't understand the language, I knew I was in the presence of real virtuosity.''
Suk Jong Kim, a young Korean-American from Los Angeles, however, disagreed. ``No one except the Japanese knew what was going on,'' he said. ``For me it was not a clear message.''
For this writer, one of the most memorable productions from the festival's first week was a drama about life on the streets presented by people who know it firsthand. The LAPD (Los Angeles Poverty Department), founded by John Malpede in 1985, is billed as America's first theater group made up primarily of the homeless or formerly homeless. Its festival production, ``Jupiter 35,'' is the autobiographical story of LeRoy ``Sunshine'' Mills, a LAPD member who woke up in a hospital bed after being pushed from a sixth-story window on skid row.
The performance style is rough-edged and volatile, but has the ring of truth. Anyone who wants a polite, polished, or apologetic look at poverty will have to look elsewhere. A sense of danger is palpable, heightened by the audience's knowledge that drama intersects real life here: The invalid in the bed is not only an actor but the actual victim of violence, and Some of these performers walk out of the theater each night into that netherworld they so chillingly evoke on stage.
The play opens with a videotape of Mills, before the fall, expressing the white-hot anger of the disenfranchised: ``All I have is me - just me,'' he says, turning his empty pants pockets inside out. ``What did I do to you, America?'' The closing scene shows his anger transformed into something more positive after a nurse tells him ``Nobody falls six stories and lives. God must be giving you another chance.''
Mills and the others are taking that chance with LAPD - reaching out to a world that has yet to translate its concern into effective help. And the Los Angeles Festival is also taking a chance - banking on the idea that the arts can help this community break through the barriers between ethnic groups - and nations.