Peter Sellars: Asia on the World Stage

Famed American theatre director Peter Sellars addressed the Asian Performing Arts Forum, in a talk titled ‘Asia on the World Stage.’ This talk was co-sponsored with SOAS, and took place on 10 November at 18.30 at the Khalili Lecture Theatre at the School of African and Oriental Studies, London.

World arts and cultures, Sellars began, appears to be a minority subject, but bringing together specialists shows that the discipline actually is a study of majority culture – it is the specialists working on English literature who are the actual minority. The discipline shows how people can share the present moment, showing connections between political, environmental and cultural issues. Issues are global in scope. One can’t discuss Chinese art in the context of China alone, as half of the artists are living outside China. The tools to describe this reality are still ‘primitive.’

Sellars reported that his own interest in Asia was not Orientalist, but rather a quest to find a vocabulary to describe collective situations. This was not always the case for him. Sellars visited China first in 1980 and wandered into a theatre to see kunqu. The experience was overwhelming, and he later staged Mozart’s opera Cosi fan Tutti with appropriated kunqu hand gestures. He repeated Brecht here in his ‘cool’ way of processing cultural tourism. Creative minsunderstandings, like Debussy’s relation to gamelan  and van Gogh’s to Japanese prints, can be generative. But these mediations are not the result of dialogue. Artists imagine the other to reimagine the self.

As a young man, Sellars was an enthusiast for detraditionalization. He thought the cultural revolution was ‘fabulous’ as it celebrated youth culture. At his La Mama debut at the age of 22, Sellars attempted to restage a Mao ballet. But he couldn’t do it – it was protested by Chinese-Americans. He could only do it in the historicised frame of Nixon in China (1987). This opera, created with composer John Adams, has been continually reworked with each new staging, incorporating reflections of Tianamen, the new China, new histories of Nixon and Mao, current US economic dependency on China. The opera is a meeting of two virtual ideological universes, and is a meta-theatrical reflection, a staging of a highly staged encounter, in which Chinese cities were rebuilt as stage sets.

The Los Angeles Festival of 1990, which Sellars curated, aspired to be about the people living in the city, in all their diversity. The reaction from the power holders was hostile. ‘If those people want a festival they can pay for it.’ The city’s white elites desired a closed festival, insisting that the main cultural venues be occupied by white culture.

This is very much like the structure of universities, where the humanities are dominated by elite white European culture, and the rest of the world is in the margins. Academics are burdened by critical theory, which though it addresses pressing political issues is couched in impenetrable language, meaning that academics can only talk to each other.

The world needs artists and academics to bring up issues that can’t be discussed in the political arena. The codification of Asian arts and its many elaborate protocols are deliberate strategies of circumvention to avoid punishment for representing sensitive issues. One can represent torrid sex on a Chinese stage without showing lovers touching. Tradition can thus be inspiring for contemporary artists, who require a language to discuss forbidden issues.

The codes of tradition are useful, but also continually evolving. The establishment is never truly established, but exists in a state of panic. Javanese dance maestro Romo Sas [RR Sasmito Mardawa] was a Balanchine who remade Javanese dance – stripping away ornaments, speeding up tempos. He threw away all the ‘laughable’ and outdated elements. When Sellars saw Romo Sas’ work during his first trip to Java in the early 1980s, he witnessed tradition as made by a radical. This empowered Sellars himself to work with traditional materials as he realised that he is not ‘messing’ with Javanese tradition as reinvention is inherent to tradition itself. Culture is not bounded by political borders – witness the lion statues that guard Chinese temples and the lion dances performed there on auspicious days – though (as an African-American colleague pointed out to Sellars) there are no lions in Africa.

When putting together the LA Festival in 1990, Sellars discovered that  Huan Wenyi, known in China as ‘Little Mei Lan Fang,’ was living in Los Angeles secretly, along with her troupe. He arranged for three days of glorious performances. At the end of the run, the company was in tears, not wanting to return to restaurant work. So over an eight year period, Sellars and Hua gave workshops together on kunqu. She was the tradition bearer but insisted on innovation, telling Sellars: ‘You! I want new! Old, I stay in Shanghai!’ This collaboration fed into Sellars’ work on the opera Peony Pavilion (1998), with composer Tan Dun. Tan applied the principles of the Western early music movement to kunqu, stripping away the cellos and modern accretions, bringing the form back to an imagined sound of the Sun dynasty. Tan Dun, choreographer Michael Schumacher (trained in Forsythe technique) and Sellars enacted actual conversations, creating something new together, making a radical shared space which was Chinese and American and a whole bunch of other things. The space was grounded in what the collaborators shared.

Different parts of the world face problems that appear separate but are connected. Farmers are committing suicide in Iowa, India and Indonesia for related reasons. We need a shared language to describe a shared globalized reality. Through empathy and solidarity we can think about what to do, not remain stuck in nightmare. Artists need to imagine alternate spaces, create structures of equality thorough collaboration and deep listening, in advance of the political community.    Sellars works as a festival director to address what is current on the front page of the newspaper. If Afghanistan is current, we need to include its culture and people in festivals. It takes courage to show the shared humanity and diversity of cultures. We should hear about China from Chinese viewpoints. The arts should offer what we need to know as global citizens. Sellars’ own work seeks a common ground for testing the limits of conversation with people from other cultures.

For Sellars, a play is like a hatchet behind glass: you have to break the glass, pick it up and use it in an emergency. And it is always an emergency. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Sellars staged The Persians, the world’s oldest play, in a new translation from the original text by Aeschylus. The play shows the denouement of a war in which the victors are shown to have had no idea about who they just defeated, that the Persians had families just like the Greeks, etc.  Sellars’ production portrayed the leader of the Persians as a figure who was both Saddam-like and also resembled a defiant LA gang leader who knew he would be killed but lived to defy the system. American audiences hated the production for its sympathetic portrayal of the enemy. The most evocative moment was a scene restaging the highway of death, the Iraqi army’s retreat from Kuwait, when the American army tried out their most experimental (and horribly lethal) weapons on human subjects. Weapons such as bombs that suck out lungs, were created to maximize suffering, like napalm. Sellars obtained unpublished photographs of the carnage, which were unspeakable, obscene. But Americans are inured to violence through television and film. How to create a production that is not folded into Hollywood?

For this purpose, Sellars invited Martinus Miroto, one of Java’s greatest refined dancers, who is also a specialist in the technologies of spirit possession. Nightly, Miroto allowed the restless spirits of the war dead to enter his living body. In traditional Java, possession allows the community to talk to spirits, and spirits to the community, arriving at an equilibrium. Wearing a mask, dressed in a military uniform, with bare feet, Miroto hosted the spirits of the 150,000 Iraqi soldiers who died in agony. Offerings were made nightly on an alter in Miroto’s dressing room, where a different photo of the war dead was placed each night. Miroto prayed for peace for the muted individuals, and allowed them to enter him for the duration of his performance. American audiences had no idea of this nightly ritual but were deeply upset by the production nonetheless. This was no spectacle; the entire massacre was embodied by a single dancer. To bring the action of the war closer, beneath every third seat a speaker was placed, where the sounds of shrapnel were recreated by mixing the sounds of New York City traffic, thereby demonstrating how violence is a part of everyday culture. Spectators felt the earth shifting underneath them. Modern technologies and ancient belief systems were brought together in a space of shared possibilities. The meeting of Western and Asian theatre on stage can bring about a new level of physical commitment. One should look to the arts to express the inexpressible. Artists talk about what they do not already know or understand – they express what they are in search of. They share their capacity to search.

Sellars concluded his talk with a discussion of the 2002 Adelaide Festival, which responded to pressing social issues facing the Australian city, including suicide among the city’s youth, which were not being addressed. Sellars, as the festival’s director, challenged artists to imagine new forms of cultural democracy and debate the country’s future. He invited artists, chefs and architects to participate in monthly meetings filled with tears and yelling in the run-up to the festival. With two young urban aboriginals (aged 26 and 27) as co-curators, he brought together indigenous hip-hop artists from around the world. Lack of support meant shortening the public part of the festival from 17 to 10 days. But there was a seven-day pre-festival event out of sight of the public, where indigenous festival participants discussed land rights, danced, told stories.  This was a liberational ‘protected zone’ that looked to find a new reality, imagining community through dancing together, cultivating the next generation, seeking new structures, pushing the boundaries of reality. One has to talk privately inside a community before talking to the public.

Cultures do not clash. They meet, dialogue and transform.

(Summary by Matthew Isaac Cohen)

About Peter Sellars

Renowned theater, opera, and festival director Peter Sellars is one of the most innovative and powerful forces in the performing arts in America and abroad.  A visionary artist, Sellars is known for groundbreaking interpretations of classic works.  Whether it is Mozart, Handel, Shakespeare, Sophocles, or the 16th-century Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, Peter Sellars strikes a universal chord with audiences, engaging contemporary social and political issues.

Among the Asia-related operas he has created are Nixon in China and A Flowering Tree (both with American composer John Adams) and The Peony Pavilion (with Tan Dun).

Sellars has led several major arts festivals, including the 1990 and 1993 Los Angeles Festivals; the 2002 Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia; and the 2003 Venice Biennale International Festival of Theater in Italy.  In 2006 he was Artistic Director of New Crowned Hope, a month-long festival in Vienna for which he invited international artists from diverse cultural backgrounds to create new work in the fields of music, theater, dance, film, the visual arts, and architecture for the city of Vienna’s Mozart Year celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. 

Sellars is a professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA and Resident Curator of the Telluride Film Festival. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Erasmus Prize, the Sundance Institute Risk-Takers Award, and the Gish Prize, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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