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Peter Sellars on the politics of flex dancing and revisiting the Spanish conquest

Peter Sellars prior to receiving the Swedish Polar Music Prize at a ceremony in Stockholm earlier this year. Sellars received the prize for his innovative work in the field of opera and music productions.
Peter Sellars prior to receiving the Swedish Polar Music Prize at a ceremony in Stockholm earlier this year. Sellars received the prize for his innovative work in the field of opera and music productions.
Jonas Ekstromer/AP
Peter Sellars prior to receiving the Swedish Polar Music Prize at a ceremony in Stockholm earlier this year. Sellars received the prize for his innovative work in the field of opera and music productions.
A scene from "The Indian Queen" at the Perm Opera in Russia, directed by Peter Sellars with sets by the L.A. artist known as Gronk.
Perm Opera

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Peter Sellars, a professor of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, is known for directing bold and provocative opera and theater work that always has something to say about contemporary society. 

This year, he created productions on the Spanish conquista in Latin America through the eyes of women; and another show on flexing — an African-American dance form that took on new resonance after the Michael Brown and Eric Garner incidents.

Sellars spoke with The Frame's Senior Producer, Oscar Garza, about where 2014 took him and also about his newest project, the Boethius Initiative at UCLA.

Interview highlights:

Where did you work this year, geographically?

I was all over the place, but a lot in Berlin, a lot in New York, and a whole lot in Russia, and various corners of Canada. I’m just coming from New York where I’m rehearsing with 20 young African-American flex dancers from Brooklyn, making a big show about juvenile justice, solitary confinement of young people and incorrect policing. And that’s with these amazing, brilliant inspired young bodies.


How did this piece come about? 

Well it’s one of those interesting things. Flex is an art form, it’s the next thing after krumping, which I think people in L.A. know a bit about because part of its origins are here. Street kids who know they are carrying a lot of violence and anger with them started making a dance form to release the toxins because they know, not only does it poison other people, it poisons themselves.

Did this grow out of the incidents in Missouri and New York?

Well, yes. Flexing has been going on for 10 years in Brooklyn. And it’s on YouTube now and it adds to krumping — this Michael Jackson-cool gliding, but also morphing. If you’re a young African-American man [trying] to survive, you’ve got to be able to flex, morph, change — be creative with your identity. And so that’s exactly what the art form is — their own [computer-generated imagery] in their bodies and it’s pretty breathtaking. And we made our first workshops in August, during [the Michael Brown incident in] Ferguson and just a few days after the Eric Garner chokehold [death]. So, it’s the DNA of the popular protests and uprisings — they are moving across the country — in this piece. When you see it, minus rhetoric, but just people’s bodies, it takes you way deep.

What were you doing in Russia?

I was making — believe it or not — the story of the first contact of Europe and the new world [titled "The Indian Queen"]. It was the Spanish meeting the Mayans, but through the eyes of women. Music written in 1695 in London by Henry Purcell when he was 35 years old. The text is from a novel in the '80s, written by one of my favorite Nicaraguan novelists, Luisa Aguilar. She was trying to imagine, look for, the first accounts of the conquista by women and she looked everywhere, didn’t find any, so she wrote them herself. It’s one of those great acts of Latin American novel writing, [which] is to completely re-imagine history for the first time because, in fact, the history that happened was insufficiently imagined at the time it occurred.

And how did this come to be produced in Russia?

Well, the bizarre thing was this conductor in Russia was obsessed as I am with this material. And of course we went to from the Mayan shamans — who we’re putting on stage — to the Siberian shamans, who were all located in the Euro mountains, and so we had amazing shaman activity. And the connections of the stories ... we’re obviously using big tanks and modern weaponry because it’s about the death squads moving into the plains of Chiapas and this ongoing struggle of indigenous people versus armies that continue to come in through those villages. So it was all told completely up-to-date in terms that would be recognizable.

Where was that produced?

That was produced in Perm, Russia and then we did it in Madrid, which was quite intense. We did it in the Teatro Real, the royal theater, opposite the royal palace, where Franco addressed his population. And yes, we had a lot of stormy evenings because telling that story in Madrid in the royal theater was quite intense.

Any chance that piece will travel further?

That piece is going on in London in the next six weeks. Then we have to get here to Los Angeles. Because the sets are by [L.A. artist] Gronk. The sets were all painted here in Los Angeles and shipped to Russia, shipped to Madrid, and shipped to London. The only place that hasn’t seen it is, of course, Los Angeles.

By way of introduction for our listeners who may not know who Gronk is, he’s a wildly talented and influential artist who’s from Los Angeles.

I think it’s fair to say [he's] one of the key figures of the generation who invented the Chicano art movement ... a real absolute maverick visionary with a wicked sense of humor and a blazing sense of justice.

And now you’re launching a new project at UCLA. Tell me about the Boethius Initiative.

I’ve been teaching for 25 years as a professor of world arts and cultures. And the chancellor said, "Would you like really create some kind of institute that kind of gathers all this and deepens it?’" And, of course, the short answer was, "Yes, I would." That’s what we’re underway with. It’s called The Boethius Initiative. And basically it’s gathering artists and scholars and activists to work together in periods of three-to-five years around certain topics, like immigration. It’s incredible that in a country that is so based on immigration, we’re not allowed to use the word anymore and the entire conversation has been wildly highjacked.

And will immigration be the first topic the initiative takes on?

We’re taking on juvenile justice, we’re taking on a lot of topics that, again, have been in the political sphere [but] quite deliberately misrepresented. And I think one of the issues with a public university like UCLA is that so much of the academic work of the last generation or so has deliberately been couched in impenetrable language, which means a lot of the breakthrough research of the last generation has yet to reach the voting public. And so, again, with a playbook that is 50 years out-of-date, how do you get the results of this research translated into a form that the public can grasp really readily and with their gut. How is this research translated into words, images, films, music that are suddenly graspable and become, in the Woody Guthrie tradition, suddenly part of people’s consciousness — not just people with advanced degrees, but day-to-day working people in this country. How can we put our own history back within reach? 

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