On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner died during a chokehold in police custody.
Ten days later, Peter Sellars started rehearsals on his new show Flexn, an angry, pulsating, extraordinary showcase of African-American dance.
Then – on the first Monday of workshops – Michael Brown was shot dead in Missouri, sparking the Ferguson riots.
‘His body was lying in a pool of blood for four hours,’ remembers the maverick theatre and opera director, looking at me intently. ‘The killing of black men in America wasn’t even a news story but these two were different.’
It is a bright spring afternoon when I meet Sellars backstage at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre where Flexn is touring as part of the Brisbane Festival. As if in a warped fairytale, I have to follow a thin line of blue tape down a dreary warren of corridors that seemingly lead nowhere.
But there, finally, is Sellars, a tiny benevolent goblin under the harsh naked light bulbs in his dingy dressing room. He swings on a red chair that sits on a dull red carpet, his image reflected garishly in a large mirror.
Sellars springs from his stool to give me a prolonged hug, his head barely skimming my chest. I’ve been warned that the director does not shake hands; he embraces, canoodles, clasps you – or, really, anyone – to his bosom like an old friend.
Yet what could be an uncomfortable invasion of space, or just a tad try-hard, somehow feels not only natural but buoyant and life-giving.
That Sellars is small and dresses like a mad swami helps. His greying hair stands straight on end as if electrified. And today – defiant against the drabness of his room – he sports only different shades of blue. Blue and peach vintage shirt, primly buttoned all the way up, blue fabric shoes, blue trousers, and his trademark chunky hippy beads slung around his neck. The beads are blue.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1957, Sellars first garnered attention at Harvard where he put on Wagner’s Ring Cycle using puppets and staged a production of Antony and Cleopatra in a university swimming pool.
Known for his savagely original productions, he attracts both fierce admiration and loathing from traditionalists who do not like the classics tampered with. Sellars has set Handel’s Orlando in outer space, Cosi Fan Tutte in a diner, and Mozart’s Zaide in a New York sweatshop. This is a man willing to bet that genius is the offspring of risk.
His collaboration with flex dancing pioneer Reggie ‘Regg Roc’ Gray for Flexn, which premiered in March in New York, is a case of point. Flex emerged from Jamaica in the 1990s but matured in the dance halls of Brooklyn; in the performance it is all popping shoulders, sliding torsos, jerking, jolting energy. The street dancers pulsate with anguish as they mime everything from the boredom of mundane menial labour to police brutality.
‘So much street dance doesn’t have emotion – but they are in this really personal and fragile and unbelievably painful territory a lot of the night,’ explains Sellars with hushed respect. ‘Most people imagine it’s going to be fun and entertaining and they don’t expect it to have this Shakespearean sweep.’
Sellars is a man with a social conscience. He speaks with camp affectation in ‘oh la la la’ tones but he is not a drama queen nor is he frivolous intellectually. Directing, he believes, is about taking ‘people more seriously than they take themselves’ and art is a social contract for bettering the world – or, at least, a tool to deliver more nuanced images of poverty and suffering than the ‘semi-pornographic’ media.
Brushing the back of his fountain of hair, Sellars embarks on a lecture on America, the land of injustice. The deportation of illegal immigrants is akin to ‘living in Germany in the thirties’ and Californian prisons are ‘choking the state to death.’ The US has ‘an economic system that is crashing and burning and is merciless to people on the lower level.’ He jabs a finger into the air. This status quo – that rewards the rich and crushes the poor – ‘it’s loathsome and absolutely repugnant in the sight of God!’
The arts, he implores, is here to ‘imagine something better. We can all imagine something better than this.’
To that end Sellars is now a professor at University of California, Los Angeles (‘there are worlds and worlds and worlds in that city,’ he leans over to whisper confidingly of his home of 25 years) where he teaches Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action.
While it is hard to pinpoint what this actually entails the course is, Sellars insists, about art and activism. In the past he has focused on the drug wars and contemporary slavery, speaking to around 400 students a semester. This year he zoned in on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
One characteristic protest was a six-day dance in front of the police quarters in downtown LA (two founders of Black Lives Matter were taking the course).
The director, again, raises one finger dramatically. ‘Not a sit in but a dance in,’ he says, ‘because this generation isn’t sitting. Dance was a public way to create a spectacle, create a protest that had fire, had verve, had people’s voices raised and again had people’s bodies on the line.’
That black lives matter is also a theme in Sellars’ Desdemona, which plays in Sydney from 23 – 25 October.
The production started with a tiff. Sellars has always disliked Othello – Shakespeare ‘didn’t have any African friends – and it showed,’ he sniffs – but Toni Morrison disagreed.
The Nobel-Prize-winning author and the director came up with a pact. Sellars would put Othello on stage (it premiered in 2009 with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago) and Morrison would write a new spin-off play, injecting her own take on gender and race. ‘Let’s really update those images,’ Sellars recalls saying.
The resulting Desdemona, also directed by Sellars, shows Othello’s tragic wife in the afterlife. There she meets her old African nursemaid, Barbary. They talk among traditional African mourning altars, among the spirits of the dead, their words merging with the plaintive music of the West African lute.
Desdemona ‘is in many ways Shakespeare’s most perfect creation. This idealised miraculous woman like Dante’s Beatrice. She is perfection itself. Toni said: “Well, I think she has some things to learn”,’ states Sellars.
If the play sooths it also shocks. We learn that when he is in the military Othello (once a child soldier) raped two elderly women alongside Iago, gaining pleasure from the power. Such violence and brutality is, according to Sellars, a way to explain their bond.
I want to ask more. But just then we are interrupted by a knock on the door.
A hip Brisbane Festival staffer emerges to whisk Sellars away. That night he is due to speak and he needs a coffee to wake himself up: ‘It’s always embarrassing to bore myself,’ he confesses.
Sellars declares that he will spend most of the talk listening to questions from the audience. ‘I am coming to Australia so, for god’s sake, while I’m here I might as well learn something. I know it’s very un-American but I might as well try it,’ he chortles.
Then Sellars squeals. He rushes to hug Sam and has stopped to admire his outfit – a vintage floral shirt, a polka dot navy waistcoat, and a red spotted umbrella.
‘Sam you are adoooorable – look at your lovely vest!’ he cries out, euphoric and without irony.
‘The combination of that vest and umbrella is making me say’ – he pauses for effect – ‘Yes to life!’
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Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia
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