By Audrey Coleman


The Quebec-based band Le Vent du Nord will perform at Disney Hall on Saturday, April 18 as part of the Music Center's global arts and culture series, World City.

As I cruised down Grand Avenue one Saturday morning last month, it wasn't hard to find the ticket give-away spot outside Disney Hall. Two clowns on stilts were waving towards a windblown young man below who was handing out tickets to a fast-growing line of adults with children. My long love of marionettes and puppetry had drawn me downtown to see the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater, one of 12 performances presented as part of the Music Center's season of monthly dance, music, song, and storytelling known as World City.

When I reached the Garden Level of Disney Hall, instead of seeing the usual quietly correct concert-goers appreciating the flora, I saw clusters of excited children and dazzled adults at workshop stations. At one table, kids were slathering paint on pre-cut cardboard masks. At another, they were watching a bespectacled gentleman create a musical instrument that looked like something between a horn and a Jew's harp. Everyone who wanted one was going to get one, he assured the crowd. Two little boys were pausing in front of a blonde rosy-cheeked woman dressed in, well, a puppet theater. I joined them and watched a miniature lion try repeatedly to jump through a circus hoop. Her high-pitched wordless sounds conveyed the feline's frustration. When the lion finally made it through, I cheered along with the group of kids who had gathered.

At about 12:25pm it was time to take a seat in the nearby W. M. Keck Amphitheatre for the second show. Between 250 and 300 people of different sizes were gathering there, some waving masks and instruments, veterans equipped with broad-brimmed hats and sun block. They settled down to listen to a dark-haired, vivacious woman dressed in a long skirt and leather jacket, Barbara Leonard, recount how a set of antique marionettes had been discovered in New York City attic and restored by members of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater. A few moments later, we were watching a man in a many-colored coat, Vit Horejs, share his background and tell fantastic tales as he manipulated the marionettes. The audience was mesmerized.

When I learned about the Marionette Theater performance, I did not know it would share the hour-long program with the Eletfa Hungarian Folk Ensemble. Now I wasn't sure if I approved. But soon I was swept up in the joy of village music and dance from Transylvania and Hungary. One of the musicians played a rare instrument that combined the sound and look of a trumpet and violin. I thought back to the children gathering to watch that instrument-maker before the performance. Nice connection.

The Saturday April 18 World City will feature Le Vent du Nord, the acclaimed roots music band from Quebec whose instruments include guitar, violin, accordion, and hurdy-gurdy and whose repertoire ranges from traditional tunes from "la belle province" to works composed by the band members. Sharing the bill will be another Quebec import, Circo Comedia, a duo in the French new circus tradition

The Artistic Director for Education at the Music Center, Barbara Leonard (yes, the woman who introduced the Marionette Theater), told me that World City will feature three workshop stations that make a creative link to the April 18 performances. "One is going to be making a hurdy-gurdy out of recycled materials," Leonard said in a recent telephone interview. "The other two will connect to the work of Circo Comedia. They have a tower of oversized cards that they make into a pyramid and then on the top they do a balancing acrobatic routine. So one workshop is going to involve making your own playing cards. The other is called acrobatic circuses. It's kind of inspired by Alexander Calder's Circus. One of our visual artists is making a miniature acrobatic circus. So (people will be) making the little figures and the circus ring and so on."

Conceived to make creative use of the outdoor amphitheatre fashioned for Disney Hall, World City began when the Hall opened in 2003. In the past six seasons, the program has presented artists from nearly 60 countries and cultures with support from the Julia Stearns Dockweiler Foundation, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and the Peter and Merle Mullin Endowment Fund. Some of the performers are international artists who happen to be based in L.A. while others live elsewhere in the U.S. or in other countries. Leonard discovers candidates for World City at arts conferences and international festivals and in her constant research on the Internet. With over 20 years experience working in the Music Center's Education Division, she also draws on the roster of over 100 different artists that present performances in Los Angeles schools.

Leonard has gone to great lengths to offer World City audiences rare opportunities to experience cultural traditions. "I had always wanted to present Tuva and Tibetan (cultures) together (in one program). We had the Tuvan throat singing group Huun-Huur-Tu paired with a Tibetan dance and opera company called Chaksampa. This was kind of a monumental one to put together. It required bringing six Tibetans who are all living in exile in six different cities in two countries to come to the Music Center and perform their ancient dance and opera. So that was a very traditional and engaging."

Other invited artists inject contemporary elements into a traditional form. "For example, the Taiko Company On Ensemble is a quartet of master percussionists that appeared in our 2006-2007 season," said Leonard. "Along with the Taiko, there's also a drum kit and a turntable. And so they're taking the tradition of Japanese Taiko drumming and translating it in a new way today."

Along with artistic diversity, World City seeks audience diversity. The composition of the audience for World City varies from toddlers to a woman celebrating her 101st birthday. Typically, members of the ethnic group represented in the performance will be there in force. The September 2008 program, A Celebration of Armenian Arts, attracted families from L.A.'s Armenian community, but many others as well. "It was a marvelous mix," recalled Leonard. "And in January, when we had the (Chen Kuai Le) puppet company from Taiwan, again it was a great mix - people who love puppetry and people interested in seeing this Chinese company. In February, it was heavily attended by the African American community because it was Black History Month and the program was focused on storytelling (in African, Southern, and African American cultures)."

For every World City program, the Music Center donates a bus to a particular community group. This enables Boys and Girls Clubs, schools and other groups to attend. "It's really about inviting our communities of Los Angeles to experience our global cultures," said Leonard. "For those of us working at World City, it really touches our hearts to see our audiences come back year after year. Sometimes a parent comes up to me and says,' We started coming here when my daughter was three, and now she's nine.' And I can actually talk with them and ask them what their favorites were over the years."

Audience members often stay as long as an hour before or after the performance to participate in the art workshops. "I have a wonderful team of visual arts who I collaborate with to create different hands-on projects specifically tied to the culture of the day," said Leonard. "You're envisioning them for something that has to be completed in a very short time - 20 minutes - and you never know who is going to walk up to the table and do a project. So they really have to be adaptable to a diversity of skills and age levels. Families can make art together and then leave with a great memento of their time at the Music Center."

To experience the enchantment of World City, you need to show up for the ticket give-away outside Disney Hall an hour before the 11:00am or 12:30pm show. (If you don't find street parking, the underground parking lot charges eight dollars.) Once you have your ticket, you can go inside the Hall and grab a snack in the cafeteria while you wait for the show to start. Or head right up to Garden Level to dive into the workshops or stroll the garden. Not a bad way to start your Saturday. When approaching Disney Hall, keep an eye out for those clowns on stilts.

Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional world music and culture.