Veteran Dancers and Playwrights Take Spotlight at Edinburgh Festival

After first week, some critics call for more experimental programming

Everyone in the city of Edinburgh is a critic right now. That is, after all, half the enjoyment of going to the International Festival of the arts, which is at its midpoint and overruns the Scottish capital for three weeks each year.

"That was really dumb," said a youth with irrefutable certainty.

His girlfriend agreed. "Like watching an aerobics class."

They were on the stairs at the Festival Theatre during an intermission. American choreographer Mark Morris - at the festival for the fifth year in succession - had roly-polied around the stage in pink pajamas for a semi-humorous one-man dance. Later in the evening his company was to premiere another characteristic work, "I Don't Want to Love," commissioned to celebrate the festival's 50th anniversary.

But these were not the pieces the two self-appointed critics were dismissing. They were talking about "Behemoth," 40 minutes of silent dancing by the Morris company.

Silence is hardly his forte. He is preeminently - and popularly - a sensitive responder to music, as his other contribution this year demonstrated. This was Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" in its 1762 Vienna version with Christopher Hogwood conducting, and it was all very neoclassical and touching.

With "Behemoth," Morris was perhaps trying to emulate Merce Cunningham (of whom he is an vocal admirer). Maybe he wanted to explore his own obverse. But Cunningham it was not; it had none of that master's rigor for a start. Nevertheless, some of the (professional) critics praised it, and the audience, after coughing a lot, clapped faithfully.

Later, Morris said he was happy with the reception of "Behemoth": He thinks it is very good, though he also remarked that he was not planning another silent piece.

He was, however, scathing about the fact that the audiences had clapped between each section of the piece. He could not understand this. But the explanation is simple: The audience felt a bit lost and needed some sort of sound.

Under the current director of the festival, Brian McMaster, dance has been brought to the fore impressively. He brought Cunningham to Edinburgh last year for only the second time, and in a theater instead of, as previously, a gymnasium. But Morris's half-decade in attendance - and he stated firmly that he was coming back again in 1997 - makes him almost a festival institution.

Some critics have been muttering that it is time this love-affair ended. However appealing Morris is, it is surely time for a change. But McMaster, who has kept a notably successful eye on the box office (last year was a record), seems unlikely to ignore the continually good ticket sales for Morris programs.

The question arises: Are good sales a good enough reason for choosing the artists and directors, companies and choreographers, the conductors and the orchestras for what boasts itself to be the world's leading arts festival?

At the end of the first week, Scotland on Sunday, a Scottish newspaper, quoted one of the festival's previous directors, Frank Dunlop, criticizing McMaster's programming. His basic claim was that McMaster plays it safe, relying on already successful (and mainly European and American) directors and productions, when he ought to be presenting a far more international range of productions and premiring more of the untried and the unknown.

There is an element of justice in Dunlop's contentions. There do seem to be fewer of those experimental plays from an extraordinary variety of cultures that characterized Dunlop's unique world theater season, for example. And "safety" might be one (but certainly not the only) word to describe McMaster's dedication to directors with major reputations like Robert Wilson, Robert Lepage, and Peter Stein - rather than the typical Dunlop adventures into the popular and accessible branches of theater like juggling, puppetry, mime, and acrobatics. Such things were often unpredictably original and unforgettable. Their relative disappearance is a pity.

But a book published to mark the festival's 50th anniversary, compiled by Eileen Miller, points out with no less justice that "the reticent Brian McMaster," when he took over from the finally disenchanted Dunlop in 1992, "had a reputation as an efficient administrator and, after the chaotic and turbulent Dunlop years, a period of tranquillity might not be a bad thing for the Festival."

"Tranquillity" is probably not the word that springs to McMaster's mind after one unprecedented trauma during Week 1. This was the cancellation of all performances (after two failed attempts) of Lepage's "Elsinore." This piece, in its British premire, promised to be "dazzling theater technology." But when technology breaks down and can only be repaired or replaced back home in Canada, what can be done?

By contrast, Robert Wilson's version of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" in its first English-language version seemed to go seamlessly to plan. It was immaculately and tensely acted by Miranda Richardson.

Wilson's artificial form of minutely controlled theater, for all its concentration, works extraordinarily even when the narrative is fantastical and the text exotically wordy. However enigmatic its immediate effect, the piece somehow enters the realm of inner feeling and thinking.

Festivals - subjective and selective by necessity - shape themselves almost immediately in the memory as acute highs and lows. One of the highlights of the first week was the ferocious, impassioned playing of Russian cellist Natalia Gutman. She played Shostakovich's "Cello Concerto No. 1" with an unforgettably inward conviction, sweeping and battering away any suggestion of mere brilliance or virtuosity.

Is this the satirical music of a repressed Soviet composer? In Gutman's hands it seemed a thing of grasping feelings and had an urgency of expression that hid nothing from the sudden rush of its beginning to its abrupt end.

Very far from "dumb."

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