Choices at Edinburgh Festival Range From Tame to Bizarre

'Radical Graham' and Scottish play are highlights of second week

Attending arts festivals is an art in itself. Or at least it is at the 50-year-old annual Edinburgh Festival with its 1,301 shows (and that is only on the unofficial "Fringe") - performances, productions, exhibitions, and countless other less-describable happenings.

Careful choice is the trick. "One does need to be very selective about what one goes to," said a young man, talking to an American couple after one of the 18 concerts played by six different ensembles covering 68 of Haydn's string quartets.

He is right - and on this occasion he had made a sound choice. But then again there would be those who treat the three-week extravaganza (Aug. 11 to 31) as a gigantic wave of unpredictable events to be plunged into with abandon.

The population of this Scottish city (roughly 400,000) is reputed to double at festival time. No doubt the figure is estimated by including the bus-trippers who arrive in the city nightly to attend the military tattoo up at the castle (Aug. 2 to 24), and the vast crowd for the fireworks concert (still to come: Aug. 29). For many, these two events are the festival. But at its heart still lies its original intent: a multicultural, high-art event of primarily international scope.

Festivals can be risky business even by picking and choosing among the official program offerings. But an arts festival without any risk would be a tame affair - and you can always walk out of a production if you want to.

Not a few did that at "Renyo - Far From the Lotus," a slow-moving and strangely dour and distorted kind of dance. The festival program had advertised it as "Butoh ... one of the most exciting art forms to emerge from Japan in recent years."

The performance program tells you that Butoh began in the 1960s, though the '90s version of this cultish performance art has abandoned white face paint and aims at more individual expression. It still requires a degree of attunement from an audience. Those who did not leave may have finally broken through the slow barrier and started to study details: the flickering of fingers and the flutter of eyelids.

"Renyo" was, for example, at the opposite pole from the dynamic brilliance of the Nederlands Dans Theater, which was immensely popular the first week, filling the enormous playhouse.

Martha Graham

"Radical Graham," at the same venue for a mere two nights the second week, brought to the festival the company of the great American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, who died five years ago. Although it concentrated on her work from the '20s, '30s, and '40s - including "Lamentation" and "Appalachian Spring" - it was astonishingly, electrifyingly, unlike a history lesson.

Both her dancers and her audiences are grasped not by showy performance or gymnastic athleticism but by an immediate, almost intimate urgency of feelings. Her use of closely enveloping costumes, both disguising and revealing the dancers' yearnings or anguish, constraint or freedom, acts as a potent analogy for the intense subjectivity of her work.

Whether or not a company so entirely dependent on its founder's achievements can continue to do her justice remains to be seen. But for now the inspiration remains vigorous (with the possible exception, on this occasion, of a somewhat stilted "Appalachian Spring"). Her work does not always transcend its period, but "radical" still seems exactly the right word for her willful originality.

What words would describe "A Satire of the Four Estaites," which intends to have no afterlife once the festival is over? It is not exactly a pantomime, though its rhyming couplets and general comic bonhomie is of that genre. It is determined to be populist and entertaining - and succeeds admirably in this - for the simple reason that otherwise its true colors as a 1996 moral/political allegory might turn the audience off completely.

It is based on a Scottish 16th-century performance-poem called "Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites." This morality pageant was revived for the 1948 festival and has resurfaced several times since - though some courage is called for in audiences unfamiliar with 16th-century Scots language.

Although playwright John McGrath's enjoyable 1996 version is Scottish all right, it is much easier to understand, and the broad - indeed outspoken - satirical intent to expose and lay waste the "fourth estaite" is hammered home relentlessly. This "estaite," represented as no less repugnantly corrupt than the medieval church and aristocracy were in the old play, is the media of today. This "estaite" is seen as enemy No. 1 to the possible, and increasingly discussed, emergence of an independent Scotland, free of the English connection.

Surreal fantasy

Several people booed the night I went to "L'Esplndida vergonya del fet mal fet" (The splendid shame of the deed badly done) by Catalan composer, musician, director, choreographer, whatever, Carles Santos. Surreal fantasy abounds in this rowdy, ferocious piece of theater, and the boos (which did not outweigh the applause) were presumably prompted by the borderline erotic/pornographic components in the dream that the fragmented hour-long piece presents.

It was not all violence and sex, though, and it had some inspired sections. The chief protagonist is probably the pianola, which meanders about the stage playing its guts out. Like a Chagall figure, a flying violinist attempts to serenade this wandering and aggressively competitive instrument, in every conceivable posture - including suspended upside down. Other passages were less edifying, including the overamplified operatic singing of a man in a turban with a sailing boat on top of it.

This odd production was performed with gusto: unforgettable in its way, but not for the fainthearted or shockable festivalgoer. Or for the fastidiously selective visitor bent on elevated cultural experience.

For such, better to go to the splendid Haydn quartets at St. Cuthbert's Church or the exhibition of early Velzquez (and contemporaries) paintings at the National Gallery. Or pay a tranquil visit to Edinburgh's marvelous Botanic Gardens.

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