Arts Festival Goes Back to Nature

Works embracing the natural world thread through Edinburgh's annual gala.

Some Edinburgh International Festivals have had a planned theme running through them. One year, for instance, the three-week cultural extravaganza, which claims to be the largest arts festival in the world, gave memorable attention to Viennese music, drama, and art.

But recently, conscious themes have largely given place to potpourri programs. Such mixed bags, however, sometimes throw up their own themes by chance.

This year's festival, which began Aug. 10 and runs through Aug. 30, includes companies from Australia, Spain, France, and China making their first appearances in the United Kingdom. And in performances I saw during the first half, one theme kept surfacing: the world of primitive nature.

Arguably, all art is inspired by nature, but it is often filtered through urban sensibilities, or concerned with human nature rather than with wood or swamp, weather and season, and the primal rhythms, forces, and structures of the natural world.

'The Rite of Spring'

The opening concert started it all. A fierce, entirely 20th-century program, conducted by Pierre Boulez, it was played by musicians none of whom are older than 26 - the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. On the program were Ravel, Bartk, four short but unforgettable "Notations" by Boulez himself, and a crowning, pungently disciplined rendition of Stravinsky's shattering classic "The Rite of Spring."

Perhaps this performance leaned toward the intellectual rather than the primeval side of the work, but its primitivism was as eruptively compelling as ever, sweeping and jerking toward its inevitable whimper and final bang.

It is a terrible, violent work, a ritual beating and smiting of the earth. But the unstoppable burgeoning of nature also seems to inspire it directly. And it still does, without sentimentality or clich, more than 80 years after its first performance.

Then, in 1913 Paris, it was a scandal, drowned out by abuse and chaos. Today it seems a thing of enormous elation. The marvelous Edinburgh performance set me thinking: Perhaps we have all grown too polite today, too respectful of avant-garde art forms that intrinsically cause outrage. We sit. We applaud. Where are all the wonderful catcalls of yesteryear?

None greeted "Fish." This was a world premire by an Australian Aboriginal company, Bangarra Dance Theatre. Reaction to this fusion of Aboriginal traditions and modern dance was enthusiastic, partly because the audience was first morally cornered into a politically correct frame of mind by a mini-lecture on the shameful record of white Australians' mistreatment of the country's varied indigenous population.

Stephen Page's work was sincere and commanded respect, if not easy comprehension. It was a kind of rite of passage in three sections: "The Swamp, the River, the Ocean," we are told by the program. But to me the program seemed too explicit.

Under "The Ocean" it reads: "The Ocean rages, in tumult with exquisite agony, in torment from her sacred pain. Spirits plunge deep, soar high, are still, cast small against the Ocean's vastness, dwarfed by sisters Earth and Sea." But the sounds and movements on stage did not live up to such expressiveness.

One felt outside dim events as if they were so intimate with Mother Earth, so close to humankind's emergence from the squirming swamp, that an audience was really an irrelevance.

High entertainment, in a swamp

The 18th-century French comic opera "Platee" by Jean Philippe Rameau - in a version by Britain's Royal Opera directed and choreographed by Mark Morris - has no doubts about being a performance for an audience. It is high entertainment, and yet it, too, takes place largely in a swamp (or in this out-of-period version, inside a terrarium in a New York bar).

Its central figure, a grotesque female water nymph, is in this interpretation an appealingly repellent frog or toad. The victim of a callous joke engineered by the gods, Platee is more sympathetically real than any other figure.

The aim of the joke - a fake love affair with Jupiter - is to make Juno realize the absurdity of her jealousy, to stop the deific marital bickering, and so break a spell of awful weather on earth. The piece is an increasingly delightful accumulation of parody and frivolity, yet under the surface of Baroque artifice slithers a seamy underworld that no amount of courtly humor can suppress. It is what we call nature.

Digging for simplicity

Nature was openly the theme in "Vgtal," performed by a French company, Ballet Atlantique Rgine Chopinot. In this highly original interaction of dance with sculpture (the work of Andy Goldsworthy), artifice and pretense, and even performance and entertainment, are reduced and replaced by a daring, quietly intense engagement with the natural world: earth, seed, root, branch, leaf. These are the media of Goldsworthy's work, digging through surface appearances to find nature's structures and spaces.

The large audience was mainly transfixed by this slow dance work, which contains no trace of expressive provocation. But some people in the audience were enraged. There were polite walkouts, and then one man suddenly shouted: "Don't forget to applaud when it is finished!" A stunned silence was followed by ripples of giggles.

When the piece did end - with the dancers sitting in a circle around a pile of leaves and then opening like the petals of a flower from a bud - the protester and his party barged and elbowed their way out of their row, desperate to leave. They did not applaud.

Not exactly Paris 1913, perhaps. But refreshing and preposterous all the same.

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