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Last year’s big contemporary ballet première at the International Festival was Mathew Bourne’s fun adaptation of Dorian Gray. This year Scotland’s own Michael Clark presents New Work.
I think it’s fair to say that Clark doesn’t have the same narrative flare as Bourne. Rather than follow one single story, New Work‘s unrelated pieces take inspiration from glam rock, the 1970s and Clark’s personal history.
I haven’t seen much contemporary dance, and to my inexperienced eyes the first piece ‘SWAMP’ seemed a little slow and occasionally bumpy. Several dancers broke long poses to plant a foot and start again. It was the first night, so this may have just been jitters, but the disjointed choreography can’t have helped. I suspect that perhaps as an uncommonly talented dancer Clark placed too high expectations on his company.
The second piece ‘come, been and gone’ contained both the best and worst moments of the evening. Sequences put to David Bowie were explosively rhythmic and exciting to watch, particularly towards the end from when ‘Aladdin Sane’ began. The solo set to The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ was embarrassingly literal. I don’t see a problem with Clark exploring his history of addiction through dance, but trussing up a ballerina in a nude body-suit punctured all over with hypodermic needles and getting her to roll about on the floor is another thing all together. Cringe worthy. I suppose at a stretch you could see her as a skewered Saint Sebastian, but the flopping about of the foam needles set my teeth on edge.
Aside from the heroin body-suit the costumes were quite nice; most had a Pam Hogg feel, although there were a few too many silly arm and leg-warmers tacked on in the first piece.
From where I was sitting the performance didn’t seem to go down too well the audience. I started a conversation at intermission with a nice couple next to me who wanted to know if they were missing something. They too had seen Dorian Gray last year and were a bit confused by the wobbles and the slowness of the first half.
I don’t know that there is much to say about amplified Dvorak and Brahms music (almost inaudible over the sound of fireworks) except that it was very well attended and a bit of fun.
I walked over about five minutes before the start and stood next to a family with a very perplexed young child:
Child: Daa! I don’t like loud noises!
Father: Just cover your ears then.
Child: But then I can’t hear the music.
While attendance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year fell for the first time in years after a ticketing systems failure, the Edinburgh International Festival broke previous sales records. The most popular part of the international festival was the dance program, particularly Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray (see what I thought of it here) and two shows by the State Ballet of Georgia: Giselle and a Mixed bill of four short dances. According to The Scotsman many of the performances of the Georgian ballet sold well in the lead up as locals decided to attend in support of Georgia with regards to the Russian conflict.
The Edinburgh International Festival was founded in 1947 as a project to showcase Europe’s artistic potential rather than dwell on the destruction wrought by the Second World War. In that light the political ‘borders’ theme of the 2008 festival seems fitting, as does the choice of Michael Tippet’s A Child of Our Time for the official closing concert.
A Child of Our Time combined some of my favourite things in one big Oratorio package; pacifism, allusions to Carl Jung, and beautiful music. The vocal parts don’t exactly tell a story – the piece is more a cry for peace, love and compassion. Tippet asked T.S. Eliot to re-write the libretto, but Eliot refused – concerned he would make it too obviously poetic.
A Child of Our Time reminded me slightly of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but that might just be due to Williams and Tippet being English contemporaries. The piece combines elements of traditional choral music with African-American jazz and spirituals like ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I See’.
Like the festival, A Child of Our Time ends on an optimistic note about the future:
I would know my shadow and my light,
so shall I at last be whole.
Then courage, brother, dare the grave passage.
Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope.
The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring
A Child of Our Time
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus
[Performance to be broadcast on BBC 3 on 29/09/08.]
On Friday I had dinner at the Elephant House Café, located near the Royal Museum of Scotland on George IV Bridge in Old Town. Famous for being “the birthplace of Harry Potter”, J.K. Rowling used to visit to nurse a cup of coffee and her child while writing the first Harry Potter novel on a meagre government arts grant. It’s right between the university campus and the Royal Mile and my dinner with salad and bread cost only seven pounds. It’s scruffy and lovely.
After dinner I went up the street to the Hub, the Edinburgh International Festival’s offices on the Royal Mile. Wolpe! was held in the main hall, upstairs above the ticketing centre. As the seating was unreserved, when I arrived at half past seven there was already a queue all the way to the front door of the building. The performance wasn’t due to start until eight. I decided not to join the masses and moved outside to enjoy the late sunlight, where a scalper offered to sell me a ticket. Twice.
All the buzz at the Hub raised my expectations somewhat for what was described in the program as a staged concert. It was produced by Muziektheater Transparant from Brussels – a “company that shifts the boundaries between opera and music-theatre, blending the old and the new.”
The concert was of Stefan Wolpe’s music, but it wasn’t quite a concert. It wasn’t quite theatre either. I got the impression it was more like a guy playing the piano, a guy singing and a woman talking about how much she admired the composer. And what she thought about life and Marxism too. As described in the program:
Wolpe! is not a pedantic lecture on Stefan Wolpe’s work but an attempt to find out his attitude towards the era in which he lived. An artist who creates is on a journey, following a path whose outcome he does not know.
While I enjoyed the music and found the experience interesting, I clearly wasn’t getting as much out of it as the gentleman sitting next to me who shook the whole row of plastic connecting seats with his barely repressed chuckles throughout the entire performance. Understanding German might have been of assistance here.
The majority of music in Wolpe! was agitprop songs written by Wolpe between 1929 and 1933.
For example, ‘Fantasy and the Day After Tomorrow”:
And when the war broke out again,
the women said no!
and locked up brother, husband and son
in their homes.
Then in every country they went
right up to the leader’s house
and held sticks in their hands
and dragged that high-ranking scum outside.
And thus they laid over their knees
all those who had ordered the war:
the bosses of banks and industry,
the minister and the general.
They broke many sticks in two.
And many big mouths fell silent.
Crying was heard in every part,
but nowhere was there war.
The women then returned back home,
to their brother, son and husband,
and said the war is over!
The men stared out through the window
and did not look at the women…
These songs were performed in German, but the anecdotes and philosophical posturing was all in English. Some of the later was quite irritating – like the final comments:
“If you spend time reflecting, you run the risk of having a new thought.”
There is nothing quite as annoying as performers giving audiences moral lectures through arty platitudes. You have to either be quite dull in the head or very desperate to agree with the author to enjoy that sort of thing. But the audience seemed to like it. And the story of Wolpe’s life does fit in very well with the overarching ‘artists without borders’ theme of the festival.
Wolpe’s music is apparently very difficult to perform, and he was continually frustrated during his life by poor attempts from his students to play his pieces (and during his life he lacked the recognition necessary to have much of his music performed professionally). His daughter – who herself became a very successful concert pianist – was interviewed recently and said that her father would be “bouncing in his grave with delight” and the thought of his work being performed at the Edinburgh Festival.
I am glad that it is possible to find a crowd of three hundred people in Scotland to watch a weird concert-play fusion of Wolpe’s music, anecdotes from his life, Marx quotes, bible quotes and sung agitprop. I’d be happy to hear more of Wolpe’s music in the future. I just hope I never have to go and see this again.
Reading The Scotsman over breakfast on Wednesday morning I noticed a report on a new craze sweeping Scottish university campuses – drinking (or imbibing I suppose) vodka by pouring a shot straight into one’s eyeball to allow alcohol to enter the blood stream directly through the capillaries of the eye. The possible side effect? Permanent blindness.
Welcome to Scotland.
Later that morning I went over to the National Museum in the old town, a large new building between the University of Edinburgh Old College and Greyfriars Kirkyard. The museum has many interesting exhibits on early Scottish, royal and military history, but what I found most amusing were the upper floors, devoted to the place of Scotland in the modern world.
Various exhibits cover everything from Scottish inventions to Scottish airlines and covering the careers of any famous people who were born in Scotland, lived in Scotland, visited Scotland, or even had the vaguest fondness for tartan.
One of the funniest displays was a case displaying a pink women’s suit – caption reads:
Suit. Paris, 1931. Fabric may have been sourced from one of Scotland’s many wool mills.
The one thing not glossed over with lashings of Scottish pride were the rather depressing health statistics for the country. In some areas of Scotland average life expectancy is as low as 57 for men and 59 for women. Even for the overall population life expectancy figures are some of the lowest in Europe. The exhibit attributed this to the high incidence of smoking, poor diet and alcohol abuse (through the eyeballs too now).
Self destruction seemed to be theme of the day, as that night I trotted off to see Matthew Bourne’s new ballet, Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray (Bourne’s branding of his own name is very comprehensive) based very loosely on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I was excited to see it having heard about Bourne’s version of Swan Lake with all male swans (and hadn’t made the mental connection that he was also responsible for the ridiculous looking dance adaptation of the film Edward Scissorhands that toured to the Sydney Opera House in May).
This year I’ve seen my fair share of very well intentioned, but nonetheless awkward and unsatisfying dance. Dorian Gray was the opposite. Brilliant dance based on a slightly dull concept. That might not be entirely fair. Wilde’s novel is potentially a great inspiration for dance, but the way it was translated by Bourne into a story about the faults of hedonistic celebrity culture was a bit disappointing. In this ballet Dorian is scouted by a photographer to become the face of a new fragrance “Immortal”. Sex, drugs and ballet follow.
I happened to be seated in a cheap seat at the back of the stalls behind a group of high school students. I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard school-girls titter before, but some of the more adult content of the ballet seemed to be a bit much for them at times. Otherwise they seemed well behaved. At interval their teacher came over and asked for their opinions.
“I dunno miss. But we’re liking the fit bodies.”
Never in my day. Anyway, the teacher did discuss with the students a problem with the ballet that I had also been thinking about: the essential gothic image of the novel is the eerie contrast between the eternally youthful Dorian and the rapidly decaying portrait – and this is barely represented in the ballet at all. Dancing Dorian’s poster image promoting the fragrance is clearly the equivalent of the portrait in the novel (and this is displayed towards the end of the ballet covered in graffiti) but ‘handsome man goes on a drug binge and kills some people’ seems to be a slightly different story. Although it’s certainly a story people like to tell.
That said, the choreography was spectacular. And beauty is the point. Right?
Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray
Wandering can be dangerous:
On Tuesday morning I made a quick visit to the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum on the Royal mile to learn more about Robert Louis Stevenson, one of Edinburgh’s best loved sons. A Edinburgh university graduate and passionate writer, Stevenson makes quite a good mascot for my Scottish adventures.
He was also quite fond of a good wander, making his way through the Pacific to Kiribati, Western Samoa and finally Australia:
“…youth is the time to go flashing from one end of the world to the other, both in mind and body; to try the manners of different nations.”
Stevenson’s days as a young man in Edinburgh seem from all accounts to have been dominated by excessive drinking and philandering with local prostitutes. He apparently fell in love with two such women, but wasn’t permitted by his father to marry either of them.
While Stevenson doesn’t seem to have been particularly focused on his academic work during his time at Edinburgh, he did pursue his writing career with single-minded focus. Forced by his father to study engineering, he sat through classes writing stories in his ‘Book of Original Nonsense’ and founded the University of Edinburgh’s student newspaper, The Student.
On Tuesday evening I went back to Festival Theatre to see Rodion Shchedrin’s The Enchanted Wanderer. The opera was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002, specifically composed for concert stage performance rather than dramatic staging.
I’ve been living 53 years now – been dying my whole life:
but I just can’t seem to die…
The story is about a monk called Ivan that falls in deep platonic love with a gypsy, who in turn falls in deep passionate love with Ivan’s patron, the prince. When the prince marries another woman, the gypsy (in typical operatic gypsy fashion) tricks Ivan into killing her, so she is not forced by her jealousy to kill the prince and his new wife.
You alone loved me,
sweet friend of my heart.
The prince grew sick of me,
wearied with me.
He loved me, and then threw me away…
Prove your love to me now.
Do what I ask of you.
Effective opera gives you real emotion through unbelievably dramatic stories and transcendent music. The Enchanted Wanderer is really about the sacrifices that true friendship demands, and the overpowering nature of love. It’s hard not to like anything that features frenzied gypsy passion so predominantly.
Musically, parts of the score sounded very modern and while the choral sections were more traditional, the two styles merged successfully into one cohesive sound. The program notes classify Shchedrin as a neo-romantic composer. I’d like to hear more of his work to figure out exactly what that means.
The theme for the Edinburgh International Festival this year is ‘artists without borders’; immigration, war, cultural convergence, geopolitics. But The Enchanted Wanderer isn’t really about that. It’s about an inner struggle and journey, a reconciliation of a troubled mind. It’s the sort of journey that art takes you on.
Which is something Robert Louis Stevenson also understood:
“When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge, I take them like opium; and consider one who writes them as a sort of doctor of the mind.”
The Enchanted Wanderer
Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra
Festival Theatre Edinburgh
I knew my first full day in Edinburgh would be a good one when I was seated for breakfast at the hotel on a table next to a very Anglo Celtic man in a kilt and knee socks conversing confidently with his companion in Japanese. They were talking about “Euston”, “Hokkaido” and the “National Rail.” How exactly one gets from Euston to Hokkaido via the National Rail I couldn’t quite make out, but I’m all in favour of cultural exchange.
After making my way to see Table 23 without falling in a jet-lagged heap, my second event of the day and first event for the Edinburgh International Festival was Krol Roger (King Roger), an Polish opera by Karol Szymanowski.
There isn’t much story to Krol Roger. A Shepherd wanders around seducing people; first the wife of the king, then the king, and then the king dies. The opera is really a Nietzschean anti-morality tale. The king is tempted away from religion by sensual desire, and abandons even that desire in death.
The music was fantastic. It swings from very classical religious chorus music to very modern sections with gypsy and oriental influences. I particularly liked the soprano Elzbieta Szmytka and her performance of the aria in the second act where Roxana pleads for the king to pardon the shepherd.
The production was a bit overstated for my liking. The beginning in particular was a bit odd, with actors filing into a few rows of seats making up the pews of a church prior to a service. The crowd didn’t seem to realise that the performance had started and continued talking for some time. From my seat in the third balcony I could see the conductor crawling stealthily into the orchestra pit to avoid initiating conventional applause.
The production also had plenty of what seems to be an essential ingredient of serious modern opera: the greasy nude actor. Plenty of them were employed to writhe enthusiastically, pose suggestively with the glowing semi-albino shepherd and then tear the reluctant king’s clothes off.
At the second interval I was jotting some thoughts down in my notebook when I was lucky enough to overhear the conversation of a middle-aged group of women seated behind me.
“I understand that Szymanowski is a homosexual, but why does he have to make such a song and dance about it?”
The opera was completed in 1924 so I doubt Szymanowski is still making songs and dances about anything (indeed Wikipedia tells me he died of tuberculosis in 1937). In any case, you would think that opera composers are generally granted a licence to make songs and dances about whatever they like.
Focusing on Szymanowski’s sexual orientation seems to be missing the point. The story is a unique refashioning of Euipides’ The Bacchae and is all about temptation and desire and destruction in a typically mythical sense. Excessive nudity aside, I really enjoyed it.
Mariinsky Opera Company
Festival Theatre Edinburgh