Edinburgh International Festival: Critics’ choices

Ivo van Hove's Antigone stars Juliette Binoche. Picture:  Gavin Evans
Ivo van Hove's Antigone stars Juliette Binoche. Picture: Gavin Evans
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The Scotsman’s team of expert critics deliver their verdicts on Fergus Linehan’s debut programme.

DANCE

Alasdair Gray. Picture: Gavin Evans

Alasdair Gray. Picture: Gavin Evans

KELLY APTER

THERE may be no big narrative classics in Fergus Linehan’s first dance programme, but he’s certainly giving ballet fans much to get excited about.

Due to hang up her dancing shoes for the last time later this year, Sylvie Guillem is widely regarded as the finest ballerina of her generation.

Unless you’ve travelled to Paris or London to see her, however, this rare talent may have passed you by.

Nicola Benedetti. Picture: Gavin Evans

Nicola Benedetti. Picture: Gavin Evans

With retirement looming, this is your last chance to catch the ballet star turned contemporary dancer, when Guillem performs works by Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Mats Ek. Counting the days? You should be.

Equally promising is Ballett Am Rhein’s Seven, choreographed by Martin Schläpfer, who founded the Düsseldorf-based company in 2009.

During its brief existence, Am Rhein has already won awards and topped polls - seemingly for good reason.

Virtuosic synchronised pointe work ticks the beautiful box, while Schläpfer’s quirky choreography in heavy boots and very physical response to Mahler’s seventh symphony keeps things interesting.

Ivan Fischer. Picture: Gavin Evans

Ivan Fischer. Picture: Gavin Evans

Like Schläpfer, choreographer Christian Spuck knows the power of an arresting set to capture an audience. His Sonett, inspired by Shakespeare’s love poetry, uses large wooden blocks and digital projections to carve up the space.

And as if the compelling music of Philip Glass and Mozart wasn’t compelling enough, the dancers of Ballett Zürich will be joined on stage by an actor reading the verse aloud.

Ballet aside, Linehan has invited two other fascinating companies with an altogether different approach – China’s TAO Dance Theater and Spanish choreographer Israel Galván.

TAO’s unusual combination of traditional dress, contemporary movement and Steve Reich’s score has a hypnotic feel, while Galván’s show, The Real, which uses his own particular brand of flamenco to pay tribute to the Roma and Sinti people killed during World War Two, looks hauntingly powerful.

MUSIC

FIONA SHEPHERD

WHEN Fergus Linehan was appointed director of the EIF, he expressed a desire to give rock and pop music its place in the festival.

With the announcement of this year’s programme, he has, at a stroke, taken the International Festival from famine, if not to feast, then at least to tempting taster menu, with a number of collaborations and mixed media presentations.

The most high profile of these is the astute marriage of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, two generations of idiosyncratic art pop stylists for the price of one. Fans of both bands should not bet on their Festival Theatre concert being a conventional rock show.

The other flagship event takes chances in a different way. Indie troubadour Sufjan Stevens is a considerable cult concern who once embarked on a series of albums celebrating each of the United States (he managed two out of fifty), but can he fill the vast Playhouse?

The meat of the popular programme is the Hub Sessions, a series of concerts which take pop innovation and boundary-blurring seriously

They encompass dramatic chanteuse Anna Calvi in partnership with the Heritage Orchestra, an ambient orchestral work composed by members of Arcade Fire and The National, a live soundtrack to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Magnetic Rose performed by electronica artist Oneohtrix Point Never, another outing for the Commonwealth Games-commissioned collaboration between filmmaker Virginia Heath and Fife maestro King Creosote, and the audacious Chilly Gonzales, a Canadian classically trained pianist whose music also straddles pop, rap and R&B.

Linehan has made a bold bid to develop the EIF music programme. If Festival audiences embrace his plans, there is no reason why he could not soon be commissioning a new opera by Damon Albarn, inviting PJ Harvey to record in a glass box or mounting an equivalent pop art extravaganza.

OPERA

KEN WALTON

ON the face of it, three staged opera productions, two of which are standard Mozart operas, might seem like a slim-line manifestation of the malingering dilemma that has been the diminishing EIF opera programme.

New festival director, Fergus Linehan, has already admitted it’s an area of his programming that, over the coming years, will need as much financial as artistic creativity.

But these particular Mozart productions are far from conventional and have already caused a positive sensation: a highly individual and critically-acclaimed “concert staging” of The Marriage of Figaro, conducted and produced by Iván Fischer, featuring his Budapest Festival Orchestra, which fudges the demarcation lines between stage and orchestral pit; and Barrie Kosky’s and British theatre collective 1927’s reportedly mind-bending production of The Magic Flute for Berlin’s Komische Oper, which uses silent movie and Expressionist Weimar cinema techniques as a powerful vehicle for this opera’s widely-interpreted fantasy dimension.

Add to that The Last Hotel, a brand new opera about “life, death, duty and guilt” from the pen of Dublin composer Donnach Dennehy - whose post–minimalist rock-inflected style, fused with traditional Irish traits, has marked him out as one of Ireland’s most intriguing musical voices - and it’s true to say that what seems a limited choice in numbers terms is, in fact, creatively meaty and attention grabbing.

It may not whet the appetite of traditional Grand Opera aficionados – many of whom will still be reeling from the big disappointment and lost opportunity that was last year’s limp Mariinsky production of Berlioz’s epic The Trojans.

But there are, in these three productions, enough rays of potential sunshine to offset the unspectacular news in last month’s Usher Hall programme release that Scottish Opera is to mark its EIF return this year with a concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.

THEATRE

JOYCE MCMILLAN

THE changes are subtle, rather than flamboyant, but all the same, Fergus Linehan’s first programme as director of the Edinburgh International Festival might as well have the words “man of the theatre” written across all its pages, so clearly does a strong sense of drama and theatre play out across the 2015 event.

It’s there in the new Harmonium Project opening event planned for Festival Square; it’s there in an opera programme that features a brand new work from Irish playwright Enda Walsh, a long-time Traverse favourite.

And it’s there, above all, in Fergus Linehan’s first theatre programme, which casts aside some traditional festival rules - notably about presenting only UK or world premieres - in order to pursue what Linehan knows to be the best work available.

His flagship show, Ivo van Hove’s Antigone starring Juliette Binoche, is already playing in London, where van Hove is currently the toast of the town; and in a new and timely departure, his programme includes two well-established and acclaimed Scottish-made shows that deserve a global audience - Untitled Projects’ 2013 masterpiece Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, and the wonderful young people’s theatre piece Dragon, also created in 2013, by Vox Motus, the National Theatre of Scotland, and Tianjin People’s Arts Theatre of China.

And beyond that, despite his forceful warnings about the dangers of EIF’s long-term standstill funding, Linehan succeeds in delivering an impressive gallery of global theatrical talent, with work from Robert Lepage of Quebec, from the great Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite, from the Berlin Volksbuehne, and - in his key new commission - from the great Suspect Culture team of David Greig and Graham Eatough, reunited to create a new stage version of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark.

It’s a programme that’s both rich and intriguing - and it re-sets the relationship between Scottish theatre and the festival in ways that signal a new age of co-operation, more detailed, nuanced, and potentially productive than ever before.