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Will East Europe Embrace Edinburgh?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Undaunted by economic recession and a lingering fear of travel in the Gulf War’s wake, organizers of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, which begins Saturday, have assembled an intriguing program that highlights performing groups from Eastern Europe.

Up to 250,000 visitors flock to the Scottish capital at festival time each year, and about 30,000 of them are American. But festival organizer Frank Dunlop is already resigned to the fact that external factors will cause a 15% drop in the number of U.S. visitors this year.

“I think the State Department did a disservice by discouraging people from flying abroad,” Dunlop said. “I had heated words with people in the U.S. Embassy here about it.”

Because of the climate of fear, a regional U.S. theater company--Dunlop won’t say which one--canceled plans to perform at Edinburgh this year.

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“It’s a pity, because American regional companies--and I certainly include the Mark Taper Forum in this--should be seen in Europe,” he said. “Europeans in general don’t realize the strides forward that U.S. regional theater groups have made.”

One item in the festival’s program acknowledges the reality of terrorism--a multimedia performance called “Songs for the Falling Angel,” which is a requiem for the victims of the 1988 air disaster at Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people died after a terrorist bomb exploded on a plane.

Dunlop is most excited about the wide range of artists from the Eastern Bloc, however. Last year when he booked most of 1991’s performers, he said: “We realized the East was going to open up, maybe crumble, or maybe create a central focus for the arts in Europe. We have tried to be ahead of the world in the people we have booked.”

Among the more established groups, the Bolshoi and Kirov operas will appear together in a foreign city for the first time. The Kirov is offering a festival within the festival, commemorating the work of Mussorgsky; it will include a rare unedited performance of his opera “Khovanshchina.”

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The 67-year-old Soviet pianist Tatyana Nikolaeva will play Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, which he wrote especially for her in 1950.

The Edinburgh organizers have noted the upsurge of nationalism in Eastern Europe by inviting a Slovakian group, the National Theatre of Martin. Dunlop anticipates an extreme reaction from the appearance of a Romanian group, the National Theatre of Craiova, which is performing Alfred Jaggy’s “Ubu Rex,” interspersed with scenes from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” “They come from an obscure region 140 kilometers out of Bucharest, and they’re astonishing,” he said.

Still, the volatile nature of the political situation in Eastern Europe remains a problem; a Yugoslavian company, the Open Theatre of Belgrade, is scheduled to perform Anouilh’s “L’Orchestre,” but whether the group arrives in Edinburgh may remain an open question until the last moment. “With Croatia and Serbia almost at war, it’s difficult to say what might happen,” Dunlop said.

The dance portion of the festival is dominated by three groups--the National Ballet of Cuba, the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, and the Montreal-based La Human Steps.

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This is Dunlop’s eighth and last year as festival director at Edinburgh. He plans to return to theater (he founded and ran London’s Young Vic for 14 years) and will direct an unspecified Broadway play for the Nederlander Organization.

He has no regrets about leaving behind the thorny financial problems at Edinburgh; its budget of 4 million ($6.7 million) is a fraction of other broadly based international arts festivals, such as Salzburg’s.

“We really don’t spend a lot of money, and we keep our administration and our overheads down,” he said. “We also don’t get into the realms of lunacy when it comes to paying people. Conductors can’t expect to get 20,000 ($33,000) a concert in Edinburgh. But we can promise them audiences who don’t have to pay ridiculous amounts of money to see them.”

Dunlop feels that there is now a better balance between theater, dance and music in Edinburgh, which was dominated by theater when he arrived in 1983. He is also content that the city will definitely have a new opera house, which opens in 1993.

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One of his most vivid memories of Edinburgh has nothing to do with performance. In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev sent over a team of literary and media gurus from the Soviet Union to discuss the arts, and his ambassador addressed the festival, announcing that the Soviet Union was planning to open up in the field of artistic expression. “That was the first anyone had heard of glasnost ,” Dunlop says. “And Gorbachev chose Edinburgh to make the announcement to the world. It was thrilling.”


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