Edinburgh International Festival: Importing the Orient?

GKV kicks up yet another front against the entrapping cage of critical writing... the <strong>Standfirst</strong>

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 08 Aug 2011

Orientalism – originally an excuse for paintings of exotic chicks in the scud – has been a dangerous strand within Western art. Guilty of sentimentalising, simplifying or eroticising eastern cultures, it comes packed full of assumptions about the essential nature of the ancient civilisations, usually based on their supposed inherent inferiority.

When the Edinburgh International Festival was founded, in the aftermath of WWII, it was intended to promote cross-cultural understanding. Jonathan Mills, the EIF's current director, has taken that seriously: last year he hit the "New World"; this year, he strikes out to Japan, China, Korea and sees how their contemporary performance fits against those oriental stereotypes.

The simple dualism of East versus West is undermined by the collaborations and content across the programme. The Peony Pavilion mashes up ballet and Chinese traditional dance: Wu Hsing Kuo adapts King Lear and Tim Supple gets back to the source with Alf Layla wa-Layla's One Thousand and One Nights.

"The Arabian Nights, as most people know it, bears little relationship to the original stories," Supple says. The interesting thing, he thinks, is to get back to the Arabic versions. He has enlisted stars from across Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Paris and London – the Arab diaspora – to rediscover the raw flavour.

"We don't know much about the Arab world – again, rather like the Arabian Nights, we have a general perception of it," he continues. By taking on this project, Supple has looked at the different approaches to performance across the Arab-speaking world: his collaborators have encouraged him "to undermine your own habits and preconceptions." And while theatre, in its strict Western sense, may not be as widely seen, the tradition of story-telling, of poetry, is a powerful, living tradition.

Shen Wei, New York based choreographer of Re-Triptych identifies a deeper complexity in the dualism of east and west. "What is interesting is that when my work travels to the West, people think it is very Eastern, and when my work travels to the East, people think it is very Western," he muses. "The elements all mix together. For me, East vs. West is a false dichotomy – my work lies beyond these categories."

His own training at the Chinese State Circus does inform his work, but he is as inspired by his current life in America. Indeed, Re-Triptych follows his personal journey across continents. "It's hard to describe exactly which elements are solely Western or solely Eastern," he explains. "In the past decade, I have created my own technique and my own vocabulary based on my experience of both traditional Chinese opera and western modern dance technique. That is to say East and West are in constant dialogue with each other, producing something different than their respective parts."

The strength of the EIF is in bringing together works that would otherwise not make it to the UK, let alone Edinburgh: and to find an audience for them. The Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe – doing another Shakespeare adaptation – rub shoulders with Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass. While the Fringe is a challenge to navigate, the EIF is clearly curated, with a vision behind the programme and a guarantee, at least, of professionalism.

Jonathan Mills is quite clear that his intentions are not to simply boast of a programme "coming from the east", but it will be interesting to see how well the events cope with the spectre of The Oriental. The EIF rarely struggles for large audiences, but the scale of the shows leads to work making its debut in front of unexpecting audiences. It is an exciting opportunity to discover work that has no real parallel in usual seasons, as well as the return of old favourites.