A performer’s view of the Edinburgh Festivals
Known as the world’s Festival City, Edinburgh’s position as a leading cultural destination is never more in evidence than throughout the month of August. For over 70 years, performers, artists, critics, media and arts lovers from across the world have arrived in the city to enjoy a world class programme of summer festivals.
It all started back in 1947 with the first ever Edinburgh International Festival, which brings globally renowned performers and ensembles from the worlds of dance, opera, music and theatre to Edinburgh. Today, the tremendous, eclectic mix of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, the lively debate and discussion which takes place at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the spectacle and traditions of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, along with the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival and Edinburgh Art Festival, all contribute to the creation of an audience experience like no other.
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the planned 2020 festivals were unavoidably limited to a small number of on-the-ground activities, augmented by a series of imaginative digital content initiatives, celebrating the city’s enduring festival spirit.
As we come to the end of what would have been Festival time in Edinburgh, this is something that Bethany Kingsley-Garner, Principal Dancer with Scottish Ballet, has been reflecting on. Bethany has fond memories of having performed to Festival audiences in the past and explains that the Edinburgh Festivals are just as special for artists and performers as they are for audiences.
Used to performing large scale ballets on full theatre stages, with a sizeable cast, and over several nights, Bethany fondly remembers her first experience of performing at the International Festival in 2013 – an event which coincided with the arrival of Scottish Ballet’s current CEO and Artistic Director, Christopher Hampson
I performed five different small pieces that first year, and the company performed 11 works in just four days. Some of these were delivered with the audience actually on stage with us, and others in the bar during interval. In many cases, we performed duets, and there was a real intimacy created between the performers and the audience - in effect the audience became part of the show.
Bethany is certain that the global reputation which the Festivals enjoy for ever-more innovative approaches prompts Scottish Ballet and other companies to think creatively, pushing the boundaries. This sort of creativity, she explains, is what makes Edinburgh Festival performances, so thrilling and unique, and is what lies behind the unique appeal of what has become the biggest arts festival in the world.
We’re naturally 100% committed to any performance we undertake, but what’s exciting about planning shows for the Festival is that it’s always seen as real opportunity to do something different. Whether that’s the Creative Director, the dancers, or technical team members, there’s a wonderful feeling from everybody of being up to the challenge of tackling something that could be far removed from our normal repertoire.”
The fact that the Festivals attract well known and emerging figures from a whole range of cultural sectors is a major attraction for audiences. Local people and visitors alike are keen to see the big names in action, be among the first to discover emerging talent, and have their perceptions challenged. Bethany reveals that this is equally true for those working in the cultural world. “One of my favourite things about Festival time is that my colleagues and I have the opportunity to meet, talk to, and seek inspiration from so many contemporaries,” she says. “That can mean performers from numerous countries across the world, it can mean other professionals from the world of dance be that contemporary, classical or traditional, but it can also mean individuals from completely different art forms.” This matchless opportunity to gain knowledge and inspiration and share ideas from right across the cultural spectrum is a major reason why performers, creative directors, critics and media return to the Edinburgh Festivals again and again.
There’s no doubt that Scottish companies and performers are aware they’re representing Scotland on the world stage.
How do Scottish performers see themselves against the backdrop of the truly global cast list which the Festival attracts? “There’s no doubt that Scottish companies and performers are aware they’re representing Scotland on the world stage,” responds Bethany. However, she also has no doubt that Scottish talent very much rises to the challenge. “It’s a real privilege to represent Scottish-based creativity at the Festival, and in my experience, everybody works together to deliver truly unforgettable experiences that will endure in the memories of all who see them,” she says.
So, is it all work and no play for those who have the role of entertaining others at the Festival? ”It is hard work, and I certainly don’t see as many shows as an audience member as I’d like to,” Bethany admits. However, she’s clear that this doesn’t alter her enjoyment of the Festivals experience.
There’s a simply wonderful atmosphere in Edinburgh during the Festivals, and there’s the feeling of just the warmest welcome pervading the entire city, which performers and audiences from across the globe can’t help but notice.
She adds that there’s something very special and satisfying about knowing that before viewing a Scottish Ballet performance, audience members could have seen a quirky Fringe show, been inspired by a literary debate, or seen a thought-provoking art installation.
That’s what makes the Edinburgh Festivals such an unparalleled experience. I love being part of it – in fact it’s magical!