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A Touch of Spain in Scotland: Music, Theater, Dance


IT'S the morning of Aug. 17. A rather disinterested newscaster on breakfast-time television mentions in passing that there has been an eclipse of the moon during the night. Clearly he was not in the audience at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre, as I was, at midnight. If he had been, he might not have been quite so matter-of-factly unmoved about the states and stages of the moon.

In the Lyceum, the ``moon'' had ridden high and bright above the audience. Els Comediants, a brilliantly funny and imaginative company from Barcelona, was doing its fantastical best to reinstate that cool globe as ``queen of imagination and chimera.''

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This year's Edinburgh International Festival, in fact, is shot through with things Spanish (in most years there's a particular national emphasis). The verve, fire, and earthiness that the Spanish bring to music, theater, and dance, though it may not always plumb profoundly, can scale exhilarating heights.

Els Comediant, for instance, proves wonderfully that live, multi-media, but quite low-tech stagecraft - in the right hands - can suspend disbelief and take you into wonderland even more effectively than the most sophisticated technology.

``La Nit'' the company calls this astonishing product of its extravagant brand of make-believe. The troupe is not just some 1980s version of street festival and commedia dell'arte - merely naive knockabout and fun - though there's plenty of that. They are also satirical, whimsical, observant, and sentimental by turns.

A zesty childlike innocence pervades the proceedings in ``La Nit,'' which is cheering and celebratory - and perfect for a festival. In no time, the audience begins to expect that anything might happen. The moon reappears on stage as a large, surprised female face with enormous eyes and a mouth that smiles or looks disapproving at the events below. No sooner is one contented couple asleep in bed, than out come the black-masked, big-eared gremlins of the night (they may be gentle or mischievous) to assist their dreams.

In this case, the dreaming, entranced wife collects on a dish a succession of white balloons blown up like bubble-gum by Madame Moon-Face. She serves them to her hungry husband, seated at a magically illuminated coffee table. He bursts the balloons with knife and fork and then swallows their magical air.

If you eat moon-balloon ether, what would you expect to happen? Would you inflate until you become a gigantic human balloon? Probably not - but that is precisely what happens to this man. Finally, unbelievably enormous and satisfied, he goes back to bed and slowly deflates.

Ballet Nacional de Espania

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The Ballet Nacional de Espania set the tone for its performance with spectacular ensemble dancing to Ravel's ``Bolero.'' It's doubtless a truism, but only the Spanish know how to do Spanish dance: Its bravura and tense precision, its pride, its noisy ecstasy seem to be something innate. The National Ballet's ``Bolero'' matches the relentless build-up of the music magnificently. The ferocity of the dance seems to start at the highest pitch, but never flags - surging in waves of red or black across the space - until it reaches the final triumphant coup de grace. Breathtaking.

The Hayward Sisters

On a quite different scale, three young English dancers presented their own choreographed version of Manuel de Falla's ``The Magistrate.'' The Hayward sisters call themselves the Triple Threat Theatre Company, and they call ``The Magistrate'' - which is ``the original version of ``The Three Cornered Hat'' made famous by Diaghilev - a mime play.

Somewhere between dance and mime, they play every part, using effective masks and costumes. The result is a nicely articulated folk tale, using every inch of the music that is played, very enjoyable and true. But there is a dimension of extravagance or passion that these talented sisters have not managed to encompass. It's in the music. It's in the program note: ``The miller dances his Farruca - an exhibition of masculinity for the benefit of his wife....'' That explanation should not have been needed.

National Youth Music Theatre

The direct and appealing nature of ``The Magistrate'' was, however, a contrast to the other half of this De Falla program, which was the work of Britain's ``National Youth Music Theatre.'' This was ``Master Peter's Puppet Show,'' an opera in one act, based on an episode in Cervantes' ``Don Quixote,'' first staged in 1924 in Bristol, England.

Unfortunately the range of this complicated work proved, in Edinburgh, to be beyond both the ad hoc orchestra and the company made up of young adults and children. They were overwhelmed by it and, in spite of a few ingeniously imaginative moments, one simply felt sorry for a sincere cast swamped by unecessarily ambitious costumes and masks.

The New London Consort

Not in the least swamped, musically or, as it turned out, dramatically, was the New London Consort, in a concert program of early Renaissance music from the court of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. This group of musicians plays the vihuela, rebec, viols, and percussion as if they had been born in the Middle Ages.

The songs, dances, and instrumental music, in this case, is a sparkling combination of the earthy and the courtly. And it was the soprano Catherine Bott who took hold of the Spanishness of it with a conviction and relish that had the audience eating out of her hand. With a vivid voice splendidly attuned to the early instruments, she seemed to have no difficulty switching from the plaintive to the magical to the dreamy to the downright bawdy. And her face and stance said it all, without masks or elaborate costumes.

National Gallery of Scotland

The Spanish theme is followed in one outstanding, if not very large, art exhibition. El Greco - though Cretan by birth and Italian by experience, was Spanish by adoption. He is well represented in the National Gallery of Scotland.

Seen for a number of years on its walls is an El Greco painting that has now been given to the gallery - an ``Allegory'' showing a monkey, a simpleton, and a boy lighting a candle. Other versions have been loaned for this show, together with pictures both influencing, and later influenced, by it.

A mix of the malevolent, the delightful and the mysterious, the picture bears such comparisons and close examination because, like many of El Greco's works, its enigma is a deeply rooted visual poetry that finally defies analysis.

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