Jonathan Mills is an Aesthete. An international one, at that. [Noun: A person who has or affects to have a special appreciation of art and beauty]. You know the type: lofty vowels, airy arms and wafting sibilants.
Their buzzword bingos are ‘exquisite’, ‘engagement’ and ‘occupying spaces’.
I haven’t met one of those in a long time. There aren’t many down Leith.
If you spot one, they’re normally being bundled into a cab outside one of our 5* restaurants, inhaling a lung-full of harbour before they fly off.
They are such a rare species I get twitchy frissons every time I encounter one. How do they get like that? Is it years of training or do they breed them just so?
So I asked him. I had the opportunity to interview Jonathan Mills at the launch of the Edinburgh International Festival‘s 2011 programme at The Hub. The large hall was full of international arts press and festooned with giant dahlias and chrysanthemums on enormous plinths.
The exotic flowers were obviously in keeping with the front cover of the programme, although it did look a lot like an international drug dealer’s funeral.
Jonathan Mills delivered a brilliant presentation on the up-coming programme for this year, took questions deftly from the press then took individual interviews with a select few. Obviously an accomplished media conductor.
The Programme 2011
He reminded us that opera was not simply a western genre and enthused about experiencing ‘The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan‘ – a Chinese opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet which is a sweeping, symbolic dance, graceful singing, subtle mime and compelling marital arts. (No jokes about Zennadine, the prince of football, please)
King Lear is also a must-see. Written, directed and performed by Wu Hsing-Kuo, with a cast of one, Mr Mills described it as “a very solitary play and a tour de force” where Wu Hsing-kuo depicts all the characters, including his own identity as the actor.
Shen Wei was the principle choreographer behind the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is now based in New York. His ‘Re-Triptych‘ is a ballet which takes a “distinguished look at life lived at a distance” using inspiration from Tibet, Cambodia and China’s Silk Road.
Another piece that looks pretty darn stunning is ‘One Thousand and One Nights‘ in two parts, performed by actors, musicians and a creative team from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Paris and London. It’s a new erotic, brutal, witty and poetic production which is not suitable for kids. That’s my type of art, that is.
I’ve only mentioned four pieces out of the 95 you can choose from. Do have a look at the programme and expand your eyes and ears for 2011. High art may seem irrelevant when remortgages, repossessions and reactionaries can be one’s sole preoccupation (see, these ‘ones’ are infectious) but there’s a very good reason to go.
Experiencing great art is like eating at a 5* restaurant. You may not like individual flavours and concoctions but the process and challenges of savouring the exquisite professionalism and skill that have gone into presenting the fare explodes your senses in a way that fish and chips art can’t.
I had to wait hours but it was worth it. Up close and personal, he’s a likeable kinda guy but I was very nervous and very, very star-struck. After all, the Edinburgh International Festival has always played a large part in my life. Whether just the fireworks, the crowds, the congestion, the packed jolly bars or just the crazy eccentric people you can sometimes loathe and sometimes adore.
Here, in the flesh, was the impressario behind all the summer madness. The curator of Edinburgh‘s cultural capital. The capo di capo of the international arts scene.
At what age does one decide one’s ambition is to be an international festival director? (Do excuse my language, there are a lot of ‘ones’ in Aesthetia. Trust me, I talk Aesthetish).
Never. I am first and foremost a composer. I was a composer before embarking on this. When I finish, I will go back to composing and conducting. I happened to start a little festival while at University and it just grew from there. I was invited to do this as an artist, not as a project manager.
Mr Mills demurs though. He also holds a degree in architecture and is an authority on acoustic design. Mr Mills began his artistic career studying composition in Australia and then piano and composition in Italy before becoming Melbourne’s Festival Director.
What is the significance of the Shamrock Chrysanthemum you have chosen to front your programme?
When working with our designers, we wanted something exotic and exquisite, which symbolised the Far East and the cross-over. We wanted gorgeous flowers that are unfolding and poignant. We wanted fragrance, particularly in the atmosphere, where the audience can be enveloped and cherished, loved, and loved too briefly, before they are lost.
When somebody makes statements like that, for me, unfortunately, there are only two options. Either I come over all jaiksey and say:
“likes-eh, you nevuh thocht aboot usin the thistle, likes? Cos it’s wur ain, and I’m sure they’ve goat sum doon yon Silk Road too, aye?”
Or, I get swept along by the pungent prose and exquisite enthusiasm. Thankfully, I got with the latter.
When making the selection for the programme, you are basically reading the artistic runes of the international community? What influences those decisions? Is it other arts festivals? Funding? Politics? Or is it all pure art?
I am an artist. I choose what’s good, exciting, challenging and sublime. I travel around the world and experience much art. If it’s brilliant, I select and bring it to the Edinburgh and international audience here.
So, how do you measure your success?
I don’t. I want an engagement with the audience. The ideas should reflect and challenge themselves. Artists are given the opportunity to occupy space reflective of our and their ambitions.
What’s been your greatest failure, and how did you learn from it?
I’ve never had failure. The Edinburgh International Festival is a roller coaster where there’s no getting off. Of course there are a myriad of small things that go wrong, and likewise an infinite variety of things that go unexpectedly well. There are surprises both ways.
But ultimately it’s never about MY success. It’s the artists’ success. I’ve passed them the envelope, they’ve stepped onto the international stage and allowed their art to thrive. When that happens, that’s what I call success.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12th August till 4th September 2011. Tickets start at around £10 but with discounts can be even cheaper and booking starts on 2nd April 2011.
- Oriental Shakespeare, Ravi Shankar at Edinburgh festival (reuters.com)
- Eastern flavour for Edinburgh Festival (bbc.co.uk)
- Edinburgh international festival 2011 offers Eastern promise (guardian.co.uk)
- Edinburgh festival looks east – but is it cultural tourism? | Mark Fisher (guardian.co.uk)
- Edinburgh festival to honour Asian influence (ft.com)
© Fin Wycherley
You can also read this post, with some ever so dainty edits, on the Guardian Edinburgh site here or go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/edinburgh/2011/mar/24/edinburgh-festival-jonathan-mills-interview