Edinburgh International Festival: Alan Cumming looks back on the life of Robert Burns in his new dance performance

Alan Cumming plays Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre performance Burn at the King’s Theater during the Edinburgh International Festival. Photo: Jane Blarlow/PA Wire

But Alan Cumming says the prospect of launching a new show in the city leaves him as terrified as his debut nearly 40 years ago.

The Hollywood and Broadway star has turned years of research into the Scottish cultural icon’s life into a new dance-theatre production that is a centerpiece of the Edinburgh International Festival‘s launch weekend.

The origins of the show, which runs at the King’s Theater until August 10, came from two different directions – a growing interest in Burns’ life which he developed after reading a biography that explored his darker side , and a desire to keep dancing. after his last appearance in Cabaret at the age of 50.

Alan Cumming plays Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre performance Burn at the King’s Theater during the Edinburgh International Festival. Photo: Jane Blarlow/PA Wire

Perthshire-born Cumming, who drew inspiration from the 18th-century poet’s collections of letters, said: ‘Burns is all around us in Scotland and is so much a part of our lives that you just stop to think about him.

“I started reading about Burns and gradually felt there was more to him than the kind of cookie jar image we have of him.

“I’ve spent years reading about him – I’m a bit of a Robert Burns expert now. I’m mildly obsessed.

“There was more frailty about him and he was more disturbed than people realize. He talks a lot about himself being distressed and tormented. I just find him fascinating.”

Alan Cumming plays Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre performance Burn at the King’s Theater during the Edinburgh International Festival. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Burn will explore Burns’ mental health, troubled personal life, and financial struggles, despite prolific talent and success.

Cumming, who is now 57, said: “He’s still all those things we think of him and he was like a rock star in his time, but like a lot of rock stars he has a darker side.

“All these horrible things happened to him. He had such a hard and tragic life – 10 years after his first great collection of poetry was published, he was dead.

“One of the things that I didn’t realize was that in addition to publishing his own work, he collected, collated and edited all these traditional Scottish songs that he didn’t write. We don’t wouldn’t have them singing now.”

Alan Cumming plays Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre performance Burn at the King’s Theater during the Edinburgh International Festival. Photo: Jane Blarlow/PA Wire

Cumming’s roots in the festival town date back to 1984, when he rose to prominence with Forbes Masson as cabaret actor Victor and Barry whom the couple formed while studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama two years earlier.

Their shows became a favorite for several years at the Fringe and would be the launch pad for Cumming’s career in film, television and on stage, which saw him win Tony and Olivier awards, and nominations for honors. Emmys, Golden Globes and Grammys.

Burn is a new solo piece that Cumming has created with award-winning choreographer Olivier Steven Hoggett and Edinburgh-born musician and songwriter Anna Meredith, another FEI favourite.

It is the latest in a string of city festival appearances since Cumming made a long-awaited return to the stage in Scotland in 2007 when he starred in The Bacchae at the King’s as part of the EIF.

He said: “With the things that I make myself, I tend to be more and more successful on my own. I’ve always said that I really love my job and really love the people I work with, but I think mass acting is kind of boring.

“I don’t hang out with actors in my non-professional life. They just talk about work all the time and it’s boring to me. It’s not like I don’t like actors, but hanging out with a big group of them is not my favorite thing.

“The biggest art festival in the world takes place in your country’s capital, it’s a great place to be creative and challenge yourself.

“With everything I’ve done at the festival, I always feel like ‘shit, this is terrifying’. With Victor and Barry, the show was invented in our kitchen. We were walking around and didn’t know not if we would remember every word of a song. You get away with it. We actually made a virtue out of our failures and our mistakes.

Burn, who will be one of the last before the renovation of the King’s Theatre, will see Cumming reunited with the National Theater of Scotland, who will take the production on tour across Scotland before a performance at the Joyce Theater in New York.

He said: “When I came back to do Les Bacchantes it was terrifying and this show is an insane thing to do. It’s incredibly physically demanding for anyone, let alone someone who has close to 60 years.

“I feel like I’ve always wanted to be a dancer, which I’ve done a lot over the years, but never anything like this show.

“I was 50 when I finished Cabaret on Broadway for the last time. It was terrible not to be so fit anymore and my body wouldn’t be asked to do something like that again.

“I wanted to do something else around dance, even though I didn’t have this show in mind at the time.

“I’m not a conventional dancer. I’m not good at doing it like anybody else. I can obviously move and dance, but like the other things I do in my life, I do it at my way.”

Darcy J. Skinner