Theatre review: Manipulate, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Threads is a modern legend of female empowerment told via puppets and live action
Threads is a modern legend of female empowerment told via puppets and live action
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ON A DARK stage strewn with what look like piles of cinders, a young woman sits on the floor beside a grand piano, studying a musical score.

Manipulate | Rating: **** | Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

She goes to the piano and starts to play, great tempestuous rivers of classical piano sound; and as the music fills the stage, the largest pile of ash begins to twitch in time. A creature appears, shaped by movement and light to look barely human, and is soon accompanied by three others.

This is Close Up JJJJ, Monday’s opening show of this year’s Manipulate Visual Theatre festival at the Traverse, co-created by Austrian director-choreographer Editta Braun and Turkish pianist AyseDeniz Gokcin; and it’s immediately obvious – from their relationship with the rhythm of the sound – that the beings around Gokcin are creatures of the music, as they begin to twitch and crawl across the stage like bottom-feeding sea anemones, faces completely obscured by mop-like hairy tendrils.

The body shapes created over 70 minute by these four dancers – with lighting designer Peter Thalhamer – are extraordinary; Thierry Zaboitzeff’s music is as thrilling as Gokcim’s performance. And like all the best work at Manipulate, Close Up raises profound questions about the familiar shapes around us and how easily those perceptions can be disrupted, even as it also leads the pianist into an unsettling encounter with forces in her music of which she is barely aware, until they literally come to nudge her in the back.

Later on Monday, there was a superb evening of short films curated by young Scottish animator Ross Hogg, a love song to the raw physical processes of drawing and shaping that lie behind some of the world’s greatest animations; and although the creative relationship between Manipulate’s animation strand and performance element remains vague – why no Manipulate showcase for Scottish companies like Random Accomplice, who have used animation so powerfully in their shows? – the deeper connection remains obvious, as the world’s finest animators stretch and bend our concepts of the body, and of the shape of the world around us.

After Monday’s opening, the week featured a fine programme of performance, film and and workshops, featuring among others, Paper Doll Militia from the USA, and Sita Pieraccini’s beautiful, thoughtful 2011 solo show, Bird. On Wednesday evening, the Festival hosted the European premiere of Birdheart JJJJ, by legendary puppet-maker Julian Crouch and musician Saskia Lane, a gorgeous 35-minute mini-epic of object theatre featuring a table-top-sized sandy beach with a large egg in the middle. As the egg breaks, a crumpled brown paper bag blows in, and the creature that emerges moves through a whole life-cycle of experimental shapes and personas before finally becoming a mighty sea-bird, and taking flight.

On Thursday, there was the UK premiere of Threads JJJ by Theatre Incline of Canada, a modern legend of female empowerment in the face of war well told through puppetry and live action, but slightly marred by a ponderous and over-explicit voice-over narration.

The festival continues this weekend; and once again, Simon Hart and the Manipulate team can congratulate themselves on producing one of Scotland’s least celebrated but most ambitious festivals, a superb international meeting of artists who explore the outer limits of physical form and perception with dazzling visual invention, whether through light, film, puppetry, or the almost-naked human body, alone on stage.

• Manipulate Festival, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today