Manipulate Festival: That’s It, Tristissimo, Unchained, etc.


JOYCE MCMILLAN on MANIPULATE FESTIVAL: THAT’S IT, UNCHAINED, TRISTISSIMO for The Scotsman 7.2.15. _______________________________________________________

That’s It   5 stars *****
Unchained   3 stars ***
Tristissimo   4 stars ****

THE BIG STAGE is bare, apart from a red-velvet-draped table bearing a withered rose in a glass, and a large red leather armchair.  Upstage right, in dark space,  hang a couple of dresses, and a pair of wigs that look at the first glance like the fragile figure of a lost child, a silent witness to the strange, evolutionary dance in progress; and that, along with some exquisite lighting and music, is all the Belgian artist Sabine Molenaar needs to create her superbly intense 50-minute solo piece That’s It, one of the highlights of this week’s Manipulate Festival in Edinburgh.

Head along to the Traverse this afternoon or tonight, and you’ll still find Manipulate 2015 in full swing; on this final day, Scotland’s annual international celebration of visual, physical and object theatre welcomes the legendary Theatre Akhe of Russia.  It’s unlikely, though, that any of the brilliant work on view will surpass Molenaar’s breathtaking show, which perfectly demonstrates the intense relationship between physical and object theatre that Manipulate’s artistic director Simon Hart loves to explore.

That’s It seems like a meditation on the body, on body-image, and on ideas of femaleness, taken to the edge of the possible by Molenaar’s extraordinary combination of artistry and physical flexibility.  In a split second, she can shape-change from a weird, almost unidentifiable chunk of flesh and bone, writhing eyeless and angular in a corner of the stage, to a beautiful, langorous woman in a red silk shift.  And throughout the piece, the baroque-influenced soundscape to which Molenaar works is as remarkable as her performance – disturbing, wholly original, and often quite breathtaking in its sadness and beauty.

If Molenaar thrilled audiences on Monday, CEC of Italy came close to achieving the same impact with their extended contribution to Wednesday’s double bill of short pieces.  CEC’s Tristissimo, in its current form, is a brilliantly witty and hugely original 35-minute reflection on the tragic love-story of Tristan and Isolde, danced by Carlo Massari and Chiara Taviani with a level of humour and creative invention – in terms of movement – that takes the idea of the pas de deux into completely new territory.  Tristissimo was paired wiht Paper Doll Militia of the USA’s 20-minute piece Unchained, which involved some extreme, intense trapeze work on chains for two female performers dressed like punk pierrettes, and matched a terrific metal-influenced soundtrack with some slightly less persuasive movement.

And then there were the late-evening shows – a gorgeous traditional hand puppet performance by Sandglass of the USA on Wednesday, for example, and on Monday an evening of reflection on animation as a way of expressing music on film, with specal reference to Neil Kempsall’s work with the music of the late Martyn Bennett.  And if there are moments when  Manipulate’s evenings of reflection on animation seem  a shade disconnected from the rest of the Festival – perhaps in need of a rousing session on the relationship between the fast-evolving world of animation and movement styles in  live performance – that’s a tiny reservation, in a week of astonishing delight for anyone interested in the evolution of performance, and in its most inventive strategies for dealing with the “post human” age in which, some argue, we now live.


His Majesty’s Aberdeen, until 8 February; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 29 April-23 May; Edinburgh Playhouse, 20 October-8 November.



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