Friday, 30 January 2015

Manipulate 2011

Manipulate returns to Edinburgh in February with a celebration of puppetry and visual theatre

originally PUBLISHED in the skinny11 JANUARY 2011

In his dialogue On The Marionette Theatre, German romantic philosopher Heinrich von Kleist commented that the puppet represented the potential of the human, once they pushed through the limitations of consciousness and freewill towards a state of grace. Kleist, like Plato, may have been ironic, as the puppet is more commonly seen as victim: the ballet Petrushka makes this point vividly, with a hero mercilessly punished merely for helplessly falling for a beautiful dancer. The true freedom within puppetry is perhaps in the hands of the puppeteer, who can manipulate his actors in ways beyond the fantasy of the most totalitarian director, or politician.

Manipulate elegantly describes itself as "innovative theatre arts for consenting adults," implying that their annual jamboree of puppetry, film and cross-platform drama leads straight into this particularly dark metaphor for determinism. The presence of Giselle Vienne, last seen in Scotland cheering up Tramway with a slow motion meditation on teenage suicide and drone metal, alongside Kefar Nahum, a Belgian story of Creation gone wrong, suggests that puppetry is a natural medium for bleak, aggressive theatre.

Although the festival had it roots in puppetry, Manipulate features film and performance that defies easy categorisation. The film selection emphasises the easy connection between video animation and live puppetry: the shadow puppets of the East could be seen as the earliest example of cinematic technique, using light to cast an image upon a screen, while stop motion animation clearly comes from puppetry itself.

Yet many of the live performances push at the boundaries of what can be regarded as puppetry. Mossoux Bonté, the company behind Kefar Nahum strive to integrate dance and theatre while grappling with the implicit gender relationships between their twin directors, Nicole Mossoux and Patrick Bonté. Rather than being puppeteers by vocation, like Scotland's Tortoise in a Nutshell, Mossoux Bonté come to the form to further their own performance philosophy.

If the bonds to a specific medium have been loosened, Manipulate is held together by certain themes. The sense of control, or lack of control, is easily invoked – Vienne's Jerk uses glove puppets in an examination of a serial killer, while 1927 evoke an oppressive, brooding city through the use of film.

Both the short film selection and French compilation movie Fear(s) of the Dark investigate the horror lurking beneath the surface of apparently mundane relationships: Fear(s) includes a contribution from underground comic star Charles Burns, another master of black and white horror illustration.

As an object, the puppet easily lends itself to hybrid creations: metamorphoses and protean creatures litter the programme, whether it is Mossoux Bonté's alarming spider deity or Matthew Robins' half boy-half fly battling to live a normal life (part of the Snapshots cabaret event). The elegance that Robins brings to his storytelling, accompanied by live folk music and told languidly, supports von Kleist's assertion that the puppet is capable of a fluidity and grace precisely because it is not troubled by human self-consciousness.

The brilliance of Kleist's essay, perched gingerly between notions of freewill as positive and the problems caused by having consciousness – he did go on to kill himself – is reflected in the cunning programming of Manipulate

It is the idea of puppetry that serves as the festival's starting point, rather than any rigid adherence to a particular medium, and from this blossoms a diverse, sometimes enchanting, sometimes troubling programme. If theatre's function is to stimulate discussion, or challenge audiences to look beyond their own assumptions, Manipulate challenges the meaning of its own art form and presents artists who are willing to poke around in the darker zones of human experience.

The Mating Ritual

Originally published in The Skinny, 16 June 2010

Now that cabaret has established itself as performance art that can ever gather coverage in the posh papers, the next challenge is for the top artists to find new forms to entertain. Burlesque has a strong community, and the plethora of nights across the country ensure a regular steam of new acts and routines. However, the most exciting developments are emerging from the collision of cabaret and narrative theatre.

Edinburgh's Blonde Ambition has always been concerned with advancing the art: their Christmas Carol, in association with the Ministry of Burlesque, gave Dickens' perennial a sexy, sardonic twist. Through their association with the gentle demon of the saucy song, Des O'Connor, Blonde Ambition push the cabaret format into the theatre. Starting with a turn at the West End Festival, The Mating Ritual brings together O'Connor with frequent collaborator Gypsy Charms and Kitsch Kat Chris Wilson to explore the ins, outs and shake it all abouts of romance.

As Chris Wilson explains, The Mating Ritual came about when Dance House put him and Gypsy in a studio for a week. At the time, they were both teaching at the House: Gypsy being one of the original burlesque teachers- she is largely responsible, along with Viva Misadventure, for the explosion of acts and classes in the central belt. Usually, these workshop sessions lead to a small sharing to limited numbers. But Gypsy and Chris found their groove so quickly that they transferred the sharing to a nightclub, calling O'Connor to provide a narrative, and had a complete show a week later.

Although the basic story has not changed- woman chases man through the years, their clothes changing as they pass through the Victorian and jazz ages, WWII and the rise of disco- the show has evolved through a runs in London's cabaret hot-spots. Additional guest stars have expanded the story- Glasgow will welcome Impressive Johnson and his authentic taste of 1960s' themed lechery, while Kiki Kaboom will be gracing the Edinburgh shows in July.

Apart from the core line-up being something of a cabaret dream team, The Mating Ritual is an attempt to use a burlesque aesthetic within a longer narrative. Refusing to abandon cabaret's cheeky glamour and sexy satire, it parodies the fashions of the past century while laughing at the absurdly consistent compulsion of seduction. But what makes the show exceptionally interesting is the attempt to move away from the vision of cabaret as a series of unrelated turns.

While themed nights are common- Itsy's Kabarett has demonstrated how the promoter can act as a creative curator, while London Burlesque Week boasted Twisted Cabaret that peeked at the darkside and the Circus Sideshow- The Mating Ritual has a continuous story that mocks the pretentions of seduction. 

Through O'Connor's cheeky interludes and each routine, the burlesque becomes something closer to a traditional dance performance. And unlike the attempts of ballet or contemporary choreographers to adapt burlesque, it retains a coarse authenticity. If cabaret is to be anything more than a fashion, or a community with a few name performers, shows like The Ritual suggest a route forward.

Why Do I Bother, eh?

Interview with Emma King, Theatre Jinks

First of all, can I ask you about Theatre Jinks: what is the mission of the company, and how did it start?Theatre Jinks' roots sprouted in 2012 when Cat Elliott and myself studied together on the Diploma in Physical Theatre Practice at Fife college. We studied puppetry as part of the course and that is where our interest in puppetry began. Once graduated, we started attending any puppetry workshops we could find to develop our skills.

Is manipulate a good place to share your work; do you share any affinities with PAS?
Manipulate is a brilliant festival, this will be the third year I have attended (first year as part of the programme). There is always a great mix of work on offer for audiences interested in animation, physical theatre, puppetry and visual theatre. The Snap Shots artists@work slots at 6:05pm during the festival are a great opportunity to display new works in development. Work is presented and then there is a question and answer session with the audience. It's really useful platform to promote new companies and new work.

Horror- seems to be a theme in this year's festival! What attracts you to the subject, and why visual theatre/puppetry as a medium?
Horror is a very rich theme, it can be very subtle and menacing or extreme blood, guts and gore. When we started developing our ideas for Knock Knock... We decided we wanted to create a performance in the style of a horror for young people. 

For younger audiences I sometimes feel performances can be a little too safe, and having horror as an element really pushes you to see how far you can go and still ensure it is suitable for your audience. Horror is an element of most stories. Puppetry and visual theatre was the natural choice; horror is mystery, magic, suspense and fear and I really feel that these mediums represent those in different and interesting ways. 

 Puppet Animation Scotland have been an integral part of our professional development with them running Manipulate masterclasses and regular workshops with Rene Baker over the past couple of years. 

As Theatre Jinks Knock Knock... is our first venture into creating a piece of visual/puppet theatre. Puppet Animation Scotland have been supporting us through the process, enabling us access to meet with established puppeteers and Theatre makers, notably Rene Baker who has been mentoring us throughout and Richard Medrington. 

Identity is another powerful theme to address - is it related to your exploration of horror, and are puppets good performers for such a discussion?
Identity is related to our exploration of horror, but actually I would say it is maybe the other way round. Puppets are really good at exploring identity, because they can be representative of so many things. 

We have been exploring twins as part of our development, and puppets have been very useful for this because you can really present two characters who are actual replicas of each other, but are completely different. 

(I have this big idea that Oedipus was the first horror story, and it is all about identity - I am going to ask you whether you think there is anything in that idea?)
Oedipus...yeah I think there is horror in there,and definitely identity, I feel that the horror comes from the curse/prophecy which follows him, there is no way out for him, he is fated to fulfil it

The Sickest of Beats

As regular readers of my blog will know, the Vile Arts is very concerned that copyright is always respected. especially when it comes to multi-national corporations. And I thank Wayne Myers for this revelation. 

Do check his site: he did a cartoon about me once

Our friends at The Church of Kristeva have asked: does this mean that Swift will own all of the works of William Burroughs? He is one sick beat.

Bill's foreplay was regarded as vigorous but disappointing

They have also issued a public statement about 'sickness'.

Copyright law is, of course, the last bastion that protects art from appropriation, expensive brands from fake copies, cultures from being strip-mined of their integrity and the universe from being replaced by simulacra that hide the hostile lie of unreality. So it is great news that Taylor Swift, who knows what a sick beat really is, has taken a step nearer to privatising language.


Milter talks about dance, I ponder

Slipping on my amazing significance seeking spectacles, I return to the interview with Andrea Miltner. 

Having recently purchased the Aristotle 2000 (Guaranteed to Reduce any Performance to a series of Twitter-Ready Tags), I have been busy sticking labels on every show that I have seen since Curious Orange in 1988. However, Miltner makes a trenchant point about the nature of dance, which has made Aristotle 2000 show an error message. 

That to me is the magic of dance - it can give a greater freedom to the audience to allow their own imaginations to be at play and to react on a more instinctive, sensory level, rather than on an intellectual one.

Anxiety about reading meaning into everything aside, this brings me closer to the reasons for my love affair with dance, and my slight - but often exaggerated - suspicion of 'scripted' theatre. The combination of a more sensuous, physical response (like the bit during Park when I found myself moving in my seat as the Jasmin Vardimon company bounced to The Popcorn Song) and the importance of the audience in making the meaning.

She goes on to explore the tensions between her work as a ballet
dancer and the determinedly contemporary nature of Magnetic Ballerina, and how 'freedom' can limit creativity - all fascinating stuff, and intriguing me all the more about the performance. Then she elaborates on the role of the audience.

I hope the public will come without any preconceived ideas and just experience the piece with an open mind and find in it what they will.

Sadly, I am going to be bringing preconceptions - that I am really going to enjoy this work. But Miltner displays a generosity to the audience ('find in it what they will') that goes beyond the frequently vague assertion that 'it's about whatever you think it is.' That is true, of course (giving the maker the monopoly of meaning ignores the history and context that the audience bring to an event). But it is the particular fluidity and allusiveness of dance that allows more freedom: less rhetorical than words, movement opens up the play of mind and matter... subject and object... am I objectifying, creating an unnecessary dualism... or do I just love dance when it touches me and seeds a new way of seeing?