Strictly come dada! The festival where bodies turn into highways

In between shows at the Manipulate festival, a veteran arts producer tells me he doesn’t know what theatre is any more. He means things have got so fluid, with one art form blurring into another, it’s hard to give it a simple definition.

He’s well at home at Manipulate. The self-styled festival of “innovative visual theatre and animated film” is the kind of event where you’ll find puppetry without puppets and dance that isn’t really dance. Certainly, I don’t know what you’d call Extremely Pedestrian Chorales (★★★☆☆). Created by choreographer Karl Jay-Lewin and composer Matteo Fargion, it’s like a dadaist riposte to Strictly Come Dancing. Jay-Lewin has codified walking movements into a sequence of eccentric square dances. They are surreal and inconsequential, but performed with the deadpan concentration of competition dancers.

The four performers follow instructions from a score – three steps backwards, a leap to the left, a fast shuffle forward – while keeping to mathematical rhythms worthy of a jazz drummer. They introduce each short piece with an enigmatic title – “Out of the depth, I scream” – as if we were watching an otherworldly pop gig. Every so often, they give the cue for a Bach chorale, sweetly sung at the side of the stage by a seven-strong choir but rudely interrupted whenever the dancers have had enough. For all its charm and novelty, however, it is too knowing, an in-joke lost in its own hermetic universe.

Wunderkammer (★★★☆☆) by Tübingen’s Figuren Theater is more firmly what you’d expect of an object-theatre festival. It’s a sequence of exquisitely crafted string puppets broodingly lit and set to a forceful soundtrack of percussive keyboard, as if the very ribs of the skeletal marionettes had been turned into music.

Three manipulators take turns to open jewellery boxes, out of which crawl spidery hands, weightless acrobats and Chinese kites. There are hints – and only hints – of dinosaurs, birds and reptiles, as if evolution has taken an odd turn to produce two-headed men and people with spines that taper into nothing.

Much of the pleasure is in the puppets themselves; one furry monster need do nothing more than roll its googly eyes to win a roar of approval. The company is overreliant on this, too often letting the puppets flop around aimlessly after their initial appearance. But even if it is low on dramatic interaction, Wunderkammer has poetic beauty to match its technical dexterity.

Best of all is Invisible Lands (★★★★★) by Finland’s Livsmedlet Theatre. It’s the story of refugees, represented by tiny figures, like the population of a model railway, delicate and vulnerable as they flee their war-ravaged home. What makes the show extraordinary is the path they travel. Every mountain pass, snowy outcrop, desert expanse and night-time highway is created by the bodies of Ishmael Falke and Sandrina Lindgren.

The performers take turns to bare their flesh as the figures line up for their perilous journey. Falke’s back becomes their escape route from a smoking village; Lindgren’s stomach, painted blue, is the sea to Europe; knees turn into hill tops, feet form the rendezvous for a bus. The pulses of the performers breathe life into the models as they queue at border crossings, flee helicopters and crowd on to boats. It’s masterfully done, the combination of physical effort and contrasting scale making the wordless tale devastatingly sad.