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A couple lie side by side in a double bed, a gap between their bodies. The man sleeps. The woman, waking and lonely, inches over until she shares his pillow, and then embraces him. He lies still for a moment before rolling over. Slowly, slowly, she shifts further over and embraces him again, squeezing him tightly. He endures her embrace for a moment, before pulling away. She follows, he retreats. Eventually, rejected, she creeps back to her side of the bed, and sleeps. In the morning, he is gone. She searches the house, but cannot find him anywhere.
This is one of the most moving scenes from Kiss and Cry by Belgian dance theatre company Charleroi Danses. Yet there is something very strange about it: the man and woman who engage in this dance of love and abandonment are not performed by dancers’ bodies, but by their hands. Projected onto a giant screen, two hands lie side by side in bed, fingers resting on pillows. On the stage below the screen, a tiny model of a bed hangs upside down, and the two performers move their hands beneath the covers. The audience is distanced from the action several times over – by the doubling of film and live action; by the onstage visibility of the performers, sets, cameras, special effects; and by the fact that the people on screen are not people at all, but hands. Yet this only increases the poignancy of the scene. Kiss and Cry tests how far its audience is willing to project onto disengaged body parts and inanimate objects, and I found surprisingly easy to suspend disbelief and enter into the company’s surreal miniature worlds. A tiny model of an old woman sitting on a train can provoke an astonishing sense of pathos; and the hands that are the stars of the show can be emotive, comic and shockingly human.
Kiss and Cry was conceived and directed by Belgian film director Jaco Van Dormael, along with a team of choreographers and co-creators. Van Dormael is best known for the fantastical Mr Nobody (2009), which chronicles the multiple lives and time-bending existence of the central character, and his debut feature Toto le héros (1991), a film that likewise plays with temporality, using flashbacks and elaborate dream sequences. Kiss and Cry exhibits many of the motifs and characteristics of his films: sumptuous visuals, a naïve narrative voice-over, and a concern with the relationship between time, memory and sense of self.
In the programme notes, Van Dormael and choreographer Michèle Anne de Mey articulate the central questions they faced when first contemplating this production: “Was it possible to make a feature film on the kitchen table? And is it possible to create a dance performance with just a couple of hands?” Yet these questions hardly do justice to the feats Kiss and Cry achieves. With a few models of houses and streets, a tiny (working) train circling an equally tiny farm, a tank of water, a cupboard, a table, and a tray of sand, Charleroi Danses have created a series of intricate and beautiful worlds. They do not aim for verisimilitude – as in many a child’s toy farm, the sheep and cows loom far larger than the houses – but instead evoke delight with clever contrivances: a camera on the side of the tiny train allows the audience to see the farm onscreen from the point of view of a passenger speeding past, even as we can also see the progress of the tiny train onstage. There are also some peculiar and effective dream sequences, where hands struggle to swim through clouded water, and tiny men are lost, tumbling down holes into a precarious sandy underworld, where the protagonist’s memories are stored.
The story on which Kiss and Cry hangs – a woman’s life as defined by the five men she has loved – is a little unsatisfying. Although it works as a simple narrative framework that shapes the funny and poignant miniature worlds that the dancing hands inhabit, it seems reductive to describe a life as nothing more than a series of romantic loves. Despite the fact that many of the dramatic contexts are domestic – a series of houses, rooms and beds – there is no sense of Gisèle’s own family, or indeed of work, friends, interests, or anything outside the (failed) romantic couples. Gisèle’s predicament is set up as the doomed idealisation of her first, lost love, and her failure to recreate that love in the relationships that follow; yet her dissatisfaction with life could equally be attributed to her single-minded focus on these love affairs. The melodramatic voiceover that accompanies Gisèle’s life story can also irritate. Yet in the end this doesn’t matter, when this simple story offers the opportunity not only for a series of intricate dances and clever sets, but also for an impressionistic and often moving explorations of one woman’s memories and regrets.
One particularly intriguing aspect of the performance is the way that the continual focus upon the hands of the performers, which it becomes easy to imbue with human emotions and motivations, distracts from the performers themselves, who are visible onstage throughout. At once point I found myself so focused upon the hands onscreen, performing an elegiac dance that evoked Gisèle’s abandonment in the previous scene, that I missed the fact that the performers were dancing with their entire bodies; as their hands intertwined onscreen, so their limbs intertwined on the stage. Somehow, the caressing dance of the hands came to seem far more intimate than touching bodies. In drawing attention to its own artifice, to the creative team who create the illusion and the props they use to do so, this production makes it paradoxically easy to become lost in the illusion that it creates.
Kiss and Cry has been performed in London, Canada, Chile, Germany, Greece, Finland, France, Italy, Lebanon, Luxemburg, Mexico, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States. The creative team are careful to avoid national signifiers beyond the most general; at the Barbican performance, a sign at what appears to be a rural train station reads simply “London”, which is presumably designed to defamiliarise and surprise, rather than to set up any recognisable geographical context. This permits the show to cross national borders without negotiating any sense of national identity, and creates a blank state onto which different audiences can project their own concerns and preoccupations. Van Dormael and De Mey observe that:
Depending on where we play, the interpretation and resonance is very different. In Santiago de Chile, Beirut and Seoul it’s been seen almost as a political piece, referring to the victims of war and totalitarian regimes in which people have vanished without trace. In other places the audience is simply touched by the notions of true love, loneliness and regret.
The themes are of the work – loss, abandonment, memory, the search for meaning – transcend national contexts, so that it can become political when audiences bring those concerns to it, but it can equally speak to universal human experience.
Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell described Kiss and Cry as “interestingly uncategorisable work”, and that is precisely what makes it so astonishing. I lack the vocabulary to describe it; perhaps no such vocabulary yet exists. In negotiating the boundaries between live action performance and film, between dance and mime, and between illusion and revelation, Charleroi Danses have created a unique and startling production. You will never see hands in the same way again.
Kiss and Cry continues at the Barbican until June 28.