Ask someone to mime, with their hands, a person walking, and they’ll probably put their forefinger and middle finger down as legs, and tuck the thumb, ring and little finger under. This little handperson can kick a cancan, stroll up a table, and attempt a stunted version of the splits. If you get a friend to help, it can start an awkward two-step. It’s entertaining – for about two minutes – but it might seem very limited.
Now ask Michèle Anne de Mey and Gregory Grosjean to perform that same duet. They’re on stage, so to make their hands visible to a large audience, they are filmed and their hand duet is projected onto a huge suspended screen. They’ve been choreographed, so their little handpeople dance more fluidly. They meet, they flirt, they briefly and humorously hump one another. The roving camera takes them in from several angles, on a spare set that includes a tree, a bench and – momentarily – a tiny doll figure with a tiny camera. It’s funny and creative, but it will apparently be going on for an hour and twenty minutes. How much variation can you get out of a couple of hands?
And then Kiss & Cry, Charleroi Danses’s captivating dance of hands, really starts.
After this witty introduction to its concept, Kiss & Cry follows the story of Gisele, an old woman sat at a train station, remembering the five loves of her life. Gisele is a doll figure in a doll station; the five love affairs and their progresses are danced by hands.
De Mey and Grosjean are extraordinarily expressive and the choreography is versatile and joyously imaginative, harnessing simple camera tricks with mirrors, angles and movement. For the most part, hands are little handpeople, but they are also animals, monsters, manipulators of doll sets and doll figures, and, very occasionally, actual hands on the ends of arms. Out of a limited palette comes a rainbow of emotion, and these hands convey love, desire, anger, aggression, joy, boredom, anxiety, neediness, hostility and longing as well as any face.
Gisele’s story is told in a voiceover that is sometimes funny and sometimes desperately sad, and filled with everyone’s favourite rhetoric conceit: tortured metaphors for love. (These include: some love affairs are like an onion, they’re dry, they make you cry, and then you get used to it; some love affairs are like cheese graters, great for cheese and useless for anything else; sometimes love is like water that has evaporated, it’s still there, but its nature has changed and it’s harder to see.)
Set by set, scene by scene, love by love, the whole piece is created in front of us, so we walk through the assembly of Gisele’s memories with her. On screen, a richly symbolic, intricate and playful film unfolds; on stage, technicians dash back and forth to get new sets ready, cameras roll on tracks, hosepipes spray ‘rain’, sieves sprinkle ‘snow’. A lovely sequence from Gisele’s fourth love sees the two handpeople as trapeze artists in a circus; on set, fairy lights suffice as the glamorous stage lights and a red-and-white umbrella opens up to become the big top. The haunting scene of Gisele walking through the wind-swept, dead-tree-strewn landscape of her desolation is created by projecting the shadow of a carousel of twigs onto a white screen; the handperson walks on the spot and, as the carousel spins, Gisele seems to be walking forwards.
In fact, watching the creation on stage is as interesting as watching the product of the creation. It is as carefully choreographed and passionately performed as the filmed performance. Kiss & Cry, then, is not just a clever concept beautifully executed, but also a running commentary on the process of making a piece and collaborating. It functions as a reminder that all works of art, and indeed, all love affairs, are created from myriad tiny pieces, and that seemingly inevitable and whole things can only come together as a result of intricate and complex collusions. The opening scene, where the doll cameraman appears on the filmed set of the first duet, throws this into relief.
Filled with tenderness, humour and poignancy, Kiss & Cry far surpasses its hook, ‘a dance piece performed entirely by hands’. It is a transporting and joyously original work that tells us nothing new about love, but tells it so, so well.
Kiss & Cry was on at the Barbican as part of the London International Mime Festival 2017. Click here for more details.