Kissing Rebellion begins with eight people sitting round a table, telling stories. For a moment it reminds me of The Antipodes, but while The Antipodes is about the ways we’ve desecrated storytelling, Kissing Rebellion definitely still has faith in storytelling as an act of community and reconstruction.
When the eight performers move away from the table, the sandy hole in the middle of the Ovalhouse stage emerges from the dark, spattered and mildewed walls; a ragged sheet falling from the ceiling appears. Designed by Connor Bowmott, it looks like a world damaged, if not yet destroyed.
For most of the rest of Kissing Rebellion, the stories are told in audio-recordings, and in dances mostly responding to the audio-recordings. The first recording sets out the motivating impulse behind the show: after the Paris Bataclan attacks in 2015, the creators (Abigail Boucher and Carolyn Defrin) were drawn towards the idea of kissing as a radical act of care and healing in a time of fear. The stories are mostly stories about kisses.
Bodies passing through the space, holding their arms out to each other, finding places to sit down together, lifting each other above the rough edges of the floor. It looks like mending, in a way. The performers wear sturdy boots to protect their feet. Joe Hornsby’s warm, flowing lighting design is really lovely, one of the best things about the show.
Sometimes I notice little lingering hints of Trust Exercises and Being Vulnerable in the Rehearsal Room. The performers are all individually brilliant and strong as an ensemble, but just occasionally there’s something in the choreography – a slow tender hug, a lift – that I react against. It’s not that I mind a rehearsal process that addresses trust and vulnerability and stuff in performance, obviously. I think it’s a good thing. It’s just that sometimes seeing the remnants of it carried over into a performance make me feel excluded as an audience member, like: you weren’t part of the love-and-care-filled process that produced this work, you’re still outside it even now. I don’t think that’s the intended effect here, but it happens a bit.
Maybe it’s because I was bothered by the premise that kissing has the potential to heal the world in the wake of crisis. Maybe that’s over-stretching what Kissing Rebellion is trying to say. But not by loads, I think. The thing is that I think kissing is nice, and a kiss can make you feel better and safer, and sometimes it genuinely takes bravery to do it in public. But it’s an interaction generally between two people who know each other at least well enough to put their faces close to each other. It might be universal, but it’s not really collective. By definition, some people are excluded from a kiss. There are a number of moments in Kissing Rebellion, including the ending, where the dancing seems to want to suggest something closer to shared experience, or joy – like the piece itself is pulling away from a focus on kissing.
The bits that worked best, for me, were where the dances retained absences, left space for the audience to share in the work. Carolyn Defrin sings a lullaby while Juliette Tellier performs a jittery, spasming dance, her cheek pressed to the floor, her knees twisted at weird right angles. It’s not quite clear how they relate to each other, but it feels lonely and weird in a good way. A montage of everyday, routine kisses, with objects mimed, so half-invisible: a kitchen sink, toothbrushes, a television screen, maybe? Matthew Rawcliffe cheekily imagines his dream kiss with Tom Daley, high on a diving board above a Manchester swimming pool, but then asks the lighting op to give them some privacy, please, and turn the stage lights off.
Kissing Rebellion seeks to include the whole spectrum of humanity. There are two older women (Karen Callaghan and Manjushri Jones) in the ensemble, like pillars of calm. There are songs in French, Hebrew and English. It tells the stories of a trans man and an asexual man as well as depicting platonic, familial, inter-racial and non-heterosexual relationships. It makes a moving effort to take care and give comfort. Did I personally feel radically healed by it? Not really. But did I feel like I’d seen and heard some instances of the small but remarkable capacity of human beings to continue to show love and affection towards each other? Yeah.
Kissing Rebellion is on at Ovalhouse till 30th November. More info here.