June 2014 | Barbican, London
This show is the result of an experiment: is it possible to make a film on a kitchen table and a dance performance using only hands? As featured in other performances using live-feed equipment, most of the apparatus is exposed on the stage. Shelves and storage are placed at the back, various work stations dominate key positions at the front and sides, a track for the primary camera reaches around three sides, a large screen hangs high above the action and a technical desk takes centre stage. This style of theatre, using cameras and cheap props to great effect, has been gathering popularity for a while, and the standard has been set pretty high by the likes of those from the small scale Paper Cinema to fully converged multimedia shows like Frauline Julie by Katie Mitchell with Schaubühne Berlin. Kiss and Cry has been going for years and should be more than capable of impressing in the same way.
The show opens with the company on stage setting up, dressed in black but not entirely uniformed, they come across as puppeteers (which is strangely accurate despite the absence of puppets,) doing hand exercises, one performer almost ritually cleaning her fingers before they become the lead role on screen. The director will be roaming the stage throughout, cueing his performers and whispering notes as they go. Lights, camera, action.
As the dancers are played by hands, pretty much all of the action takes the not-so-big leap of using the middle and forefinger as legs and occasionally the thumb as a hand. Very rarely do they shake up that relationship, which is a disappointment: firstly because it’s child’s-play (who hasn’t run their fingers across a table?) Secondly, because often their mid-naughties cabaret improvisations and other early processes are lazily given long drawn out sequences like the ice-skating dancer; it looked quite pretty but doesn’t deserve such attention for being the least imaginative development at this late stage. Lastly, because when they did break the rule it worked really well: for example a club scene with lights and disco music opens with a cigarette between two fingers and the audience can enjoy that idea of the character, then the hand smoking it itself, jumping from a close up back to hands as people. They included some sex scenes which were both creepy and quite soft.
An effect that warrants attention was an entire Creation montage worthy of Terrence Malick: a shot underwater, to a fist becoming a heart-beat (added sounds and light make it look womb-like) to a creature crawling out of the water and becoming upright from five (finger) legs to just two. It genuinely worked while having the effect of parody. The danced elements were quite boring, repetitive and not particularly contributory to the piece. Furthermore, over-use of music totally gambled with audience impressions, although some of the choices were nice pieces by themselves, overall it made the whole thing angsty (and pretty wank.)
Nor did it succeed in rescuing the storyline, which for some reason comprised an indulgent and melancholic series of flashbacks. Their task was to make a story with hands, so they needed to find ways to tie in their experiments but with an arc that could narratively introduce these elements. Everything starts with a moment on a train when two young strangers accidentally-on-purpose hold ‘HANDS’ and are separated forever by fate and the real world. This made a good plot device for potential material, except that every other scene was a train station (Hornby style and some more customised models) and a tiny model person on a bench. A voice droningly spouts Thomas Gunzig’s pretentious text with ‘cute’ metaphors like “an affair is like an onion… first it’s dry, then it’s tearful, then it’s too hard to digest…” Errr, what?! There was even one about a cheese grater which compliments the grating script (geddit?)
While at the platform the protagonist remembers her 5 key ‘loves’ so they could present the numbers with the ‘FINGERS’. Cue various situations: fighting hands, slow walking hands, hands that disappear, hands that die(?) The puppetry skill was good and sensitively performed, often quite funny, succeeding in portraying a tricky skit of a HAND-made boyfriend farting in bed (I always advocate on behalf of tasteful fart jokes.) A great bit that I’d been hoping they would do was to introduce a FOOT (!) that plays a boyfriend (Although I would have preferred to see a Monty Python Foot squashing the hand.) It was a great reveal but then they ruined it by making it try and sit on sofas etc., like we couldn’t work out that it/he was clunky and oppressive. On the other hand watching the performers running around the stage was entertainment in itself. They decided to include different props and models to represent people which risks an inconsistent representation, from David Gilliver-style set pieces to play mobil (why not Lego and polly pocket while you’re at it?.)
The technical construction of the piece was a pure marvel. Incredibly cheap effects had great results while everything was supported by extremely detailed camera work which became a sort of choreography in itself. Design proved invaluable with little tricks and gadgets: a camera attached to a prop model living room is rotated and the loose furniture climb the walls and ceiling as a technician simply rolls it about, the image being the characters’ mind in turmoil. The list is endless, prop water becomes real water, during a domestic scene the camera focuses on a tiny tv and the audience are drawn to action within the action.
The story could have been anything but they chose tedious narrative content filled with clichés and angsty existential drivel. The best bits were when they treated the action comically and with parody which is obvious material when they want to stage a dance with hands. Paper Cinema’s Odyssey was light-hearted enough to demonstrate the darker bits of the story, and Frauline Julie is heavy but the treatment did not follow the original narrative of the play and it was more restrained and dreamlike. Kiss and Cryis a masterpiece of this genre and a joy to watch, in terms of puppetry, performers, technical virtuosity and lighting (which catered for both tiny sets and the main stage) but certain choices disappointed. Besides, Charlie Chaplin was dancing the ‘table ballet’ 90 years ago. There was a standing ovation which traditionally means people loved it, so Charleroi Danses have certainly created something worth catching.
*I must add that cultural differences can really change the nuances in this piece, a desert of figures that represent characters in our memories slowly disappearing has much more sinister connotations for audiences in places like Chile where people disappearing is much less a metaphor. My disagreement with narrative choices does not make this piece less poignant for others, but I retain my view on the script.
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