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‘Kiss & Cry’ asks: Where did everyone go?

Co-creator Jaco Van Dormael says of the ballet of the hands, “We went back to a kind of storytelling that is childish in order to tell grown-up stories.”Maarten Vanden Abeele

‘Kiss & Cry,” an interdisciplinary performance piece that combines dance, live film, and miniature sets, strives to create a new theatrical language. But its beginning was quite modest: It was conceived at a kitchen table in Belgium. Film director Jaco Van Dormael and dancer-choreographer Michèle Anne De Mey, who have been partners for 13 years and raised four children together, wanted to collaborate professionally for the first time. So they sat down in their kitchen, pulled out the kids’ old toys, and began brainstorming.

He didn’t want simply to include a dance in one of his feature-length films, and she didn’t want him to film one of her performances. That was too easy, too obvious. They wanted to blend their disciplines. “The children are grown now, but they left all the toys at home,’’ Van Dormael says. “From time to time, we brought out the Playmobil house and the little furniture. We started to make sets and began improvising, not knowing what it would be.”


The result of those kitchen table sessions will be performed Thursday through Saturday at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, in a production presented by ArtsEmerson.

They didn’t worry about the story at first. They were more concerned with technique. De Mey, who is an associate artist at Belgium’s Charleroi Danses, experimented by using only her hands to dance around the tiny sets. “At first, it was just hands, toys, sand, and little cotton clouds,” Van Dormael says. “We were trying to find out what fits into a language that is very little.”

Eventually, they brought in some friends to collaborate, and a story began to take shape. They developed the tale of an old woman sitting in a train station, looking back on lost loves. Where do people go, she wonders, when they disappear from your life? Her first love was a fleeting encounter at 13, when she briefly held hands with a teenage boy on a train. He got off the train and disappeared into the night, but she remembers the encounter with a clarity that makes it seem like yesterday. She recalls five lovers through the 80-minute performance, one for each finger on the hand.


The narrative sounds somewhat conventional, but the storytelling technique blends genres and uses technology that wasn’t available a decade ago. The piece unfolds in several dimensions. De Mey and her dance partner Grégory Grosjean sit onstage and use their hands to dance around minute sets on kitchen-size tables. There are seven other people onstage, who rearrange the sets and film the action as it takes place. The dance is projected on a large screen, in real time. There are tiny cameras inside a train, and each set is a little box where storms unfold and lovers dance.

Michèle Anne De Mey, co-creator of “Kiss & Cry,” says, “When I am onstage, my hands are dancing for the camera, but I am using my entire body.’’MAARTEN VANDEN ABEELE/Maarten Vanden Abeele

The audience experiences the piece on several levels. Onstage, they see two dancers moving their hands and witness the crew running around, filming the action and manipulating the sets. On the screen, they watch a film made in real time, where the tiny sets become the background for a life-size story unfolding before their eyes. “You see a lot of people running around from one side of the stage to the other, and you also see the ballet of the hands on the screen,” Van Dormael says.

This ballet of the hands — or this “nano dance” — is impossible to categorize, but the hands perform multiple roles. The hand can be a character, an animal, or simply an extremity. But De Mey doesn’t separate the dancer from the hand. “When I am onstage, my hands are dancing for the camera, but I am using my entire body,’’ she says. “My body and my mind are part of the performance.”


The images of the hands projected on the screen sometimes look like little people. “What is fascinating is that, after 20 seconds, you forget it is a hand,” Van Dormael says. “It is a character, a very central character. You see only skin. It is naked all the time, so you feel the sensuality of the skin in a very simple way.”

Van Dormael, who directed the piece, says that, for him, hands evoke memories of childhood. “When I was a kid, I remember cars and hands,’’ he says. “I remember hands manipulating cars or hands becoming animals. We went back to a kind of storytelling that is childish in order to tell grown-up stories.”

The piece is, by design, technologically innovative but nostalgic and sentimental. It takes its name from the “kiss and cry” bench in an ice rink where figure skaters wait to hear their scores announced. “There is a skating scene, and we thought it fit with the story,” Van Dormael says. “It is about love. And kisses and cries.”

“Kiss & Cry,” which has received critical acclaim in Belgium and beyond, is on a world tour, and by spring, it will have played 200 performances in six different languages on several continents. The voice-over is translated into each native language and will be in English at the Cutler Majestic. The piece has a different resonance wherever it plays. In Santiago, Chile, the old lady’s memories of lost lovers took on a meaning the artists had not anticipated. “The people she remembered became the people who disappeared with [Augusto] Pinochet,’’ Van Dormael says. “In Chile, it has a political meaning that it doesn’t have in France or Germany or Italy. It gives each audience a large place for their own imagination and memory. The audience is surprised to be emotionally involved in things that are so tiny and simple.”


This is, after all, a story in which a hand falls in love with another hand. Tiny little details fuel the story, which is meant to play like a kind of collective dream or memory. Where do all those people who once meant so much to us go when our lives diverge? What happens to all those strangers and intimates whom we no longer encounter?

The voice-over for “Kiss & Cry” is quite precise in its description of the old woman’s first love: “It lasted 13 seconds. She was 13 on the delayed 18:15 train, coach number four, second class with 26 passengers on board including a 14-year-old boy.” This specificity makes the memory more poignant, despite the fact that the encounter lasted less than a minute.


And that is what intrigues Van Dormael and De Mey. “When you write a film script, everything is indispensable, and everything means something,” Van Dormael says. “Memory doesn’t work like that. Sometimes it is the tiny little details that are most beautiful. You forget the whole thing but remember tiny details of where you were, but not knowing what was around you.”

The piece, the creators say, aims to evoke the most potent of our emotional memories, like the face of the man who gave you his handkerchief during a flight home for a funeral or the woman you danced with for a few seconds after being trapped in a broken elevator. “Where have the people who have departed from your life gone?” De Mey asks. “That has a resonance for everyone. It echoes for everyone in their own way.”

Patti Hartigan can be reached at pattihartigan@gmail.com.