Kiss & Cry: Intimate Projections

Jaco micheleweb
Jaco Van Dormael and Michèle Ann De Mey © Maarten Vanden Abeel
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Kiss & Cry © Maarten Vanden Abeel
Kiss & Cry © Maarten Vanden Abeel

Commentary on Kiss & Cry, a work by Jaco Van Dormael and Michèle Anne De Mey
By Guylaine Massoutre

For Marion, who is sleeping
The dream maker is ready
A big ship is departing
For unknown shores
Sailor Marion
Have a wonderful voyage
Sailor Marion
Sail through your dreams as we watch over you

-- Gilles Vigneault, Berceuse pour Marion (Lullaby for Marion) (transl.)

Butterflies flicker across the screen like flashes of memory. Shadows cast by a hand, at night. The movements are restrained, sharp and quick. The performers and set pieces, both live and on film, are only partially visible, quasi imperceptible, half concealed. Director Jaco Van Dormael’s theatre of objects has the feel of a stylized ballet, captured by a tracking video camera and projected in real time onto a giant screen. This production riffs on appearances and the conventions of video games and film.

Closeup of two hands. They sway, fondle each other, dance. “The first time she fell in love, it lasted thirteen seconds. She was twelve.” (Transl.) The image on the screen shows a doll’s hand resting in a giant human palm—a vivid metaphor for the handing down of wisdom, of the experience of love.

Frame shot of a thumb and index finger reflected in a mirror: two halves making a whole. The image becomes a character that gradually takes shape and grows, its elegant silhouette instantly replicated. A couple is born. This is the play’s central premise, these two beautiful, magical hands working in tandem to create an illusion in five parts: the existence of a pair of lovers.

A ballet of spontaneous connections begins. The fingers cross, caress each other, dance and swing: a game of tag and hide and seek, anonymous happiness set to the tune of Almirena’s famous aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let me bemoan my harsh fate”) from Handel’s opera Rinaldo.

The struggle of life

It is night. “There are those we meet once and never think about again; there are those we love and then forget … and there are those we dream about, those we wait for but who never arrive, and those we’ve given up waiting for. Where do they go?” (Transl.) Thomas Grunzig’s text1 uses the power of language to expand images beyond the visible, referencing and echoing other obsessive young loves, the mythical narrative of a generation: “Suddenly I have a pain,” wrote Marguerite Duras in L’amant (The Lover). “Very slight, almost imperceptible. It’s my heartbeat, shifted into the fresh, keen wound he’s made in me—he, the one who is talking to me, the one who also made the afternoon’s pleasure. I don’t hear what he’s saying, I’ve stopped listening.” (Transl.) Buried pain, hidden deep in the irreversible magnitude of eternity.

Wide shot. There they are, tiny soldiers in the fluffy snow, miniature toys from the bedrooms of real children—the performers’ children. Kiss & Cry (the name given to the area in an ice rink where figure skaters wait for their marks to be announced) is childhood, where already life’s issues are being played out. The text follows along with the camera, the camera supports the nostalgic narrative: which will best convey the past, the excitement and the anticipation, the remembering and the forgetting?

The projection fades to reveal the performers’ choreographic interaction with the tiny objects. It’s all about quality, meticulous manipulation, attention to the smallest gesture, sharing a world that goes beyond the story, involving us as spectators and our personal experiences as partners in the installation.

A living archive, a labyrinthine Utopian space! Time blends and blurs between these supple hands, one belonging to Michèle Anne De Mey, the other to Grégory Grosjean, two dancers who invite us on a unique exploration of the impersonal. Each and every one, friends, exposed. “Je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes” (“How I wish you could remember”), croons Yves Montand on an ancient, scratchy recording, singing a poem by Jacques Prévert.

A sweeping panorama. The life story of Gisèle, who didn’t like people and whom people didn’t like, is a gem of gentle humour. Wherever the show is performed, its miniature world opens a hidden door into the hearts of the audience.

Raw and immediate, emotion inhabits the spaces created by the multimedia. No technique, no language can truly capture life. There are breaks, gaps, dizzying lacunae: as Foucault wrote in Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things), “There may be, as it were, an inerasable hiatus at that point (precisely that hiatus in which we exist and talk).” (Transl.) Distorted images, bizarre zoom shots—memory reconstitutes itself in a random montage of objects and details. Yet the movement of the toys, so smoothly manipulated, conveys an essential message—tiny symbolic treasures spared from the hand-me-down pile, present reminders of past happy days.

With a light camera

Fade to black! The show has begun. The moving camera records the performers’ diary of movement, documenting a life of unremarkable actions with predictable results, the repetitive pattern of love and deception, in an ordinary town. In the end, the language is fresh, simple, highly visual and sensitive, complementing the dreamlike emotional tone of the show and maintaining the illusion.

The miniature model set is a delight. As the action unfolds on stage, the screen occasionally fails to conceal the background jumble of wires and equipment. There are several tables covered with objects, artifacts of theatre archaeology, from high tech to Playmobil. It is all indirect, allusive: the silhouettes busily occupied around the set, their carefully orchestrated movements—subtle but often pointless everyday actions —, the sounds, and amid them all a voice, the voice, addressing the space, addressing the audience. Anticipation builds as our senses are captivated.

Refusal to comply! There is a struggle between performance and text, between subject and story. The familiar set, the colourful sentinels, the plastic trees, the swatches of rolled-up turf… What will remain of our bric-à-brac, our suburbs, our deserted level crossings, our vintage cars produced by now-defunct factories?

The concept enlists a succession of symbols and an array of tools, from the simplest toys to the latest technology. Unbeknownst to her, Gisèle is all of these.

As well, the spaces Gisèle occupies proliferate, like islands within an island; her love life spans the bridges that punctuate the circular track around which a toy train runs, tracing a repetitive and derisory pattern where derailment is as inevitable as disappointment in love.

Stage illusions

“I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control or secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions or discourses of living beings,” explained the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his essay What is an Apparatus? Is everything predetermined? On the one hand we have living beings, on the other the apparatuses that capture these subjects, whether they know it or not. Restoring an apparatus to common use is an immense political task. In this unassuming play, each character makes his or her modest contribution to the cause.

The narrative follows the rhythms of the nano-dance and of Gisèle’s wanderings. We see her at twelve, at twenty, at sixty. Tiny and motionless, she sits on a bench, waiting for her train. She glimpses a man’s face. The first of five. Five stories to tell! In every language spoken in Belgium and on tour. Music! The memory of these long-vanished partners is tinged with sweet sadness.

As the narrative of stillborn romances, lost loves and past intimacy unfolds, our gaze explores the set as our ears take in the comforting soundscape. The anxious mood sparks neither narcissism nor bitterness, but rather a thoughtful dialogue of shared emotions. Handel, Vivaldi, Pärt, Koenig, Cage, Paredes, Tchaikovsky, Prévert, Ligeti, Górecki, Gershwin—bluesmen channeling our sadness?

Coincidence and, above all, necessity

Who hasn’t suffered the slings and arrows of youth’s uncertainty? Who hasn’t run away, just once, even if only in their imagination? “Initially, you have no idea how long all this will last.” (Transl.) Like life itself, the tiny forms reveal a complete ecosystem, and the coherent interplay of physicality, symbol and imagination makes up a complete play.

In the late 1940s, renowned French puppeteer Yves Joly created Les Mains seules, a series of ballets for human hands: in Profondeur sous-marine, eight gloved hands dance to the music of Erik Satie. Audiences at the time were charmed by the appeal of the scaled-down forms and condensed narratives: after a life lived, so little endures! Jaco Van Dormael explored the same concept in his 2009 film Mr. Nobody, about the alternative destinies of a man who is at once everyone and no one.

Captivated by differences in scale and perspective, theatre of objects gives video a run for its money. But the camera adapts to the characters’ changing moods. They breathe, they love, she cries, her subconscious makes a film. No sooner has one refrain ended than the next, insistent, begins. The hands scrabbling through Gisèle’s past invent their own sign language, a chance at a new life.

We are all puppets

Once again Gilles Vigneault springs to mind: Mari, Marie, Marion, Mariette, mar-mar-married. A rejoinder to the song by Jimmy Scott. As the story unfolds, revealing hints of our unfulfilled yearning for love, we are reminded of the fleeting nature of our existence—but there’s no ego tripping, there are no anxiety attacks, no exaggerated pathos, no victims’ blood, no cries of revolt. Classic comedy wins out in the end, offering gentle, affectionate humour, neither defeatist nor agitated. Its poetic absurdity is acknowledged, accepted, complete.

Inspired by their relationship as a couple and by the collective act of creation, choreographer Michèle Anne De Mey and filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael have given us an engaging and reflective work that speaks of the persistence of memory, of the passage of time and the bits and pieces left behind, appearing briefly and vanishing just as quickly, lost and buried fragments of our lives, a puff of air, an ephemeral bazaar. Like its title, Kiss & Cry offers both sorrow and comfort.

But when Marion awakes
The milk of the sun is warm
Tell us all the wonders
Of the islands of your dreams
Smile, Marion
Mommy and Daddy are listening
Smile, Marion
We are listening, wide-eyed

-- Gilles Vigneault, Berceuse pour Marion (Lullaby for Marion) (transl.)


1. The script of Thomas Grunzig’s Kiss & Cry is published by Les Impressions Nouvelles (“Traverses” series, 2012) and includes numerous production photographs.


Teacher, critic and author GUYLAINE MASSOUTRE is on the faculty of the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal and a regular contributor to the daily newspaper Le Devoir and the theatre magazine Jeu. She has written several books, including Matière noire: les constellations de la bibliothèque (Nota bene, 2013), Renaissances: vivre avec Joyce, Aquin, Yourcenar (Fides, 2007) and L’atelier du danseur (Fides, “Métissages” series, 2004).

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