How do you know that a particular performance has really got you?
In my case, I know that a work has sunk deep into my being when I don’t want to write about it. This is not for any lack of things to say, but because of some ill-advised kind of respect, as if in writing about the work I risk explaining it away, diminishing its liveliness and intrigue. When a work has a huge impact on me, it seems simply to speak for itself. Any attempt at describing what happened, doubling the performance with a mere account of it, would fail compared to the visceral, sensorial experience of the live performance.
Such is the predicament I find myself in while trying to review Kiss & Cry, which had its Toronto premiere last week at CanStage, and which will be at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa later this season.
Like so many works being presented today, Kiss & Cry is a multidisciplinary experiment. It is a dance work, a theatre piece, a work of art, a film, a meditation on the body, a love story, a soundscape and an atmosphere.
The central characters in the story are ‘played’ by two hands — one male and one female. But the miraculous thing about Kiss & Cry is that this initial gimmick is quickly forgotten amidst the masterful manipulation of miniature sets and Foley arts. At first, the hands seem to stand in for the whole body, but through sustained focus the hands take on a life of their own. The astonishing fact that hands are as good as (possibly even better than) the entire body at expressing subtleties of feeling and punctuating story is a revelation, but the real achievement is the nearly pornographic intimacy made plain through the artless touching between two hands. For art to represent love in such a natural, earthly, asexual and mundane fashion is an accomplishment indeed. And it was positively electric to watch, more so because it made the point so simply.
The work could easily have become a complex mess of meta theatre because to realize the performance, many people were required on the stage — lighting designers and sound technicians, Foley artists, cameramen, set designers and the bodies of our two protagonists — all of whom laboured away in plain sight. But all of their effects were made to serve one master, their efforts focused on underlining one simple fact — the desire for intimacy is real, palpable and common.
Following from the wondrously old-timey use of traditional Foley arts, Kiss & Cry made use of some of the most primitive and essential of props and effects — steam, snow, sand and water. This was not an immersive experience and the technical virtuosity is nothing like that of Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, but neither was the level of disbelief. Instead, this work used humble means to extraordinary, whimsical ends. By bringing in the element of live projection and accomplished live camera work, the performance moved well into the twenty-first century, but did so while retaining a human scale. It was funny, sad, moving, invigorating and beautiful, creating a small world easy to get into because it was rooted in the physical (rather than the virtual) realm.
In one of the most moving scenes (a sort of meditation on loss and heartbreak), the female hands mime the lyrics to Jimmy Scott’s pared-down version of Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You. Gradually as the piece develops, the male hand enters the scene moving in unison through a series of repeated gestures. We might surmise that these are the movement-memories of the love that once was. The black, long-sleeved shirts and black pants worn by the actors, Michèle Anne de Mey and Grégory Grosjean, allow the camera to focus exclusively on the hands, which are contrasted against a stark black background (unlike other scenes where they are embedded in settings and contexts). Perhaps because of these stripped-down means, during this scene my eye was drawn to the bodies of the performers. While the camera focused on one set of hands, I realized that their bodies were moving through this larger adage. The other male hand (the one not visible to the camera) wrapped around the woman’s neck, while the woman’s hand slid along the waist of her male partner and so on through the movement — down the torso, across the chest, along the shoulders, these illicit gestures performed off-camera and onstage were sexy and sad. This ‘behind-the-scenes’ sensuality put on display before the audience was provocative, yet I felt the back of my throat tense and tighten with the sadness that comes when something is too beautiful. Like a modern-day Salomé where what is visible and central is perhaps the least tantalizing, the off-screen action was passionate and real, but also (according to the story) impossible and disavowed. Yet the scene, like the state of grief itself, was prolonged and there was no escape from this moment or this truth, which proclaimed, simply, ‘all things must pass.’ The juxtaposition between the lost intimacy and the proximity of the two bodies was perfect. And it made me want to make love.
With all of the multidisciplinary possibilities available to performers today, at least a part of the creative task lay in discerning what elements to use and in what proportions. You don’t necessarily need holograms and pyrotechnics to create tension and drama. Kiss & Cry reminded me of just how little one needs to move the human heart — you need a pair of hands — and of how simple means can be used to extraordinary ends.