The human hand: a tool, a weapon, a vital source of communication and symbolism. From Dürer’s gnarled hands lifted in prayer to God and Adam’s near-touching fingertips in the Sistine Chapel, the humble hand has been an example of human exceptionalism, intimately connected with the brain, and a focus of art and literature for centuries. Building on this aesthetic tradition and headlining the London International Mime Festival, now in its 40th year, Belgian Charleroi Danses' Kiss and Cry creates an unusual theatrical experience through its singular focus on the human hand. Conceptually the product of experiment, it transforms self-imposed restriction into a unique mode of expression.

© Marteen Vanden Abeele
© Marteen Vanden Abeele

Built around the story of Gisele – an old woman remembering her past lovers, the production weaves together choreography performed by hands, clever cinematography, plastic toy figures, and a train-set to create a melancholic, delicate story of loss and regret. The results were bewitching and genre-busting. A moving camera magnified live film to a centre-stage screen as Gisele’s five lovers (one for each finger) are ‘embodied’ by two dancing fingers. While focused only on their hands, to use the term ‘embody’ is no misnomer; somehow, upright on two fingers Michele Anne de Mey and Gregory Grojean’s finger and hand-dancing managed to express a range of emotion as replete with meaning as any face or body; perhaps more so. These two hands expressed: the coquetry of the lover’s first steps towards each other; their first touch as they held hands on the train; the exultation of youthful double-jointed prancing and waltzing and finally, stiffening rejection as their knuckle- joints closed into a fist. This narrative vocabulary was interspersed with hands that joyfully pirouetted and ice-skated across the stage or made abstract geometric shapes and optical illusions using smoke and mirrors.

On a darkened stage, the crew manipulated miniature props, moved the live-feed camera and worked at computer screens. Becoming part of the scenery without disturbing the suspension of disbelief they laid bare the mechanisms behind the creation of Gisele’s world. Table-tops became film sets, across which Gisele’s relationships were dissected while the circling train at the front of the stage represented the passing of time.

© Mateen Vanden Abeele
© Mateen Vanden Abeele
Stage-props functioned to materialise metaphors throughout the show: abandonment and death became holes and tunnels; depression became a furnished room rotating in space, while past lovers were a suitcase of severed hands kept locked away in nested boxes on a high shelf. Tiny figures lost in sand dunes and the return to an elderly Gisele sitting on a bench reinforced the sense of nostalgia.

While the impact of this emotional landscape was undeniable, the show was undermined by the bland – at times awkward – recorded narration. Compared to the swelling emotion of the music and the poignancy of the symbolic scenery, Kiss and Cry’s script needed to be refined and simplified. Metaphors comparing love to a cheese grater made the audience chuckle, but for me clashed with the lyrical sentiment of the piece.

A few technical glitches had to be quickly resolved on the night; several crew members scurried in the dark re-connecting cables to restore a momentarily frozen screen. These aside, the technical quality of the production is undeniable. Grojean and de Mey were superb while occasional glimpses of the crew’s faces added to an infectious atmosphere of childish delight. Ultimately, the power of Kiss and Cry resides in the expressivity of the dancer’s hands. In fact, the show has left me questioning the relative power of the face. Could a face subject to the standards of beauty, ever capture the range of expressive movements and gestures or evoke a ‘life’ as convincingly as the bulging veins and erotically entwined fingers of two hands?