Dance/Film preview: Cold Blood at the Edinburgh International Festival

Cold Blood
Cold Blood
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Dancing hands have a wider range than you’d think, says Kelly Apter

It might come with complications, but one thing that’s handy about working with the person you live with is they’re almost always there. When Jaco Van Dormael and Michèle Anne De Mey first hit upon the idea of combining their talents for filmmaking and choreography, they didn’t need expensive studios or rehearsal rooms to test out their vision, they used something much closer to home.

“We began by improvising on our kitchen table,” recalls Van Dormael. “So the first challenge for me was, is it possible to make a feature film on a table? And for Michèle Anne it was, is it possible to make a dance using just hands?”

The answer to both questions was “yes”, and in 2012 Kiss & Cry was born – a unique project fusing dance and cinema, which they performed 350 times in nine languages around the world. As they travelled, they began hatching ideas for a second show, Cold Blood, which is about to play the Edinburgh International Festival.

Until you see it in the flesh, the concept itself is hard to fully comprehend, but essentially Van Dormael and De Mey create a film in real time. De Mey and other performers use just their hands to depict characters, while Van Dormael and his team capture the action – performed on tiny sets – through a camera and project it onto a screen. Every aspect of the show, from dancing hands to moving camera, is visible to the audience. As Van Dormael says: “The camera shows what the eyes can’t see, and the eyes see what the camera isn’t showing.”

Prior to this endeavour, both Van Dormael and De Mey had been creating work in their respective fields for years. Van Dormael as an acclaimed filmmaker and playwright, perhaps best known for his multiple award-winning 2007 feature film Mr Nobody starring Jared Leto. De Mey has spent the past 40 years as a respected dancer and choreographer, being a founder member of Anne Teresa De ­Keersmaeker’s Rosas, and 12 years as artistic director of Brussels-based company Charleroi Danses.

But despite their extensive careers, neither of them had experienced anything like this before. “It’s ­completely the opposite process of making a film, where you write the script, find the staff and then shoot,” says Van Dormael. “With this, we improvised for about four months and didn’t have a storyline at all. We just tried to create different worlds and ideas, and slowly little bits and pieces of story appeared and it became more precise. Only at the very end did we have a script.”

When they created Kiss & Cry, the story that emerged was a romance between a man and a woman, ­performed using a male and female hand. Four years later, when they were thrashing around ideas for Cold Blood, they had three performers to work with and a very different narrative took shape.

“We started experimenting with accidents, so the theme of Cold Blood is what will happen during the very last moment of your life?” explains Van Dormael. “In the show there are seven very stupid ways of dying – an allergy to mashed potato, that kind of thing. So at the beginning, we pretend that the audience has been hypnotised so everybody can die seven times and come back without harm.

“But just at the very last moment, what do these characters remember? It’s not the day they got their degree or became famous or anything like that, it’s the little things like the smell of fruit or the caress of skin – sensual things that are probably the most important things you can remember, but you’re not aware of that until you’re about to die.”

Both born and based in Belgium, Van Dormael and De May had tried previously to combine artforms but to no avail – as Van Dormael says: “for me it’s impossible to film dance on stage, because when I make a wide shot I don’t see the face, and when I see the face I forget the body.” Working on this very special cinematic project, however, has been something of a revelation for the couple.

“At the beginning it was not easy at all,” says Van Dormael. “You can imagine, working with the person you love can be hard. But then it became really interesting – it was like seeing the reverse side of the moon. I hadn’t realised that by ­working with Michèle Anne, I could discover things about her that I didn’t know, even though we have lived together for a long time. And, of course, it’s much more fun to travel together and not be alone in a hotel room while she is alone in another city, in another hotel room.”

Cold Blood is at the King’s Theatre until 6 August, times vary.