It’s often said that the eyes are the windows into the soul. But for the husband-and-wife team of Belgian film director Jaco Van Dormael and renowned choreographer Michele Anne De May, our hands may be the body’s most elemental form of expression. That idea has been brought to lyrical life in “Cold Blood,” a singular theater-dance-cinema hybrid, arriving in Boston this week, that employs inventive hand choreography to represent the people populating their enchanting dollhouse worlds.
“There’s something they do that imbues these hands with some level of character, so we can actually forget that it’s literally just a hand and not a whole life and a whole person there,” says David Dower, the artistic director of ArtsEmerson, which is presenting “Cold Blood” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre May 30-June 3.
When Van Dormael and De May brought “Kiss & Cry,” their first collaboration, to ArtsEmerson in 2013, audiences were transfixed watching these tiny universes take shape. With a crew manipulating the miniature movie sets, lights, and low-fi special effects, the precisely choreographed enterprise was filmed live onstage and then projected onto a giant screen overhead. So viewers could watch both the cinematic result and the ingenious techniques used to make these mesmerizing theatrical illusions.
“It’s a bit like if you see the magic and how the trick is done at the same time,” says Van Dormael, in a Skype interview from his home in Belgium. “Watching the two simultaneously gives you a stereoscopic view of what’s happening. You see with your eyes what the camera does not show, and the camera shows what is too small to be seen with the eyes. It wouldn’t be the same if you just saw the result.”
Their new piece, “Cold Blood,” employs the same hybrid form to tell hypnotic tales of seven deaths, from the blackly comic to the absurdly tragic (a man dying inside a car wash, another succumbing to a potato allergy).
This time, the enchanting set pieces include a water ballet; a silver-screen Fred and Ginger number with thimble-covered fingers doing a mesmerizing tap routine; an ice dancing scene featuring a hand gliding in a duet with its own shadow; and a Major Tom astronaut odyssey using David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as the soundtrack. “It’s the kind of ephemeral film you cannot make in cinema,” Van Dormael says. “It has to be onstage.”
He and De May had long wanted to collaborate with each other, but Van Dormael could never figure out how to film dancing. “When I film the body, I miss the face,” he says. “When I film the face, I miss the body.” It had taken him 10 years to make his first English-language film, “Mr. Nobody,” starring Jared Leto, and the financing for the relatively expensive film was daunting. So he and De May wondered if it was possible to make a feature film right there at their kitchen table.
“I wanted to do something close to ‘arte povera,’” Van Dormael says, referring to the 1960s avant-garde movement also known as “impoverished art,” which made use of simple, commonplace, or artisanal materials. “To make a kind of ephemeral film as cheaply as possible, starting without a script and knowing that in five months it has to be finished.”
So they proceeded to test out the idea. They invited some fellow artist friends over to their home, began noodling with found material and everyday household objects, improvised various action, and used a small camera to film the results.
“We started to use the toys the kids left behind when they moved out of the house — trains, Playmobils, doll’s houses, and then other materials like sand, water, cardboard, cotton, flashlights, the wind of a hair dryer,” Van Dormael says. “We realized that we can have great effects with a minimum of material. The magic comes from the fact that perhaps everybody can do this at home, with a tiny cheap camera.”
Indeed, Dower says, “It feels like something that you would have made in your backyard on your best day as a child.”
He saw “Kiss & Cry” in 2012 at a performance in Montreal, the first show he scouted after taking over as ArtsEmerson artistic director, and he was blown away by the ingenious stagecraft. “There’s a real virtuosity to the imagery and how it’s all constructed,” Dower says. “There are moments in this piece that you almost can’t imagine how they’ve created them. The layers of inventiveness just keep coming.”
Working with his wife for the first time, Van Dormael says, “was a little bit like seeing the hidden face of the moon. Suddenly I discovered things about the woman I love that are new and different.”
In creating “Cold Blood,” they channeled their inner Edward Gorey. “‘Kiss and Cry’ was just so romantic and sweet, but there’s a slightly darker strain to this one,” Dower says. “They’ve dropped a little bit of an edge into it that’s funny and surprising. It wants to get inside your dreams and inside your fears about death.”
The artists began noodling with found material and everyday household objects, improvised various action, and used a small camera to film the results.
Van Dormael says it explores the idea that when you’re close to death, you won’t think of things like winning a Palme d’Or at Cannes or some other accomplishment. Instead, he says, “you remember the skin of the woman you loved. You remember the taste of a tomato. Those little precious moments when you feel most alive, which are in fact probably the most important things in life to remember.
“We all try to pretend that life is a story we’re constructing. We focus on tomorrow and yesterday instead of just being alive.”
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Cutler Majestic Theater, May 30-June 3. Tickets: $20-$85, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.