Jiri Kylian and Michael Schumacher
Last Touch First
Pittsburgh, August Wilson Center for African American Culture
07 April 2012
Six figures in 19th century garb sat or stood frozen as if posed for a photograph. Like something out of a Sci-Fi serial, the figures, like ghosts from the past, occupied what looked to be a long unused room of an old manor house whose antique furnishings and floor were covered by muslin drop cloths.
The figures began to move in barely-perceptible slow-motion as if their actions were somehow being transmitted in bits and pieces from their 19th century past to the present; as if the photograph they had posed for was now slowly coming to life.
The unique scene opened the U.S. premiere of Jiri Kylian and Michael Schumacher’s contemporary dance-theater work, Last Touch First, at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The hour-long production, set to an atmospheric and sometimes strident original score by Dirk Haubrich, was part of The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Distinctively Dutch Festival that showcased a variety of multidisciplinary works from the Netherlands.
The genesis of Last Touch First came out of Kylian’s 2003 work, “Last Touch”. A modified version of that work made up the first section of Last Touch First. The work’s six characters – based in part on composites of characters found in the plays of Anton Chekhov – made up three dysfunctional couples who were seemingly related but driven by very different motivations.
While a young couple (Cora Bos-Kroese and Vaclav Kunes) engaged in a playful cat-and-mouse game over a novel, the pair taking turns snatching the book from the other to read passages from it or rip pages out of it, another pair set about an altogether different game of cat-and-mouse in which the man (David Krugel) made lewd sexual advances toward his female partner (Elke Schepers) lifting her skirt and grabbing at her privates while she labored to repel his unwanted advances. The third couple danced by Schumacher and longtime Nederlands Dans Theater dancer, Sabine Kupferberg, were excessive drinkers, the pair leaning and falling into and away from the other with odd beauty and grace. At one point Schumacher, trying to relieve Kupferberg of a glass of wine, was sent tumbling backwards over a chair in controlled slow-motion. The effect was stunning.
Although danced in ultra-slow-motion, the choreography and the development of each peculiar character was brilliantly executed by the work’s cast of veteran dancers, most of whom were former members of Nederlands Dans Theater and NDT III.
A lot went on in the densely layered choreodrama. On occasion and out-of–the-blue, a movement would occur sped up such as the rapid turn of a head that drew all eyes to it before the character who executed it resumed their unhurried storytelling.
The work at times gave one an uneasy voyeuristic feeling. A feeling of peering into private and intimate interactions not meant for outside eyes which added to Last Touch First’s genius and allure. As the work progressed, the characters then turned their anger, disappointment and sexual desires toward other partners.
The movements of the dancers increased in speed and intensity as did the music and the character’s level of lunacy and conflict. As if a floodgate opened the actions of the performers became accelerated at times. In one section, the three women in the room, as if channeling aspects of Chekhov’s Three Sister’s, spewed silent, hateful condemnations at their reflections in a mirror. Moments later in front of that same mirror Schumacher spasmed wildly in a brief fitful solo. In another memorable scene dancer Schepers was lifted onto the top jamb of a door while Kunes hid under a section of the floor muslin, popping out just in time to catch Schepers when she dropped from atop the door she was on.
As the work wound down, all the characters except Kupferberg’s moved to the front of the stage and began gathering the large muslin floor covering toward them and with it the room’s furniture as Kupferberg’s character wandered about the stage as if looking for a means of escape from this combative world. The piece concluded with the characters moving back into the now-disheveled stage space and taking up the frozen poses the work began with.
In the end, Last Touch First’s unusual slice of life suspended in space and time left one with many indelible images. Its riveting choreography, clever partnering and haunting music, plus the dancer’s stellar performances, all made the work an unmitigated triumph.
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I got to see this piece a few years back in Montte-Carlo. I find your review is dead on. I spent most of the piece wondering if I was liking it or not. In this day and age it is hard to slow down and not get (i shudder to use the word) bored. However, at a certain point I realized that my eyes couldn’t move fast enough. The constant storytelling when all the couples would move at the same time sent my head flicking right and left to try to catch all the details. That is when I realized that it was a truly great piece. It is daring in a unique way. It doesn’t shock or zip around to grab your attention. It just is what it is and keeps relentlessly showing itself laid bare. I do not know much of Mr.Schumacher, but I find this is a pretty good metaphor for Mr. Kylian himself. Great piece; great review.