The American dancer teams up with Jiri Kylian in Last Touch First
Mon Apr 2 2012
Photograph: Robert Benschop
As Michael Schumacher sees it, the trick of getting through the first ten minutes of Last Touch First, a dance-drama for six characters who move at a snail’s pace within a surreal Victorian parlor, is simple. “Keep breathing,” he says with a laugh. “That’s what I’m doing.” In this luminous, painstaking production, created by Schumacher and Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian, the story unfolds like a slow-motion photograph. (Their source material is Last Touch, which Kylian created in 2003 for Nederlands Dans Theater.) Schumacher, an American living in Europe who has danced with Eliot Feld, Twyla Tharp and William Forsythe, views the production as “the other side of the time game.” In other words, just focus; you’ll see more than you think.
How did this piece start?
It started with a conversation with Sabine Kupferberg. You probably remember NDT3 [Nederlands Dans Theatre 3], the company of dancers over 40? A few years ago, it closed, which left Sabine in an awkward position of being unemployed for the first time in her life. I suggested that we do something together. We spoke to Jiri, and he remembered Last Touch and suggested we take a look at it on video.
How did you want to change it?
My feeling was that the characters needed more development. It was more of a tableau scene; Jiri’s inspiration was about how slow the dancers could move, and what kind of tension it would create with a spectator. I thought, If we’re going to do something, let’s take it further in terms of its theatrical development. What is the subtext of each character? I wanted to flesh that out. Within a very few weeks, we had a new piece that was twice as long, and it gave me the opportunity to work with Sabine—to bring her a little bit more into the world of freelance work. Subsequently, it was also the same for Jiri: He, at the time, was in the process of leaving NDT, and wanted to work more independently. For both of us, it was a great adventure.
Was this a real collaboration?
Yes. Stylistically, it looks very much like Jiri’s work, but there is a departure and a development that’s not typical. That probably has to do with my theatrical background and with some of my improvisational work, too. It has a strange dynamic to it. The slow-motion element begins to play a game of temporal mechanics with your observation; a lot of people comment that because it’s slow, they think it’s going to be boring, and they’re going to have to wait for it to develop. In fact, because it’s so slow, the perspective of the eye can only see one area of the stage, so what is shocking is that when you look to the other side of the stage, you realize a lot has changed, and you can’t understand how. It’s a paradox. It’s slow motion, but you cannot keep up with it, which is great.
How is this a departure from Kylian’s work?
I would say most clearly in terms of character development, and the time that was allowed for us to develop the characters. That may have not been so well-explored in his previous work. His work has a great range, but primarily his choreographic aesthetic focuses on the forms of the dancer in space. Last Touch First is more about the form of the dancer internally, or the internal development of the dancer, performer, artist. In this case, it’s a collection of six dancers who have something like 250 years of experience among us. [Laughs] It’s packed with information. It continues to develop and to grow because at every performance, we bring something new to it. We have a score and a script, and it feels very much like a play to me. The paradox is that it’s set—it should be the same every time; but because it’s moving so slowly, we notice how different it is every night, and that’s when the improvisational side of our experience is fully utilized. I find that fun. People comment that they want to see it again because they feel that they’ve missed so much. The director of the Holland Dance Festival, Samuel Wuersten—who commissioned the work—has seen it several times, and he still says, “There’s one part I keep wanting to see and I keep missing it!” I find that element of it is positive: It has a life, and we continue to find subtext with each other, which is also unusual in dance. Sometimes you reach a plateau, but we haven’t reached that yet.
What is an example of the way in which the production continues to grow?
I’ll give you a microscopic view: At one point, I sit in a chair and reach over and pick up a glass. For the rest of the day, every time you reach over to pick up a glass, think about how many times you do it exactly the same. If that’s your script, and your character has a certain way of handling a glass and drinking from it, then that’s a huge amount of information and a huge amount to deal with from performance to performance. It relates very much to my philosophy about life and improvisation. There are many sides of our daily lives that we incorporate into our improvisational behavior. Not everyone may see it that way, but I do, and that’s why I find it entertaining that in a dance-theater piece like this, it’s readable. You have to see it a few times to understand that, which is why a lot of people see it more than once. It’s hard to catch all of the elements the first time; you’re busy trying to put all the pieces together.
So do audience members get overly absorbed in certain sections and miss others?
From what I understand, you get the mise en scène. You understand, Okay, this is a parlor in a period roughly around the turn of the century, and the characters resemble people that may or may not have been in a Chekhov play. We use Chekhov as a reference, but it was never intended to be a telling of his work; it’s more an impression of Chekhov and that era, with characters who have a dissatisfaction with the banality of daily life. However, because our eyes work very much in different levels of focus, it’s easy to get distracted by certain details. You might start to focus on small gestures and objects. I find that may be the key. Not only is it a piece in which to observe the whole, but it is also a time to think about how you, as an audience member, observe.
Were you thinking about that specifically when you were creating it?
Very much so. I was keen about keeping a constant dialogue with Jiri about character development: that any movement that happened onstage was relative to the character at that point in the piece. It was a blueprint for us to keep the piece moving along in a way that had theatrical integrity.
Can you describe the characters?
There are three women; we refer to them as the three sisters of Chekhov. You sense that they have a family relationship. The three men are of different ages. One is an older gentlemen; one is middle-aged, who I play. He’s more of a card shark and deceitful—a bit of a trickster. And then there’s the younger one, the innocent, love-lost character. In some ways, he’s the most tragic and the one who’s abused the most. In my mind, it’s quite sad what happens to him. These are very subtle and personal observations. I think the piece is strong in that it allows for different interpretations. There’s nothing fixed in our telling.