Michael Schumacher

The American dancer teams up with Jiri Kylian in Last Touch First

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What was the process like with Kylian in terms of expanding the original characters?
We started with the characters that he had mapped out, and what he thought about each of them and what their backgrounds and intentions were. Jiri understood who they were, and each of the dancers had written a piece about who they thought they were—that was an assignment he gave them. So it came with a good template of character and some development, but it was very short. The piece was 25 minutes; there were one or two steps and it was over. I thought, If we’re going to work on it, let’s really dig in and find the movement that relates to the characters. What happens to them? What’s really under their skin? That’s what we were interested in. We’ve even talked recently about developing it further. We’re not aiming for a finished story. It has a feeling that it could have more life in it. So we improvised a bit and tried different scenes, different movement vocabulary. It was easy to find what was true. I was looking very much at subtext. There were times with Jiri where I felt, Okay, this has become visually impressive, but I don’t understand why the characters have moved in this way. So we would go back and look at it again and try another version to keep the characters’ inner lives visible. The back-and-forth of that dialogue was wonderful, and he was very receptive and open to my questions and suggestions. I had never worked with him as a dancer or as a collaborator [before], but I was really impressed with how open he was.

What is the experience of performing the piece?
It’s incredibly engaging and challenging because when you’re moving slow, you have more time to notice every detail. I break into a sweat, and that’s quite surprising. In a way, it’s more challenging to keep the flow and the concentration and also to keep the sense that you’re alive and not becoming a frozen object. That’s the fine line: You want to go slow enough where you seem to be almost inanimate, but you’re not. [Laughs] It has a lot to do with controlled breathing and a sense of ease inside the energy. The biggest challenge for me is to make sure that tension doesn’t take over.

What is your warm-up like?
I do a combination of yoga, tai chi and ballet. The preparation after the warm-up is more specific: It’s about moving really slow for a good amount of time—just practicing that. It seems easy, but it’s not. The shifting of weight in slow motion, without losing your balance or becoming tense, is very challenging. You have to really let yourself be where you are. You have to accept that maybe I’m falling off in this moment, but then bring it back to the center without creating a crisis. [Laughs] A crisis works well in some situations. I love the idea of throwing myself into an impossible coordination that creates a crisis, and then the recovery is something else; but in this case, we’re not allowed that. It’s not in the script. It’s a different kind of improvisation. When you’re off in your own trajectory, it’s easy to get lost and not connect with each other, and now we’re finding that the more we pay attention to each other, the more we have created these extended subtexts or stories between us that were not originally spoken about. It grows all the time.

Are you a huge Butoh fan?
I am! Kazuo Ohno is one of my all-time heroes. I go back and forth between Fred Astaire and Kazuo Ohno in terms of what is entertaining and what is beauty. I love Balanchine, too. These artists I’ve worked with—Eliot Feld and Twyla Tharp and Bill Forsythe and Amanda Miller—celebrate the mix of what it is that dance can be. That’s always been my appetite. What is the edge of what is considered interesting and marketable in the dance world? [Laughs] I’m looking forward to bringing it to New York. I danced there 30 years ago at the Joyce Theater.

Was that with Eliot Feld?
Yes. It’s fun to go back there, of all places. Eliot gave me my first work right out of Juilliard. I was in the company before I finished school.

Did you audition?
I did. It was one of the first companies I’d seen in New York. I moved to New York to work on Broadway. My initial experience was in musical theater: singing, mostly tap dancing and jazz, and it wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I started studying modern and ballet. It was recommended that I find a university to study dance. My parents thought that would be more advantageous, and I ended up going to Juilliard because I saw in the catalog that they had a video camera. In 1978, that was, like, wow. That’s so high-tech. [Laughs] Of course, the video camera was bigger than my suitcase. My mother said, “You do know what Juilliard is, don’t you?” She was a musician, so she was a bit shocked that I was so clueless. I auditioned and luckily they accepted me. I never made it back to Broadway. [Laughs]

What pulled you toward Feld’s work?
The obvious mix of modern and ballet. The reaching toward a new contemporary vocabulary. I found his dancers amazing. The group at that time was very inspiring.

You went from Feld to Twyla Tharp. Did you break your contract?
I did. That was an abrupt change. It was a move of aesthetic as well. Twyla was putting together a new company, and I was incredibly enamored of her work. A couple of other friends from Feld were also going to audition; in a way it was a flow in that direction. She was very welcoming, so I jumped a couple of months before I should have, but it was good in a lot of ways. It woke me up in terms of the bigger picture in New York. I learned a lot about what it is to be a dancer in the broader context as an artist and independent agent. With Eliot, it was easier for me to fit into the [traditional] mold of a dancer.

Why did you leave Tharp?
I was there for almost two years. I felt a bit frustrated. She wasn’t around as much as I was hoping. She was busy trying to establish a school and a new studio space, and I was missing a collaboration with her of some kind. It was a lot of repertory and touring, and I began to get impatient. When you’re in your twenties, you tend to see things as very immediate, so I decided to move on. I spoke to her about it, and she was disappointed, and I was too, but I felt, Okay—if I’m going to really do this, I’m going to learn how to be on my own. So I left. I first went to work in Portugal for a few months with my friend Mark Haim, who I went to Juilliard with. After that, through other friends, I visited Frankfurt and met Bill [Forsythe], and I fell in love with his work. He opened his door to me as well. I moved to Frankfurt and worked there for five years.

How did you come to dance in the first place?
I was an athlete when I was younger and I thought, This is interesting but it’s a little bit boring. I enjoyed being on a team, but I didn’t find the right sport. When I started dancing, I realized, this is it. You’re not playing to hundreds of thousands of people, but you do have a captive audience. I also felt how the rush of the performance in a theater was much different than it was on the field. I think it had lot to do with the coordination and the physical exactitude that was needed to be a dancer. It was much more challenging than all the sports I was playing. [Laughs] And I was a born entertainer.

Last Touch First is at the Joyce Theater Apr 10–15.

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