REVIEW: Jiří Kylián and Michael Schumacher’s “Last Touch First” at the Joyce Theater
In the world of film, slow motion is a no-brainer for building tension. Where slowing footage with a mouse click is simple, real people performing slow motion rarely reads as realistic and is difficult to sustain. These considerations do not strike fear but rather interest for choreographers Jiří Kylián and Michael Shumacher. In their 2008 collaboration, Last Touch First, they tackle slow motion as a tool for heightened experience and they push it to the limit. Last Touch First is a strikingly self-aware work. It acknowledges that its unique effect is only realized in the medium of live dance. When I first met the piece at the Joyce last week, I was wary of a boredom factor. When the lights went out on it, I noticed that this factor never arose.
Set in a dusky Victorian sitting room, Last Touch First is as much about ornate visual design as movement concepts. Two women are seated in the parlor, away from each other. One is reading, one staring ahead. Two men converse on a seat near the window. Another woman is standing, preparing a dinner table. The scene opens right at the moment that a third male comes through the front door to greet them all. It takes a full minute for his first step. I marvel as each character’s face changes as if frame-by-frame. I switch my focus to the standing woman pulling the tablecloth closer to her. As I fixate on her hands, I expect a flinch that is the giveaway of her effort but her measured progression is unflawed. Meanwhile, I have missed the two gentlemen now passing cards in the windowsill and now, the woman in the corner has picked up a wine bottle and glass from the side table. Even in slow motion, things can slip by. Kylian and Schumacher are training me not only to be patient, but perceptive. They have put me in such suspense that I am keenly aware of my own pulse.
As duet partnerships are formed, dancers interactions range from absurd (balancing on a sofa chair) to violent and passionate (a woman pinned on the dining table). Subtle links in structure, such as all three women’s arms rising at once or two gentlemen falling in sync, are unexpected and visually satisfying. A rare quick action breaks the fantasy, jarring an established pace. Similarly, the haunting score by Dirk Haubrich occasionally squeals sharp and icy piano in what is otherwise a glassy wash of sound.
What only hints at haunting in the beginning spirals into full-blown ghosts. A mirror is removed from the wall and dancers begin to carry it, reflecting its eerie light across the stage as other dancers begin to skitter around the fabric-covered floor and even rise up walls, sitting on the doorframe. One moment they seem a team and the next the energy is suspicious and untrustworthy. Soon, dancer Sabine Kupferberg meanders across the stage as if hypnotized, and the other five drag the fabric underneath her pulling her away from an exit. It seems moving forward is an impossibility in this strange realm.
This piece is characterized by maturity (both of choreographers and of this advanced cast of former Nederlands Dans Theater performers). Each risk taken is backed up with confidence. The message is this: audiences can truly transform if they are shown the way. They can focus on more than just five minute YouTube clips and raging Twitter feeds. The result is a buzzing lobby and a lingering feeling of awe. Even as we get up to leave the theater we are wary of moving at the speed we usually do—which means that the world of Last Touch First is not only perplexing, it’s seductive.