For our next Dance Talks on Monday, April 2, The Joyce is thrilled to present a video-illustrated evening hosted by award winning dance writer Deborah Jowitt. The recipient of Dance USA’s Ernie Award for “unsung heroes” and a Bessie Award, Ms. Jowitt will examine Jiri Kylian’s Last Touch First and provide some context for the performances that will take place on the Joyce stage April 10-15.
Ms. Jowitt provided the following notes to enhance and expand your experience.
In July, 1979, at City Center, the Nederlands Dans Theater performed eight works by Jirí Kylián—a choreographer whose name was still unfamiliar to most New Yorkers. His pieces were instantly adored, as were the gorgeous dancers who performed them. At the time the Czech choreographer was 32 and had been the company’s artistic director for only two years.
What was it that those who saw Kylián’s dances back then instantly loved about them? The choreographer had come of age as a dancer and choreographer in the Stuttgart Ballet at a time when classicism was embarking on a muscular romance with modern dance through the aesthetic of choreographers such as Hans van Manen and Glen Tetley. Virtuosity untethered from the ballet vocabulary could serve as a vehicle for anguish, hope, passion, and exaltation; choreographers could mold dancers’ bodies to convey these inner states. Kylián too embraced intense feelings, physical prowess, glamour, dancers as living sculpture, but, as I wrote at the time, he didn’t “belabor his points or numb us with ornateness.” His style was juicy without the preening quality that sometimes goes hand in hand with sensuality onstage.
During the first part of Kylián’s career, creating an individual vocabulary of steps seemed less interesting to him than how to utilize those steps and adjust them in relation to music and theme.
He used important music, but didn’t make the rush and sweep of his movement adhere closely to its measure-by-measure patterning—instead following the overall shape of a passage and entering the music’s mood. He created Return to the Strange Land (1975), for instance, in response to the sudden death, two years earlier, of John Cranko, the director of the Stuttgart Ballet and Kylián’s mentor. The musical accompaniment that he chose was four elegiac piano pieces that the choreographer’s fellow countryman, Leos Janacék, had written as part of a song cycle mourning the death of his daughter.
The choreography that Kylián showed in that first major New York visit bore out a statement he made around that time: for him, the pas de deux was the essence of dance. Although he is expert at deploying large groups of dancers, he has continued to express through duets many facets of the forces that pull human beings this way and that. He has ways of tangling a man and a woman together that speak eloquently of unappeasable longings, passing harmony, knotty problems, dissonant liaisons, ecstasy, grief.
In 1991, there were two Nederlands Dans Theater companies—NDT 1 being the original group and NDT 2 an ensemble of dancers between 17 and 21 years old. In that year, Kylián founded NDT 3, a shifting cadre of greatly gifted, mature performers, and commissioned works from a variety of choreographers in addition to himself. In November of 1994, all three companies performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where NDT 3 consisted of Gary Chryst, former member of the Joffrey Ballet; Martine Van Hamel, ex American Ballet Theatre principal dancer; and Sabine Kupferberg and Gérard Lemaitre onetime formidable NDT performers. All were over 40 (Lemaitre was 58).
It was for NDT 3 that Kylián, a prolific choreographer whose works grace the repertories of many companies in many countries, created Last Touch in 2003. With it, he entered a mesmerizing domain that both refers to and breaks away from the body of work he had established. He is no longer in charge of Nederlands Dans Theater, and NDT 3 no longer exists. But Last Touch First, the 2008 work receiving its U.S. premiere at the Joyce (April 10 through 15) is an expansion of the earlier piece. All but one of the dancers who perform it are former NDT 1 and/or NDT 3 members.
That one is Michael Schumacher, a choreographer and master of improvisation, who danced for such choreographers as William Forsythe and Twyla Tharp. The extraordinary dance-drama Last Touch First is a collaboration between Kylián and Schumacher. In it, Kylian’s fascination with the struggles between one man and one woman assumes a different guise. Scenery and props become not only charged with significance (like the rapiers so meaningfully manipulated by six men in his 1991 Petite Mort), but subject to constantly shifting interpretations. Last Touch First takes place in what might be the drawing room of a fin-de-siécle mansion, except that unbleached muslin covers the floor and most of the furniture—as if the owners had gone away, or were in the process of leaving. The rumpled sea of fabric acquires its own storms as it yields to the manipulations of the six people who seem marooned in this place. Kylián has acknowledged the influence of Chekhov’s plays on his work, and indeed, the woman reading, the men playing cards, the woman lighting a candle could be the idle, stalled characters of The Cherry Orchard or Three Sisters. Although their silent debates don’t pose large questions about life and death, there is a momentous weight to everything they do.
What they do is not the juicy, full-out dancing associated with Kylián, but a distillation of its impulses. The key to the work’s hypnotic power is its manipulation of time. Almost throughout Last Touch First, people move so slowly that when one of them makes a gesture, you can imagine many ways in which it might conclude. A man advances from upstage toward the woman with the book, his hands very gradually reaching out to her. Could he be planning to take the book from her? To strangle her? Or. . .? Only at the end of what seems a very long time do you discover the answer. In Last Touch First, desires and rages bloom like flowers in time-lapse nature films—except that the blossoms’ motion has been speeded up and these people’s normal pace has been decelerated. The gestures of the characters call to mind the discrepancies that can occur between the actual passage of time and perceived time, like those described by Oliver Sacks in his essay, “Speed” (published in The New Yorker, August 23, 2004). Sacks wrote of dream time, hallucinogenic drugs, and neurological disorders in which patients’ snail’s-pace or speeded-up motions feel normal to them.
In the leisurely, yet highly erotic and theatrically pressured environment of Last Touch First, you become a detective. Who are these two men playing cards? Why is this woman drinking? Who is married to whom? Is this all a dream? Kylián’s abiding interest in the tensions between men and women produces hyper-charged images—not through conventional devices (beautifully sculpted ecstasy or anguished tangles) but because of the way a woman slides her long skirt up to bare her leg or a man lowers himself into a woman’s lap. The smallest motion acquires immense drama. Your eye can roam around this domain of suspended time—watching now one pair, now another, now the gradual shift of partners, now a gathering. Dirk Haubrich’s piano music is pitted with sudden, sharp pings, as if a glass has been broken; whispers and disorienting sounds gradually invade the dreamlike atmosphere and push it into nightmare terrain, where acts usually done in privacy or in imagination impinge on publically acceptable behavior.
Eerily, Kylián and Schumacher tamper with our own perceptions. In the stretched-out time to which the two creators of Last Touch First have accustomed us, a sudden change from extreme slow motion to hyper-fast speed becomes unusually shocking, and a lapse into the tempo we call “normal” seems both unfamiliar and heart-breaking.