Jack Anderson

Last Touch First

“Last Touch First”
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
April 10-15, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., (212) 242-0800,; $10-$49
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, April 13, 2012

Apparently affluent indolent people pose in the drawing room of a 19th-century manor house at the start of “Last Touch First,” by Jiri Kylian, the Czech-born former director of Nederlands Dans Theater, and Michael Schumacher, an American dancer based in Europe. Much happens; most of the time, very slowly, but there are moments when, despite the visual clarity of the action, you can’t be sure just why it is happening. This helps make “Last Touch First” something of a mystery: its choreographers withhold, as well as supply, information.

Here are six people in a drawing room, yet it does not seem much lived-in, for the furniture and floor are shrouded with sheets. Perhaps this is a haunted house, and the characters are ghosts endlessly reliving the dead past. They almost always do so in such extreme slow motion that even the slightest acceleration provides a visual shock. The people gathered in costumes by Joke Visser include three men (David Krugel, Václav Kuneš, and Schumacher), and three women: one with a glass (Sabine Kupferberg), one with a book (Elke Schepers), and one in a somber costume, as if in mourning (Cora Bos-Kroese).

Her costume recalls the opening of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” in which someone asks a woman, “Why do you always wear black?” and she replies, “I am in mourning for my life.” A program note specifically calls the dance Chekhovian in atmosphere, and its manor-house setting and elegant melancholy do suggest Chekhov. But before the hour-long work ends, another great early Modernist playwright comes to mind.

The dancers sit, stand, and shift positions with great deliberation. The woman with a book reads, occasionally murmuring incomprehensible words. The drinking woman refills her glass. The slow tempo makes it hard to predict if these and other comparable sequences will have trivial or dire consequences. The slightest action demands close attention, and actions grow increasingly peculiar: thus, the woman with a book burns pages from it, and when a man walks up to someone with his arms outstretched, one can’t be sure if his intent is to strangle or simply to touch.

Some slow-motion episodes have distinctly erotic implications. The bibulous woman exposes a leg and tickles a man’s back with her bare feet. A man wraps the bookish lady into a sheet. Dancers grope, grapple and tussle in sequences which, if performed at normal speed, might look almost pornographic; such scenes gradually become both quicker and more frequent.

Dirk Haubrich’s music also changes. Most of the score consists of repeated and not particularly loud notes on the piano. But these passages can be interrupted by jarringly loud piano sounds, and ominous electronic rumbles which gather force as quarrels erupt among the characters. The choreography also grows more violent until the dancers tear the room apart only, at last, to face the audience emotionally drained and with dazed looks. In a sneaky progression, gentle Chekhovian sadness has given way to volcanic eruptions akin to those of August Strindberg’s plays.

The effect upon the viewer is perhaps not as devastating as it might have been, for the choreography reveals too little about how and why the characters were drawn to this manor in the first place. But what they do there always commands attention. Kylian and Schumacher have transformed what might have remained only a compositional gimmick (slow motion) into a vehicle for intense dramatic expression.


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