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Duet of a Lifetime

by Sophia Kelley MFA ’10

Although David Neumann (theatre) is not actively dancing anymore, he didn’t think twice when Mikhail Baryshnikov invited him to perform a duet. “It was really exciting; he’s an extraordinary force in the world of dance,” Neumann says.

The two met during a New York Theater Workshop production of Samuel Beckett’s one-act plays. Baryshnikov liked Neumann’s work and asked him to choreograph a duet that they would perform together. The result, “The Common Foreign Language of the Red-Haired People,” was inspired by their experience with Beckett’s plays, which are very physical, Neumann says. He borrowed the title from a Chinese pamphlet of English phrases published in the 18th century, which he read about in a New Yorker article.

The duet’s story focuses on where the two men are in their careers, although it is not specifically autobiographical, Neumann says, explaining that the piece reveals part of the process of its creation and that there is “a dark humor” in the work.

The collaboration has been a successful one because the two men get along well. Though Baryshnikov is almost 20 years older than Neumann, the older man is in better shape, Neumann reports.

Last year they performed the piece in Greece and Italy as well as at a fundraiser for the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan—a location with special significance, Neumann says, because “Baryshnikov is almost single-handedly rescuing the downtown dance scene. And not just dance—live music and theatre as well.” They plan to tour the duet again this summer.

Neumann and Maryshnikov

David Neumann, left, strikes a pose with Mikhail Baryshnikov during a rehearsal. Photo by Chris Lee.