Context Notes for CUSTODIANS OF BEAUTY by Jeremy Barker

When Pavel Zuštiak was twelve years old, he went to an audition to offer moral support to a friend. In the wake of popular films like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, the kids in what was then Czechoslovakia were excited by the potential they saw in dance, and folk seemed more approachable than ballet. Unfortunately, Zuštiak’s friend got the date for the company audition wrong, and the pair showed up to what turned out to be the modern/contemporary dance audition.

“Everyone else was wearing tights,” Zuštiak recalled, grinning, over a recent coffee date.

By that time, the young artist had tried his hand at a variety of forms, starting with a youthful fascination with puppets, through rigorous training in classical piano and even a stint as an actor on local children’s TV. But dance stuck. His friend only lasted a month; two and a half some-odd decades later, Zuštiak’s still going strong.

Since the premier of his company Palissimo’s work in 2003, Zuštiak has produced ten increasingly ambitious works that have established him as a unique voice in New York’s contemporary dance world. Like some of his continental peers, Zuštiak has never thought of himself as solely a movement artist, instead making use of a variety of theatrical devices to create immersive choreographic experiences, most notably the Painted Bird Trilogy, which premiered between 2010 and 2012 in three parts.

Central to Zuštiak’s work is the tension between the seen and the unseen, that which is expressed and that which is hidden. As Deborah Jowitt noted in a 2003 review of his early piece Blind Spot, “In front of us are striving, sweating bodies, but beyond what they actually do lies another, more enigmatic kind of ‘doing.’”

As much as this duality between the seen and the unseen is thematic, in Zuštiak’s work it is achieved through a rigorous approach to creating performance images that do not privilege the movement over scenography or musical score. Indeed, some of Zuštiak’s longest and deepest collaborations have been with lighting designer Joe Levasseur and composer Christian Frederickson. Levasseur’s lighting has, in particular, played a large role in the development of Zuštiak’s aesthetic. As Claudia La Rocco noted in a 2008 review of a revival of Blind Spot, Levasseur’s “spooky, even menacing, design floods the space in a low haze, broken only occasionally by raw white lights. It is hard to make things out in this world, but its four inhabitants would struggle to see under any circumstances.”

“I’m actually lately more thinking of myself in terms of visual arts,” Zuštiak recently told me. “For me, images are something built from the emotional state, the visual state, visual aspect, how it’s lit. It’s about how you guide the view of the spectator.”

If this has been a more or less constant theme in his work, its apex was nevertheless with the epic Painted Bird Trilogy, in which Zuštiak—over the collective course of five or more hours’ performance time—sought to exhaust the potential for the mode in which he’d been working. While all three parts feature remarkable dance performances (particularly Jaro Viňarský, who won a 2013 Bessie Award for his performance in Bastard, the first part), each sought to reconfigure the experience of the performance in unique ways. The second part, Amidst, was performed for an audience without fixed seating, who were free to wander the space around the performers; the third, Strange Cargo, was performed in the round and debuted in the haunting, cavernous space of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2012.

Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial “novel” The Painted Bird, the trilogy takes as its subject the idea of dislocation and expulsion. The first part, Bastard, is largely based on the scene which gives the novel its title, in which a man paints a bird ecstatically bright colors and then releases it back to its flock, who, not recognizing it, turn on it and kill it. Themes of isolation from the group, the inability to fit in, and the threat society poses to the individual are woven through a piece which speaks to Zuštiak’s own experience of emigration from what is today Slovakia as well as to the social upheaval in the former Eastern Bloc nations following the end of the Cold War. These experiences are refracted through the mirror of Kosinski’s novel (originally sold as his own memoir) of a child’s experience of the Holocaust in Poland.

As much of an achievement as The Painted Bird Trilogy was, it also exhausted Palissimo’s capacity and energy to produce on such a scale. It’s maximalism and scope have conversely inspired Zuštiak to turn toward a sort of minimalism, both as a pragmatic choice as well as an aesthetic challenge, to achieve the same epic effect but in more constrained settings. Whereas the elaborate imagery and literary references of The Painted Bird Trilogy verged on a form of dance theater, 2013’s Endangered Pieces is a comparably small-scale work featuring three dancers, including Viňarský and Zuštiak himself.

Zuštiak is currently engaged in the choreographic equivalent of what in sculpture is known as a “negative sculptural practice,” where the process of creation is based around removal rather than addition. Like a visual artist, Zuštiak begins with images, which he refers to as “prompts.” These prompts—to be worked out with his designers, dancers, and collaborators—once pushed toward the large scale; now, he explains, “I want to see how much I can take away” without sacrificing the emotional core.

All else is in service of that end. For Zuštiak, effect and aesthetic are only worthwhile insofar as they help push the spectator to grapple actively—rather than accept passively—the experience of his work. As an artist, this is his primary goal, and he is as willing to achieve it through lighting or sound as through the conventional forms of movement he trained in.

As we parted ways after our recent coffee date, Zuštiak shared with me a quote that had been provoking him of late, from Alva Noe’s book Action in Perception: “Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. It is something we do.”

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