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Cal Performances welcomes Pavel Zuštiak and his brilliant New York City-based Palissimo Company to Zellerbach Playhouse on December 7, 8, and 9 for the West Coast premiere of Zuštiak's powerful Custodians of Beauty. In this richly multi-sensory work, the celebrated choreographer and his performers ask: Where do we find beauty today, and does it need our defense?

Zuštiak creates an immersive visual experience, combining movement with imagery, light, and sound in response to a 2009 speech by Pope Benedict XVI, reminding artists of their responsibilities as "custodians of beauty in the world." Through formal abstraction and restrained, minimalist gesture, the work explores the human body as sculpture, emotional trigger, and political symbol.


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The company in Pavel Zuštiak's Custodians of Beauty
Containing Multitudes
by Melanie George


The work of Pavel Zuštiak and Palissimo contains multitudes. Perhaps because he entered artistic practice through film and television, his work is multisensory poetry. Our senses are sparked by movement, imagery, light, sound, and texture maintaining equal footing in process and presentation. The work is poetic in the way he conceives of his artistic concerns, and in the way others write about his work.

The New York Times' Claudia La Rocco says, "There is scant middle ground in Pavel Zuštiak's work. Violence and desire, fear and rapture, pain and giddiness—he traffics in extremes, often slammed against one another in uncomfortably close quarters." And in The New Yorker, critic Brian Siebert observes that a "vivid, often anguished imagination shines through."

Never movement for movement's sake, there is always purpose. More than dancing with intent, it is theme and intention by way of dancing. In watching the work, I am left with an impression of living, breathing bodies immersed in each moment. The performers are not portraying, they are being. In the world of Palissimo, both dancer and choreographer commit to plumbing the depths and the extremes of existence.

I should note, the world of Palissimo is our world. Sometimes in dance, we endeavor to present beauty as that which is separate from daily life—flawless, pristine, super human. Palissimo's work, however, is the most humane dancing. So while it may be theatrical, it does not engage in manufactured etherealism. It is passionate and sensitive to being alive in a world that can be, at times, terribly beautiful, beautifully terrifying; constantly shifting; equal parts dark and light.

Nicholas Bruder and Emma Judkins in Pavel Zuštiak's Custodians of Beauty
The title Custodians of Beauty is taken from a 2009 speech by Pope Benedict XVI given at the Sistine Chapel to a group of artists from multiple disciplines. In that speech he says:

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands... Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world.

For Zuštiak, this was a bold, yet vulnerable statement. Beauty is not untouched by danger, strife, and the mundane. This is not beauty as object or product, but, as Zuštiak says, "beauty that is all around us, that we may not notice."

Custodians of Beauty is a non-narrative work. Centered on perception and change, you will notice the establishment of form and shape, only to have it morph or repositioned. The recurring, sinuous shifting of these moving paintings over time begins to feel seductive and, at times, profound. Lighting design by Joe Levasseur, and a musical score by Christian Frederickson contribute to an overall impression of the performers living the piece, rather than manufacturing action for the stage. In featuring transitions and change, the incidental becomes the event. Each moment, before and after an event, is an event unto itself. Each moment is a moment worth experiencing.

Palissimo does not seek or cultivate a passive audience. Audience perspective is paramount in the presentation of the work. Our responses are improvisational moments generated from prompts within the piece. We are all players on the Palissimo stage. So much so that I find myself wondering if, in fact, there is a true audience. The work does not seek to entertain in a traditional sense. It challenges us to be fully present and committed to our experience.

In discussing his aesthetics, Zuštiak has employed the term "bespoke dancing"—that is to say, dances that are open to an audience's experience changing the pace of the dance. In turn, he asks that we trust our reactions and the vulnerability inherent to bearing witness to the piece. That we stay connected to our feelings, however uncomfortable or unfamiliar they may become. That we allow ourselves to move and be moved by beauty.

Melanie George is Audience Educator and Dramaturg at Lumberyard. Her comments here come from a pre-performance speech at the American Dance Institute in November 2015. Used with permission.


Perception is Something We Do
by Jeremy M. Barker


When Pavel Zuštiak was 12 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.

Justin Morrison, Emma Judkins, and Nicholas Bruder in Pavel Zuštiak's Custodians of Beauty
"Everyone else was wearing tights," Zuštiak recalled, grinning over a cup of coffee.

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 television. But dance stuck. His friend only lasted a month; two and a half some-odd decades later, Zuštiak's still going strong.

Since the premiere of his company Palissimo's work in 2003, Zuštiak has produced 10 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.'"

Nicholas Bruder in Pavel Zuštiak's Custodians of Beauty
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 Vinarský, 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.

Nicholas Bruder in Pavel Zuštiak's Custodians of Beauty
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 that 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 that 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. Its 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 Vinarský 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 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."

Jeremy M. Barker is a critic, journalist, and performance maker based in New York City. He is an editor of Culturebot.org and CHANCE magazine. Used with permission.

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