Pavel Zustiak

The choreographer flies high with part two of The Painted Bird.

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Pavel Zustiak, born in the former Czechoslovakia, is on a mission: to immerse the viewer in a world where the individual struggles to find free will, purpose and peace. As the second part of his trilogy, The Painted Bird, which is loosely inspired by the Jerzy Kosinski novel, Zustiak premieres Amidst at the Baryshnikov Arts Center beginning Thursday 23. While part one, Bastard, took place in a proscenium setting, Amidst is a performance-and-video installation. The piece explores states of limbo; Zustiak wanted a fluid structure, in which the audience will become one with the imagery, by photographer Robert Flynt, and dancers, Lindsey Dietz Marchant, Nick Bruder and himself. And Christian Frederickson, the composer for the entire series, returns to the stage in Amidst. Recently, Zustiak spoke about his trilogy and, specifically, what happens in the middle.

When did you discover dance?
I started relatively late. I was 13. No history of dancing in my family. Artistically, the closest was my mom who was a folk singer. When I was nine, I was actually on TV. I was a child star in Czechoslovakia. [Laughs] It was a TV series called Golden Gate, and I'm told that the closest thing here would be a Mickey Mouse Club kind of thing. So I was acting and singing. I also played piano for a long time, and I was thinking of studying music, but I didn't. When I was 13, I stumbled into dance by accident. A schoolmate wanted to audition for a folk-dance company; at the time, any modern dance or avant-garde art was kind of underground. The origins of modern dance were coming from the West, so companies like that existed but they were amateur companies, and you could officially only study ballet or folk dance. He wanted to audition, but he didn't want to go alone, so he asked me if I'd go with him and we went but he messed up the dates and we ended up doing a modern-dance audition. We both got in. He quit after a month and I stayed and I don't know—for me, it was a completely new world. But it wasn't until later when we started to work with a French choreographer [Richard Mouradian] who worked a lot with improvisation and more release-based techniques, that I started to think of dance as not just a hobby but something to be more involved and invested in. Pina Bausch came to my hometown and performed Caf Mller and Rite of Spring, and that made a huge impact. I don't know how that happened. This was even before Communism fell. I remember walking for three days just with the experience of seeing that and how much was said without words and the power of theater and movement.

Where did you train more formally?
Well, I was accepted to North Carolina School of the Arts, but coming from Eastern Europe, I didn't have money to pay for the tuition. I found a small private school in Vancouver where I met Helen Walkley. She also taught in Amsterdam at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam, and I decided to go to there. It was probably the best education I could get. You're pretty much thrown into water. I went there thinking it would be more like a conservatory where you're told or shown how it's done, but nobody tells you: You're exposed to many guest teachers there and their theory is that once you finish the school, you'll figure out who you are or what you want or how to define yourself as a creator. It is a school for choreographers or dance makers. It was tough at first, but I think it was the best thing in terms of education for me.

Had you choreographed at that point?
I had made work for the company that I was with in Slovakia. The first piece I did was set to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and it was for something like 25 people [Laughs]. I don't know if I would have guts to do it today! I made work there and in Amsterdam. Czechoslovakia still wasn't part of the European Union, so many of my schoolmates or colleagues from Eastern Europe would leave for three months and come back on a tourist visa, and I was just sick and tired of doing that and I really wanted to have a base. I applied for the Diversity Green Card Lottery and forgot about it. I got a letter from the embassy that I got my green card. I felt like the doors were opening for me here and thought, I'll give it a shot, and if I don't like it or if it doesn't work out, I can always go back. So that was how I ended up in New York. It was in 1999.

What was your plan?
I wanted to dance for someone. After awhile I just felt strongly that I should make my own work. But I really was hoping to get close to Trisha Brown. It was more the way of moving than the aesthetic and actual work. I'm going a little bit back to Richard, but in the '90s, there was a huge boom of contemporary dance in France. It was incredible. Cunningham and Trisha Brown were huge influences there in terms of a way of moving and technique—even though the work itself, aesthetically, was different. But those influences were strong and I think that's also why I was also hoping to look at those sources. I was also drawn to Martha Clarke. Definitely, I'm drawn to things in between. To tell you the truth I feel more comfortable to say that I'm an artist than a choreographer because there's still this assumption of you showing steps to someone, which is so not the way I work or want to work. I'm very drawn to visual arts and I see my works as a series of images—for me, each element plays an equal role in how it impacts the viewer. The biggest compliment I got was from this old lady who came to see the show and she said, "I didn't understand it, but I know what it was about." It's something that would hit the spectator at a subconscious level. You're drawn into that world without being able to define it, and I feel like this is the strength of dance for me: Touching on something that you recognize, yet you cannot put into words or grasp in any other way.

Why is Amidst an installation?
I was trying to frame each part as a different theatrical experience, so the first one is for a proscenium stage, and the audience is sitting in the safety of the seats. In the second one, there's no seating, so the audience can get as close or as far as it wants to. There's no front. It's a collaborative work with [composer] Christian Frederickson who is doing the whole trilogy. This never happened to me before. He was and is at every rehearsal.

How does that change things?
It's more organic. The ideas are closer to what I'm trying to attempt, so often he throws out a musical idea that influences something that happens in the studio or something is happening in the studio and he can immediately respond to it. It's very tight. For this second one, there are also images by the photographer Robert Flynt. His work is a lot about mashing and merging images. Amidst is about nostalgia—we are looking at the present and past and being stuck in the middle.

What intrigued you about Flynt's images?
They have an archival feel so it creates a vocabulary of the past and then what's happening in the space is in the present moment. I like the tension between those two. Also we were looking at ideas of mapping and territories—there were some war maps that Keith animated and processed. The piece really feels like being in limbo: It feels more like it's entering a certain state rather than having a story or narrative or being on a journey. It's more journeys remembered than journeys being taken. There are three performers, and I'm in this also. I love performing but sometimes it's hard to be on the inside and the outside.

Why was it important for you to be in it?
Actually, going all the way back, I really wanted to work with Jaro Vinarsky, who was in part one [Bastard]. Originally we were thinking of a duet, and once the idea for the piece came up, it more and more naturally evolved into a solo piece. I didn't have a strong desire that I had to be in the work, but I was kind of itching to be on the stage. It's magical. When I talk about work, it's a communion. It's not me as a maker, or us onstage, presenting definite, final statements. We are equally lost as the people in the audience. [Laughs] So it's both sides looking at something together, and this experience of live exchange is something that I find fascinating. The maturity of the performer is that ability of letting go and taking control. In the third part, the seating will be in two rows facing each other, and the performance space will be in between. Slowly I'm hoping to turn the tables around a little bit, to show that each of us is an outsider: It depends how we place the borders or how we define who is in or who is out, so we can find ourselves on either end.

It would be great to see them all in one sitting.
That's the idea. We'll do that next May. All three of them will be performed in a marathon-style presentation at La MaMa. They were very excited after the first show and expressed interest to do all three there. Originally, I wanted to do the piece in a really humongous space like the [Park Avenue] Armory. I wanted to do the whole trilogy with the audience surrounding the stage area—for example, the mass section [when 50 members of the audience converge on the stage in Bastard] would have even more people emerging from outside. I was very interested also in this idea of scale: It's a solo and a mass. It's the audience within a humongous space like the Armory and a solo within that space—automatically, the tension would be even greater. That was the dream. I was knocking on their door for quite a while, but unsuccessfully.

How did you end up at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for Amidst?
That started through the Princess Grace Foundation. They offered grants for people who already got some funding, and one of those grants is a work-in-progress grant, which is probably the most generous work-in-process that I've ever been in. We had three weeks at the Baryshnikov Arts Center; everybody was paid and could take three weeks. Here, it's a luxury. That happened in August and shortly after we premiered part one in Europe. It was developed at the Grotowski Center in Poland, and then in a small cultural center in Slovakia at Stanica, which is a [former] train station. It actually has an interesting link to the piece. Right now in Slovakia, documentaries are very popular. It's a genre that is experiencing a boom so I bought a few when I was there and one of the films was about a woman who was born in the city where the cultural center is and she survived Auschwitz and in the documentary she mentions that she was deported from this train station. I didn't plan to go to the cultural center because of the context. And the piece is not about the Second World War. There are references that can be read that way, but it was my intention that they're abstract enough so that people from different backgrounds could enter. For example, somebody who is Iranian was very moved by the mass scene and said, "That's what I actually experienced." I love that it gives space to people to engage and enter rather than just give them everything. Or to belittle them as audience members.

How did the whole project begin?
I applied for a Creative Capital grant, which you apply for only once every four years. I was pondering what that would be. And this idea about finding my place, literally and allegorically, felt like something that was brewing in the back of my head for a while. Usually, I just keep taking notes or visual ideas and eventually you can see a common denominator. There was the image of the bird within a crowd [from Kosinski's The Painted Bird] that resonated with me. I also like the idea of history repeating itself. I do think it's a political piece, even though I wouldn't define myself as a political artist. That's not my primary agenda, but I'm sure that it touches on those themes.

What kind of atmosphere are you trying to create in Amidst?
This atmosphere of limbo. I feel like nostalgia is a trap. You idealize, you draw bright colors onto something that happened or that you are attached to—it is kind of parallel to my life. I moved here, and I am a foreigner and then going back to Slovakia—I know the language and the culture, and yet I don't fit all that well anymore. What you left and what you are nostalgic about, when you go back, is not that thing anymore. So staying in that nostalgic place, I feel like it's a trap. So there's a sense of a loop. There's a sense of an inability to break out of oscillating between two places or traces of presence, of absence—those are the kinds of things that occur in the piece. And I think it relates very much to place.

How so?
Where do we come from? Where are we going? Where are we at the moment? We did a work-in-progress showing in August and after a woman said, "I was ready to move out of New York City and this made me appreciate the city and where I am so much more." That was not my goal but I think there is a sense of place or a relationship to home. As performers, there is a sense that there is a shared history that connects us—that we went through similar experiences, rather than experiencing the same event. I'm interested in reduction: How to reduce something to its essence. Some of the theatrical gestures might feel minimal, but I'm very interested in how far can you go with the reduction and still achieve the same impact? I'm also very interested in suggestion. I feel like suggestion can be stronger than making a complete statement. I feel like continuing this exploration of minimal and reduction. I'm thinking, What is it about going away from the ornate to get to the essence of an image? And with the theme of nostalgia, I think about how years ago, people would paint black-and-white photographs with color creating this kind of idealized memory. What is real and what is colored by our love of whatever that was?

So if nostalgia is a trap, are you nostalgic for anything?
I think less and less so. I almost want to say that it's a comment on that state. Nostalgia was considered to be a sickness in the old days. During the army apparently, people were discharged for being nostalgic. Later, in part three, I'm hoping to look at our constructs of home and how that is also an illusion in a way. The only constant there is in life is change. It might sound like a clich, but the happiest you are is where you are—when you accept that place. And that is not static. Home is a constantly changing state.

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