If you are a dance lover and have wondered how dance has evolved since Modern dance came on the scene and joined dance theater and performance, then Pavel Zustiak’s company Palissimo, has the cutting edge answer. This lively company, which consists of a handful of dancers, is best described as an interdisciplinary collaboration that combines experimental dance and theater with music, lighting, photography, film and audience participation. Through such diversity, it successfully captures human experience and emotion through movement, dancing pieces which resonate affectively and stir us, often leaving traces to be thought about after. As its director and creator, Mr. Zustiak selects universal topics that address human suffering, joy, struggle and relationships. His inspiration comes from such diverse areas as literature, history, music and theater, and everyday life blended experientially and performed with an eye toward capturing our felt recognition of them in his work.
Pavel Zustiak came to New York City in 1999 from Czechoslovakia, where he trained as a dancer and choreographer. No stranger to the experience of “otherness” that is often a part of his work, he is a modern day version of a renaissance man: a musician, actor, designer, sound director, lively conversationalist and keen human observer-explaining his love of collaboration and interdisciplinary improvisation. His decision to study dance seriously came about when he encountered Pina Bausch and her troupe during her 1987 tour. It is no surprise then that Palissimo continues in the tradition of Bausch’s Tanztheater while extending it through Mr. Zustiak’s sensitive and passionate reading of human experience and today’s world.
The essence of Palissimo consists of curated experiences that connect the work and involve the viewer. These pieces are sometimes performed within an urban landscape that provides a backdrop from which to invite passers by in an ongoing improvisation. In this “dance” the audience is not passive, but instead is brought in through staged surprises that are meant to awaken their senses and keep them open to experiencing the intention within the movement. This is nothing short of attempting a communion between dancer and viewer – all bypassing the spoken word and language and relying instead on felt experience, what I would call implicit communication.
As a New York City based performance company, Palissimo pursues a dialogue with the audience through its performances, which are sometimes content-based, but always emotionally charged and powerfully visual. Dance, it can be argued (and Mr. Zustiak does), is not a very good medium for narrating and telling stories, yet it captures something that is universal through its movement: It captures our very experience and often moves us deeper into it. Palissimo capitalizes on this, and treats all aspects of its performances –movement, sound, light, set and video design- equally, much like individual voices in opera, where several conversations can take place at the same time and involve the listener (or in this case the viewer) in multiple dialogic possibilities which address aesthetic, intellectual and affective registers.
Since its inception in 2003 Palissimo has performed a number of works, the most ambitious and well known among them is a five-hour long Trilogy called The Painted Bird. Loosely based on the literary work by the same name, and written by Jerzy Kosinski, which narrates the story of a young orphan making his way through war torn Poland and dealing with the atrocities of the human condition. Mr. Zustiak’s piece addresses the themes of displacement, otherness and transformation in each of its three segments.
This work has only been performed in its full length once, and is quite demanding on its audience, taking us through a gamut of emotions in its performative brilliance. It also forces us to think about the hard questions: What do we chose to remember? What do we forget and exile from memory? Where do we take refuge? What do we call home? What happens when we do not have a home? The Painted Bird exemplifies Mr. Zustiak’s approach to performance and interdisciplinary dialogue. In his work we have an aesthetic with intellectual rigor, movement that is driven not just by emotion but also by a most powerful entwinement of psyche and soma.
Some of the company’s other works stay close to their subject, take for instance Itch in the Stitch which explores the boundaries of self-image, gluttony and obsession. Here, a lone dancer literally sheds his skin and poundage following a painful episode with food, to finally free himself from the imprisonment of obsession heretofore housed within his body. In this piece the envelope of the body is pushed and stretched beyond its physical and psychological limits, and as viewers we too wrestle with the fragility of this skin ego, with the pain of being incarcerated physically and psychologically and with the ecstasy of finally being free of it.
Palissimo often operates within a binary, forcing us to swing between two polarities and extremes and work our way back to a space in between, much like a pendulum finding its way to middle ground. Thus, another work entitled Blind Spot asks the question: Everyone has one, what is yours? And within its performance explores the ugliness of what human beings can do to each other and the beauty that life continues to offer – looking at the possibilities for renewal and hope, resurrection and recovery, and the re-discovery of wonder through fury. Such polarities seem to offer a tentative frame to Palissimo’s works, a frame that is often thrashed and rebuilt anew.
Dance seems to me to be a type of primal language in that it requires a body, a corporeality that moves and in that movement communicates not only conscious aspects of the self, but also unconscious, implicit possibilities of the self. As a dancer and choreographer Mr. Zustiak knows this and has transcended and extended dance’s communicative abilities through his collaboration with other artistic mediums and his commitment to commune with his audience. Palissimo offers a veritable playground for the senses – a space where we can be in touch with multiple narratives of self and self in relation, and where emotional and intellectual currents interweave – sometimes fluidly and sometimes rigidly – loosely framing the human experience being accessed. Palissimo’s pieces speak through their collaborative corporeality – they literally give body to thought – inviting us to join in the play, live the emotion, enter the conversation and embody the surprise.