Pavel Zuštiak_Photo_Vlado Holina
Pavel Zuštiak_Photo_Vlado Holina

Broadening the Horizons of Perception

An interview with Pavel Zuštiak

Eva Gajdošová In July 2014, the KioSK festival, held at the Stanica Žilina-Záriečie cultural hub, hosted the Slovak premiere of Amidst, the second part of The Painted Bird trilogy. The first part of the trilogy, Bastard, premiered earlier that year at the Eurokontext festival in the Slovak National Theatre, where this interview took place.

Your path into the world of dance was far from straightforward. Considering your educational background and the various professions you have performed, you could have been a singer, a pianist, a businessman, and a designer. How did you eventually become a choreographer?

As a child, I played the piano for twelve years and later studied composition. My teacher wanted me to continue my studies at a conservatory, but my parents decided that I should instead study something that would help me get a job. I spent the whole of my childhood in the art world. I was a regular on Zlatá Brána, which was a popular television show for children’s music. When I was young, I was fascinated with the world of theatre, especially puppetry, with all of its stage magic – the lighting, the scenography. I discovered dance much later on.

It was really a coincidence. When I was in secondary school in Košice, my classmate asked me if I’d accompany him to an audition for a folk dance company – he was too shy to go by himself. He had actually confused the dates and we ended up auditioning for the Tremolo contemporary dance company. We were growing up in the era of films like Flashdance and Heavenly Bodies, so we weren’t completely unfamiliar with contemporary dance. We were both accepted. My friend quit a month later, but I had discovered a new world that I found fascinating. At that time, though, I only viewed dance as a hobby.

The decisive year for me was 1987. The Union House in Košice was hosting a performance by the Pina Bausch Company. To this day I don’t know quite how the managers pulled it off – the Velvet Revolution wouldn’t take place for another two years, and the only other show the company were going to do was in Prague. Tremolo was based in the Union House, and Pina invited us to come and watch the trainings and rehearsals. We talked, she was very nice and direct. We had no clue that she was one of the most influential choreographers in the world. We absolutely weren’t ready for what we were about to see. In the evening, they performed their two most celebrated acts – The Rite of Spring and Café Mueller. The people in the audience were spellbound. They couldn’t believe the spectacle that was unfolding before their eyes. When the show finished, there was a moment of silence and then a roaring, unending applause. That evening had a profound effect on me. It was as though I had realised that you could speak to people without having to say a single word. At that moment, I decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

But it wasn’t until a few years later that you began your dance career.

When I was seventeen, I applied to the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, where I wanted to study film direction. I was rejected twice. They said that I was too young and needed more experience. I eventually enrolled at the University of Economics. I was still positive that I wanted to become a dancer, I just didn’t know how. Later, I left for Canada, and upon my return, I founded the Almost Random Company of Almost-Dancers. We performed at the Dance Prague Festival. In Canada I had studied at a private arts school, where I was tutored by Helen Walkley. She taught technique, composition, and improvisation. I really learnt a lot in her classes. I came to understand how everything was related to everything else. She had a unique way of thinking about movement. She always gave feedback to the students but never forced her opinion on anyone. She helped us discover and nurture our respective talents. One day, she suggested that I continue my studies at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam, where she had taught previously. Apart from choreographers, there were many people of different backgrounds who studied at the school, but they all worked with the body as their medium. The two years I spent in Amsterdam were the most formative in my career.

But it was only in New York City that your career really took off. What encouraged you to go to the US?

Again, it was mostly a coincidence. I had won the green card lottery and went straight to New York City. I went through a variety of jobs, which I got through a recruitment agency. I spent a day working at the stock exchange, then another making databases for some company, then I worked in a furniture shop… all the while, I was dancing and meeting people from the dance and art communities. I got to experience life in New York from a variety of angles and lived a very diverse lifestyle. The first long-term job I had was in a Swiss investment bank, which, at that time, employed many artists and dancers for graphic design and data processing work. In the preceding years, artists would have to support themselves by working in bars and restaurants, but now they could work in the comfort of a bank, and what’s more, they could choose what times they wanted to work because the bank was open non-stop. Most of us were doing simple graphic design work according to the bank’s design manual – we were preparing materials for meetings. The bank was open all year long, twenty-four hours a day – except for Christmas and New Year’s. A week in advance, everyone would choose which days and hours they wanted to work. The dancers and actors who were performing on a given evening could start working at midnight the previous day and finish in the morning, or they could just work on the weekends. It was a very flexible job. That was when I met many of the people with whom I later started collaborating. I realised that, while they were dancers with renowned companies which I had admired at festivals such as ImPuls Tanz in Vienna, in New York they were consigned to a day job and couldn’t really make a living from art.

Does that also apply to the big dance companies?

There are companies such as the Paul Taylor Company, Alvin Ailey Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, where the dancers get one-year contracts. However, the dancers in smaller companies, such as Bill. T. Jones, usually receive six-month contracts, which means that they have to find something else to do for the rest of the year.

You personally have managed to make a living from art.

I came to New York in 1999. The days when the state supported famous companies in their prime (such as the Martha Graham Company, the José Limón Company or the Marc Cunningham Company) were long gone. The economic crisis changed everything. You could tell if you were working in the bank. Initially, there were thirty of us working in each shift and everyone had a job. Ten years later, only seven of us remained. The crisis definitely had a major impact on artists.

I have been fortunate to have each of my shows produced by a specific theatre. There are grant schemes in the US, as well as many private foundations and rich donors who support the arts, which brings them some investment benefits. Only a small amount of money from the grant schemes is allocated to projects. Lately a system of individual donations has been taking root, but that requires a slightly different approach. You have to be in direct contact with your fans. You have to offer them perks and give them the opportunity to be more directly involved with the preparation of a show. We, for example, have an open studio where our fans can come and watch us work. We also organise various events which are directly or indirectly related to our projects. I think that this method has crossed over into Europe and now works in film, theatre, the visual arts, and so on. I was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010, thanks to which I could quit my job in the bank. It was only then that I started doing art full-time. It hasn’t been easy, but the fellowship gave me the courage to make that initial step.

It isn’t easy to get a break abroad, especially not in New York City, the “capital” of contemporary dance. You have nonetheless done rather well for yourself. Your trilogy The Painted Bird received two nominations for the prestigious Bessie Award. After forty performances in the US, you’ve brought the show home, to the Slovak National Theatre. How did you come up with the idea for the show?

The idea had been with me long before I actually started working on the project. The first time I travelled abroad, I was thinking about how much the place we grow up influences who we are, or who we think we are. In Canada, I realised that many things I considered my own were in fact culturally conditioned. When we are in a foreign environment, we can look into ourselves and see certain things more clearly. The sense of place, the need to belong, to fit in – all this was swirling in my head, and somehow I began to think about the book The Painted Bird by the Polish-American author Jerzy Kosinski, which I had read long before when I was in Amsterdam. I didn’t really want to deal with the topic of the Second World War, but rather with the two polar extremes which the book presents – on the one hand, there is a society at war, and on the other, there is a six-year-old child with his innocent view of the world. I built on the central theme of the novella – a boy meets a man who catches birds. He paints one in bright colours and then sets it free. The painted bird flies back to its flock, but the other birds don’t accept it and peck it to death because it’s different. The themes of needing somewhere to belong and having your own kin reject you are, I think, universal. I wanted to create an abstract work which would simultaneously be relatable to everybody regardless of age, culture, historical background, education and so on.

We have all experienced exclusion of some sort. I experienced it in my childhood, when I starred in the TV programme Zlatá Brána, thanks to which I was quite well-known in Košice. I would be travelling on a tram when some children would spot me, start singing the song from Zlatá Brána and laugh. I couldn’t really deal with it. It was extremely unpleasant. At that time I withdrew into myself and went through a rather difficult period. I was split. On the one hand, there was the world of art – my work on TV, which I loved – and on the other, there was the exclusion from my peer group, and the sense that I had been, in a sense, banished from their world.

Photo_Peter Brenkus

In Bastard, there is a crowd scene which features many non-dancers. Scenes like this are usually very powerful. How do you pick your performers?

I wanted the group to represent something of a cross-section of humanity, so that people of different races and cultural and historical backgrounds would meet on a single stage. People without prior experience in dance often have something natural and authentic about the way they perform, which I attempt to preserve and emphasise on stage. It can be quite difficult to convince the performers to give it their all, connect with the audience and use the energy for the benefit of the work in the three rehearsals that I normally have at my disposal. When we were rehearsing for our performance at the Slovak National Theatre, I felt that the energy wasn’t quite there. I tried to prepare the dancers for the fact that they would be performing before a large audience and even a moment’s hesitation could ruin the entire show. Eventually it worked, and I was really excited. Furthermore, the fact that we staged the show in the historic building of the Slovak National Theatre gave the project a whole new dimension.

Bastard was born from your collaboration with dancer Jaro Viňarský, who received the prestigious Bessie Award for his performance.

Jaro is a very creative and inventive performer. Initially, I was supposed to dance Bastard with him, but when we started rehearsing, it became clear that it had to be a solo. The great thing about Jaro’s performance is that it looks like it’s improvised, but in reality, everything is very precisely defined and executed to the minutest detail. Therein lies Jaro’s genius as a dancer: he dances as though every movement was just born in his head.

How would you define your work? What do you think is the message of dance?

I once staged a performance in Manhattan Harbour. The concept was that a few people had headphones on and they were watching the performers, who were dancing in a crowd of bystanders. Anyone without headphones could only make out some random movement, but they could not see the wider picture. One of the viewers wrote me an email afterwards, saying that when she was on the subway home from the harbour, she was watching the other passengers and felt as though everything had been staged and choreographed. The ability to view life around her as a sequence of artistic images stuck with her. And that’s what art and dance are about – learning to broaden the horizons of your perception and becoming more sensible to the subtleties and nuances of everyday life.

Pavel Zuštiak (1971, Košice)
Dancer, performer and choreographer, sound designer

Pavel Zuštiak is director of the Palissimo Company in New York City. After graduating from the University of Economics, he studied at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam. His multidisciplinary work is known for its evocative visual side, emotionality, and non-linear narratives.

In 2013, Zuštiak was awarded the LMCC President’s Award for Excellence in Artistic Practice. In 2010, he received the Guggenheim Fellowship and is a multiple laureate of the Princess Grace Award (2007, 2009, 2014). In 2013, his four-hour trilogy The Painted Bird (inspired by a novella by Jerzy Kosinski) was nominated for the Bessie Award in the category Outstanding Production. The Soloist Jaro Viňarský, who portrays the eponymous protagonist in Bastard, was awarded a Bessie in the category Outstanding Performer.