Pavel Zuštiak on “The Painted Bird” Trilogy

PALISSIMO's The Painted Bird Trilogy: Strange Cargo (Photo: Paula Lobo)

Last weekend, I spoke with director/choreographer Pavel Zuštiak about his recently completed trilogy, The Painted Bird. Sparked by Jerzy Kosinski’s novel set in war-time Eastern Europe, in which a brilliantly painted bird is violently killed by its own flock, Zuštiak started the project in 2010. The first two parts, Bastard (2010) and Amidst (2011) have just been joined by a third and final section, Strange Cargo, playing at Synod Hall at St. John the Divine through May 13 (tickets here).

Tell me a little about how the Painted Bird Trilogy came to be.

I started to think about the project in 2009 with a grant application for Creative Capital. I was looking at what themes I am connected to the most as an artist and as a human. The ideas of belonging or finding your place in a different context were something that were very personal to me, having grown up in a communist country [current day Slovakia], then studying in Canada and Amsterdam [in the 1990s]. I specifically remember going to Canada, it was my first long-term time outside of Czechoslovakia. I didn’t speak Slovak for a year, and I was facing the question of how much of me is me, and what is culturally determined—the issue of identity and how context or environment influences and affects that.

As I said, the [Creative Capital] grant was the impetus for thinking about the project. It was one of those moments when you look through your bookshelf, and The Painted Bird was there. I’d read it before, but those themes stood out, and I was drawn to the simplicity, but also the intensity of the book. On one hand, it’s very raw and brutal, and on the other quite poetic. It’s about a child who is vulnerable in a sense, but also in an extreme situation, which is war. As in my previous work, I’m very interested in the extremes of these poles, and the fine line between them.

It seems challenging to take on a long-term project of this scope. How did you develop and fund it?

It was kind of a puzzle. There were pros and cons to the project. Originally, I wanted to do all three parts in one year. I was concerned about local people having continuity, having this in the back of their minds. Part I [Bastard] premiered at LaMaMa in November 2010, Part II [Amidst] was at Baryshnikov Arts Center in June 2011, and Part III was supposed to premiere through PS122 in October 2011, but due to scheduling, they asked us if we could push to the spring of 2012. The disadvantage to this was that many grant cycles wouldn’t allow you to apply more than once in a given time period: even though The Painted Bird was three parts, we didn’t get more funding because it was three separate shows. We didn’t get Creative Capital, but we were pretty lucky: we got funding from the Jerome and Greenwall Foundations, The Trust for Mutual Understanding, Meet the Composer, and NEFA [New England Foundation for the Arts] has been a huge support—it is the gift that keeps on giving with production, residency, and touring support.

Residencies were a big part of this. For Part I, we had three weeks at the Grotowski Institute in Poland and then two weeks at Stanica in Slovakia, and it premiered at the end of those five weeks. Part II was created during a three-week residency at BAC [Baryshnikov Arts Center]. Part III was created during residencies at MANCC [Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography], BAC, Swing Space [through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council], and Abrons Arts Center. Sometimes it’s difficult in the city rehearsing 3-4 hours, twice a week. For me, it is not as productive as longer days where you can really get somewhere. I think I’m now totally focused on doing residencies, ideally where you can work intensively with all the elements. So many decisions were made this week [at Synod Hall] because we had everything here. Always for me, all the production elements are equal, so it’s not like, “let’s add light to this;” light can be a language.

It has been a very satisfying project, and there is also a momentum with this trilogy: for both funders and presenters, and also audiences, it mobilizes them and connects them with the vision.

What are your plans for performing the full trilogy?

We’re doing all three parts at the Wexner Center [in Ohio] in September. It will be a marathon, about five hours in total: Part I/ pause/ Part II/dinner break/Part III. It will be a test, and I’m quite curious and excited about what that experience will be. When people know what they’re getting themselves into, people are very open to it. I think this will support the idea of a journey: by the time you are sitting across from one another in Part III, you will start to recognize other people in the crowd. It was my goal for each of the sections to stand alone, although hopefully seeing all three will add something to the experience.

Nothing is booked for NYC. Originally when I was thinking about the show, my ideal was that we would do it around the same area so that people could travel between all three performances in one day. I was looking at some venues on the Lower East Side, but I really wanted each part to be in a different space, and it didn’t work out.

You seem very interested in very interested in how people in the audience relate to one another and the space.

Yes, I am very interested in playing with the expectations of the audience. In a proscenium arrangement, the power politics are set up: subject/object is very clear. Because of the theme of displacement and travelogue, I was interested to play with that and disorient the audience through three different stops. Each of them has a different set up and configuration. The first part is a proscenium stage setting. It’s a solo piece, but towards the end there are 50-60 local volunteer performers. There is a moment in which this crowd is facing the audience, and it is almost a ratio of 1:1, playing with that dynamic of who is looking at whom. In Part II, there is no front, the audience is traveling in the space. In Part III, the audience is facing each other. The orange outline onstage, which is set up for Part III, is actually the same as in Part I. So the space is revisited in a different context.

You’ve collaborated with the same composer (Christian Frederickson) and lighting designer (Joe Levasseur) on the entire trilogy, but used different dancers for each section. Was this a choice?

It was a choice—actually logistics would push me the other way. Now that I’m thinking about traveling and budgets, I’m considering how these affect your creative decision making. The continuity is nice—the composer and lighting designer—and there is something about this balance: the new blood coming in, since I usually work with different performers, but also the consistency of working with the same people.

What is your creative process like with these collaborators?

It’s hard to find the ownership of the ideas, we bounce ideas off one another, and one feeds to the next and the next. I would say often I’m a kind of editor, I’m steering the ship, but everyone contributes to the project. For me, it is about simplifying, finding what is necessary and what is extraneous. In terms of the actual work, I am more and more interested in reduction: how can you reduce an image down to its essence, so that it still holds the power of the original but it isn’t ornate. I am drawn to the theater of images, even though I work with the body as the main tool of expression.

Have the sections changed much from your original plan?

I would compare it to cooking, where I have all the ingredients but I never know what the final meal will be. There’s always research as you go. I knew structurally and in terms of elements used what would be in each part ahead of time. For example, I knew Part II would use video.

What is next?

We are planning a premiere at Abrons Arts Center in 2013. To be honest, I’m quite nervous. All of the funding cycles have ended, and many of them have a waiting period, where you can’t apply right away. I feel like there is less funding: there are new initiatives supporting individual artists like Doris Duke, but they are not project based or you can’t apply for them. I feel like they are for artists who are further in their careers than I am.  The joke about funding in the States is that you’re an emerging artist for 20 years, and then suddenly you’re mid-career, and there is no funding. I’m kind of hitting that point. I’m quite nervous about what the next thing will be.

When I came, many people were asking, “why did you leave Europe, there’s so much more funding there.” I moved here 13 years ago, and it might have been true at the time, but no matter where you are, you have to start somewhere. The situation in Europe isn’t getting any better. I studied in Amsterdam, and the situation in the Netherlands now is catastrophic. Ideally I would love to go back and forth between NYC and Europe, but in terms of living, I don’t know whether that’s the answer.  I think it’s a lot more about perseverance and staying on a path, rather than following money or going where conditions are better.

For more of Culturebot’s coverage of Pavel Zuštiak’s The Painted Bird Trilogy, see the following:

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