In the Middle of Everything: Pavel Zustiak’s “Amidst”

Palissimo in Pavel Zustiak's "Amidst" Photo: Robert Flynt

Pavel Zustiak’s Amidst, at Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) this past weekend, lived up to its name. The performers did indeed move “amidst” the audience, although the dangling modifier is also suggestive of a host of emotions and ideas hovering around the work.

The audience entered BAC’s Howard Gilman Performance Space to a dense fog. No seating, no clear performance area, just musicians set up in a corner, and lots of milling people. Mixing the performers in with the audience trick is an old one, but a good one, and as three (Lindsay Dietz Marchant, Nicholas Bruder, Zustiak) gradually emerged, the audience followed them from one area of the space to the next.

Alternating between intensely theatrical lighting and the dim haze characteristic of pauses that aren’t quite intermissions, Amidst conjured a sense of isolation despite the throngs of people, although there were allusions to fragments of relationships in the moments of interaction between the performers. Projected images on the walls, by photographer Robert Flynn, did little to enhance the work, although the mapping on the floor was a powerful motif. Original music by Christian Frederickson, performed live, contributed ineffably to the atmosphere of intensity.

In terms of performances that eschew the proscenium stage layout, what continually perplexes me is the paradox between an apparent wish to tear down the proverbial fourth wall, countered by the performers’ insistence on living in an internal world and not reacting to an audience within sneezing distance. Zustiak’s physical use of the space seems designed not to delineate between audience/performer, yet those boundaries were still upheld on both sides. Theoretically, there was a possibility of straying from the standard roles, but the audience was a well-mannered crowd, so we stayed in the reactive mode, and distance was kept from the performers. My own movements were a continual, partially successful attempt to see what was going on; as some one who is far from Jolly Green Giant stature, this remains one of my peeves with installation-style performances.

Amidst is the middle section of Zustiak’s The Painted Bird Trilogy, and not having seen the first installment, I had no reference point. But the full trilogy is scheduled to be performed at LaMaMa next spring (2012). This is a rarity for mid-level artists and smaller presenting venues, so keep an eye out.

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