From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
One of the most technically ambitious dance recordings ever made, incorporating 3D film, live performance and on-the-spot video-mixing by Atlas. —The Art Newspaper on Tesseract Two years in the making, Tesseract brings together video artist Charles Atlas with dancer/choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of space, time, and energy. Co-commissioned […]
One of the most technically ambitious dance recordings ever made, incorporating 3D film, live performance and on-the-spot video-mixing by Atlas.
—The Art Newspaper on Tesseract
Two years in the making, Tesseract brings together video artist Charles Atlas with dancer/choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of space, time, and energy. Co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center and Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Tesseract is a two-part work: a stereoscopic 3D “dance video” by Charles Atlas (Tesseract ▢) and (Tesseract ◯), an on-stage performance by six dancers, filmed live and edited and projected in real time by Atlas.
Part dance, part 3D film, and part science-fiction, the show is divided into six chapters that display a different world, visually and energetically, with unique rules dictating the type of movements for each section. The resulting experience is a densely layered, visually stunning alternative universe drawn from numerous influences and collaborations. In advance of the work’s March 16–18 Walker performances, we asked Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell to provide commentary on a selection of film stills, performance images, and behind-the-scenes photos from the making of Tesseract in order to provide a glimpse into multiple dimensions of the work.
This image shows Melissa Toogood in a section we call “The Desert.” We envisioned a desert landscape and the bodies and objects as topography of this moving landscape—a kind of evolution of form. The entire section was shot on a green screen, knowing we could create different backgrounds in post-production. This helped create a hypothetical world, perhaps partly inspired by Edwin Abbott’s story Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, where the body would have cartoonish geometric outgrowths, like appendages but in spherical, conical, or cube forms with costumes constructed by the completely inimitable Yvette Helin. The movement material is drawn from an improvisational score that takes its cues, timings, and types of movement from looking at the natural world at a geological scale: glacial cleavings, tectonic shifts, and the slow but constant tides of the world.
This section was shot on a rubber padded floor, which completely changed the quality of movement we were able to do. We could throw ourselves around because of the springiness and protection provided by the floor.
The manic atmosphere made Charlie [Atlas] think of wigs, bringing a kind of bizarre dressed-up/dressed-down feeling. We wanted to be both easily identifiable and fantastical, but also faceless and unknown. The makeup artist covered all of our facial features, while the movement of the wigs obscured us further. The movement score proposes disorientation. We work to constantly disrupt our own intentions, to locate a space in between. We throw, release, and stiffen multiple parts of the body into competing and surprising falls and redirections. Attempts to support one’s self towards verticality are premature or too late. The Steadicam operator, Ryan Jenkins, weaves his way around and through us, upside down and around, reinforcing this sense of disorientation for the viewer.
Gestural sequences for this scene were created out of representational movements derived from mini-narratives, woven together. The textile drops are by Fraser Taylor, originally made for Rashaun’s piece, Interface (2013). The recycled graphic, two-dimensional images were set in the space to create the sense of multiple three-dimensional rooms or pockets in the space that display and conceal secret stories. This is the most playful, character-driven scene choreographically. We wanted to evoke a kind of childlike story-time—an Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland-inspired world.
In this image, Cori Kresge is performing live while her movements are simultaneously captured by a camera offstage and manipulated live by Charles Atlas. In this particular moment, she appears larger than life, with trails of different colors coming off of her as she moves.
This is a photograph from a set-up that never made it into our “duet” scene of the film. We were imagining a kind of technological jungle, with structural forms appearing part natural outgrowth of a forest ecosystem, and part complete hyper-color explosion of chords and connective tissue. We played with movements that appear part robotic, part animal. The material is tubular crinoline, which is also used for “Chinese finger traps,” and was originally sourced by our friend, artist Ali Naschke-Messing, for our earlier piece, PERFORMANCE. For this film, the material was recycled into corsets constructed by Julia Donaldson, reminiscent of peacock plumage, and inspired by kamata, worn by the Dinka group in South Sudan. We had a lot of fun filming this scene, at one point almost collapsing the theater’s hanging pipes when the vines got tangled during a circular run in the choreography.
This is the full cast of the live work, including Steadicam operator Ryan Jenkins, capturing the dance from his perspective and projecting it into the action as it happens.
This is a production shot from the filming of a section of the 3D film, featuring Hiroki Ichinose and Cori Kresge dancing and Steadicam operator Victor Lazaro with Ryan Jenkins. The 3D Steadicam rig was huge, weighing about 90 pounds. The ring of lights illuminating the fog in a room of blackness, combined with continuous circling choreography for the dancers, was very disorienting. No one ever knew where front was. It’s a miracle the shot happened at all. Everything about this scene is slippery, including its own success. By the end of the second or third take, we had to wrap the scene because the Steadicam operator’s back gave out. The vulnerability of the human body next to the durable machine was never so poignant. This is the most virtuosic shot of the film, for both the camera and the dancing.
Tesseract by Charles Atlas / Rashaun Mitchell / Silas Riener will be performed March 16–18, 2017 at 8 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater, in conjunction with the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time.
Rhythms pulsing like a rapid heartbeat, so infectious you can’t help but let your body be carried along; soulfully wailing vocals that call you back to a place you know; a mixed up electronically-driven funk that throws you into the bouncing night of a busy city or underground club. These are just a few of […]
Rhythms pulsing like a rapid heartbeat, so infectious you can’t help but let your body be carried along; soulfully wailing vocals that call you back to a place you know; a mixed up electronically-driven funk that throws you into the bouncing night of a busy city or underground club. These are just a few of the feelings evoked by From Kinshasa, the debut album from Mbongwana Star that landed on many of the top-50 charts for 2015, including the New York Times, NPR, and SPIN.
The two central figures of Mbongwana Star, Yakala “Coco” Ngambali and Nstuvuidi “Theo” Nzonza, were originally key members of the legendary band Staff Benda Bilili, which began on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Soon after achieving major international success, Staff Benda Bilili disbanded. Now, Mbongwana Star offers a fresh, new look into Coco and Theo’s hometown, which boasts one of the most lush histories of music to be found anywhere in the world.
Western media perpetuates unfavorable impressions of the Congo by latching onto news about political issues like child soldiers and violent warfare. Yet underneath this one-sided perception, a rich and vibrant branch of Congolese music history has shaped popular music throughout the continent, and the broader world.
The perceived inaccessibility of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its extreme poverty, ongoing conflicts, corruption and lack of basic public facilities, provides a barrier to musical tourists. The irony is, of course, that the music is joyful and uplifting; anything but dark— although there is also a rich tradition of social and political commentary in Congolese music.
Dating back to the 1930s when Afro-Cuban rumba traveled back across the Atlantic, Congolese music has been at the forefront of innovating new sounds and musical culture. Driven by the influx of jazz from Europe along with the rhythms of rumba, musicians in the Congo became masters of combining different elements to create their own style. Today the most popular, lasting form of the rumba is known as soukous, derived from the French word secouer—”to shake.” It is defined by its syncopated rhythms and intricate contrasting guitar melodies, which the Congolese adapted from the rumba’s drumbeats.
Before the rise of popular bands like Mbongwana Star and Staff Benda Bilili, Franco Luambo Makiadi—“the king of Congelese Rumba”—ruled the airwaves, producing 100 albums and close to a thousand songs. “His style of music, a blend of Cuban rumba and authentic Congolese rhythms, wowed both the old and young. His influence can still be heard in Congolese music, which remains popular in nightclubs all over the continent” (BBC). Franco’s popularity reached across international borders and helped solidify Kinshasa’s prominence in pop music. In addition to being a masterful musician, Franco used his talents for political advocacy. Franco’s way of creating music that speaks to the community resonates with the work of Mbongwana Star today; clearly this is a band that plays homage to its origins.
Combining electro-funk sounds and distorted grooves to the classic rhythms of rumba has helped skyrocket Mbongwana Star to fame. From Kinshasa doesn’t just bring sounds from Africa, but influences from Cuba, Paris, American Jazz, punk, rock n’ roll, and beyond—defying traditional genres and appealing to a broad spectrum of people from around the world.
While many challenges still face the Democratic Republic of Congo, with looming political issues and the rise of combatants and rebel militias, Mbongwana Star continues to persevere with a message of hope and a desire for change (mbongwana is a Lingala word meaning change). The band’s popularity and critical acclaim has changed the way many view their home country, bringing awareness and recognition to the realities of contemporary life in the Congo, and illustrating the fact that even when faced with hardship, music and history can be shared.
This Friday, Minneapolis will welcome Mbongwana Star for the first time. The Walker planned to present Staff Benda Bilili in 2011 as a part of Despair Be Damned: New Music and Dance from the Congo, but unfortunately that tour was canceled due to Visa complications. Our current political climate makes opportunities to embrace artists like Mbongwana Star more important than ever.
Mbongwana Star performs with Minneapolis-based Afrofuturist band ZULUZULUU on Friday, March 3, 2017 at 8 pm at The Cedar.
During the next three months, movement and music will merge within the Walker Art Center galleries as Events, part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, unfold. Taking place in the Perlman Gallery February 8–9, March 30–April 2, and April 6–April 9, this Cunningham piece features dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and music by Minnesota-based […]
During the next three months, movement and music will merge within the Walker Art Center galleries as Events, part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, unfold. Taking place in the Perlman Gallery February 8–9, March 30–April 2, and April 6–April 9, this Cunningham piece features dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and music by Minnesota-based vanguard music-makers. The nature of these works will highlight the collaborations established by Cunningham between dance, music, and art.
Below, an introduction to some of the Minnesota-based music-makers featured in Events, along with their answers to the question: Why Merce?
Wednesday, February 8: Mankwe Ndosi/Nick Gaudette
Renegade bassist and composer Nick Gaudette has been playing and performing in the Twin Cities for over a quarter century. Nick began his studies of the bass at the age of 5. Studying classical and nonclassical forms of music, Nick completed Bachelors and Masters degrees in performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Over the last decade, he has dedicated himself to the progression of music education. You can still catch his performances and collaboration as he regularly appears with the Cherry Spoon Collective, the Maggie Bergeron & Dance Company, as well as being a co-curator of the Hear Here! Live Music and Movement Festival.
I studied Modern Dance as a musician. To me time and space in music parallels dance. I am always intrigued by the way the body can paint a picture through movement just as a musician paints through a sonic backdrop. Having the opportunity to work within the world of Merce Cunningham in the city and community that I live within is a treat and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Mankwe Ndosi is a Twin Cities–based vocalist, improviser, and composer focused on using an expanded vocabulary of singing to express emotion, story, and spirit guidance. Ndosi regularly makes new shapes of sound with artists of all media, and living beings of all kinds.
I look forward to new collaborations and pushing to find this moment’s song and movement with Merce Cunningham Company dancers to celebrate and stretch his life through here and now.
Thursday, February 9: Michelle Kinney/Anthony Cox/Andrew Broder
Michelle Kinney is a dedicated and lifelong improviser and composer, working in nontraditional contexts. She finds much inspiration in cross-cultural and cross-genre collaborations. As Musician in Residence at the University of Minnesota’s Dance Program, she mines the music and kinesthetic information revealed by the body in motion, while accompanying classes with her cello, using a looping station and electronics. She has created several scores for dance, theater, and film, and performs frequently with many collaborative original music ensembles.
The biggest inspirations I get from the Cage and Cunningham collaboration are the many ways they worked together to sublimate the ego in creation and performance, as much as that is possible. I’m fascinated by this unique career-long meditation on the ego. It closes the usual doors to ego-involved self-expression, while opening endless pathways the artist couldn’t have imagined. It’s a disciplined practice, yet it leads to results that are the definition of feral, and offers the artists and audience a glimpse into the randomness of the universe.
Thursday, March 31: John Keston/Graham O’Brien
John Keston is a composer, sound artist, and developer who connects musicians to each other and their audience through the insertion of a mediating layer that embraces the chaotic ambiguities of environmental and sensorial influences. His music often activates what remains immutable within traditional forms of notation. He has performed and/or exhibited at Northern Spark, the Weisman Art Museum, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Burnet Gallery, Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, the Minnesota Institute of Art, the In/Out Festival of Digital Performance, the Eyeo Festival, INST-INT, Echofluxx, and Moogfest.
I have been hooked on the work of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and many other innovative composers for years. What keeps me coming back is their sense of discovery. Both Cage and Oliveros excavated sonic environments, bringing attention to sound artifacts that were otherwise ignored. I am thrilled to participate in Merce Cunningham: Common Time, not to emulate the work of Cage, Tudor, or Oliveros, but to honor them through a similar spirit of exploration.
Graham O’Brien is a drummer and electronic music producer/composer from St. Paul. His most recent work, Drum Controller, is focused on the interplay between his unique drumming and composition styles. Currently he is performing new music written especially for live performance and which utilizes a custom-made electro-acoustic drum set concept. As he puts it, “I’m exploring ways to explore spontaneous composition using the rhythmic information of my drumming to provoke surprising response from my computer, in real-time.” Graham’s electronic music work has been released on labels includingEqual Vision, Ambledown, Doomtree, and Strange Famous.
I have lately been especially interested in the concept of “surprise” in my musical creations. If I can truly surprise myself with a combination of sounds, there’s that elusive excitement and inspiration of finding an unturned stone. It’s infectious. In my experience, one way to discover surprise in music is by introducing randomness and chance to my composition or performance concept. It was through the works of Cunningham in collaboration with John Cage that I first encountered this fundamental idea. The Cunningham/Cage/Tudor work has been one of few sources of inspirations that don’t seem to fade, because I’m reminded of the idea of childlike surprise and newness. Really, it’s exciting to be a part of an event celebrating this spirit.
Friday, March 31: Douglas Ewart/Laura Harada
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Douglas Ewart immigrated to Chicago, Illinois in the 1960s. He is a past chairman of the world renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM); board member of the Jamaica Minnesota Organization (JMO), and current co-chair of the American Bell Association, Minnesota Chapter. The polymathic Ewart has been honored for his work as a composer, improvising multi-instrumentalist, conceptual artist, sculptor, and designer of masks and instruments. Also an educator, Ewart bridges his kaleidoscopic activities with a vision that opposes today’s divided world. His culture-fusing works aims to restore the wholeness of communities and of the individuals within them, and to emphasize the reality that the world is an interdependent entity.
I have always had a great affinity for choreographers and dancers, and have collaborated with numerous practitioners in the movement field from the formative years of my life as a sonic and visual artist. Music with dance is one of the most compelling and profound confluences. The duet format has been one of my favorite ways to practice. I am looking forward to collaborating with violinist Laura Harada. She is a highly skilled, very sensitive, and dynamic artist, and she has a wonderful spirit. I am honored to be part of this project that is paying homage to Merce Cunningham, the brilliant dancer, choreographer, experimentalist, and conceptualist. Cunningham has been an inspiration and beacon to artists in all disciplines, and people from all walks of life!
Saturday, April 1: Cole Pulice/Michelle Kinney/Eric Jensen
Cole Pulice is a saxophonist, composer, and improviser based in Minneapolis, where he works with a diverse array of groups and individuals across genre and disciplinary boundaries. Cole also works with the Twin Cities–based collective 6 Families to curate and facilitate community-driven performances and projects.
I am thrilled to participate in the celebration of Merce Cunningham’s work and legacy at the Walker. He’s artist who so gracefully pushed the limits of his medium through the development of frameworks of thinking, choreography, and performing, and well as through the frequent collaboration with artists across other disciplines. It’s fitting to be celebrating Merce Cunningham with such a varied and beautiful collection of musicians and artists.
Sunday, April 2: Noah Ophoven-Baldwin/Joe Strachan
Noah Ophoven-Baldwin is an improvising cornetist based in Minneapolis. As well as being a cornetist he is also a member of 6 Families, a collection of musicians located in Minneapolis. As an organizer for 6 Families, he acts as an advocate for building and participating in an arts community based in patience, kindness, and love. He appreciates the chance to learn from all of his friends/loved-ones/elders/mentors.
As an improviser I think Merce Cunningham’s work is extremely attractive to investigate. His work embraces a similar chaos that so many improvising musicians tap into as performers (and listeners). In my case, Cunningham deftly refocused how collaboration between dance and music (or visual art or architecture) exist together in space.
Thursday, April 6: Toby Ramaswamy/Adam Zahller
Toby Ramaswamy is a Minneapolis-based composer, drummer, and member of the musicians collective 6 Families. He has been fortunate enough to work with, learn from, and be influenced by a diverse group of Minneapolis musicians and artists.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with dancers in the Twin Cities for several years now, both as an accompanist at several schools and as a collaborator with DaNCEBUMS and Kelvin Wailey. The idea of doing a dance/music piece with dancers I had never met really interested me. I’m also a fan of John Cage’s music, and the prospect of working on a project connected to the choreographer most associated with Cage was exciting.
Friday, April 7: Patrick Marschke/Tara Loeper
Patrick Marschke is a Minneapolis-based percussionist, composer, and electronic musician trying to make all of those things into one thing. He is a proud member of 6 Families and occasionally writes about music for the SPCO, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and Walker Art Center.
I think this particular Cunningham “event” and the total ambiguity of the relationship between the dance and sounds being created can be incredibly instructive in a time where we are constantly bombarded with information: we don’t really have the capacity to understand and rationalize every correlation or relation being thrown at us, and a certain clarity can come from acceptance and welcoming of chaos. This work does that in a really subtle and profound way, and I’m excited to see how they all play out.
Saturday, April 8: Davu Seru/Jeremy Ylvisaker
Sunday, April 9: Cody McKinney/Leah Ottman
Cody McKinney is a bassist, composer, improviser, and sound artist currently residing in the Twin Cities. He has been actively composing, recording, and performing since the mid 1990s. McKinney studied jazz and improvisation at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and, later, composition and process conceptualization at the New School in New York. His work straddles “a haunted space somewhere between free jazz and musique concrète,” with hallmarks that include his “liquid mastery of rhythm” and his use of graphic and text scores with indeterminacy and fixed time. Some of McKinney’s recent works have been recorded by his contemporary trio, Bloodline.
I actually studied composition in the same room where John Cage was teaching composition 50 years earlier. The “young me” was tossing around similar questions and processes when I finally came to learn of their work. That discovery became a revelation for me; both due to the brilliance of the work itself and the realization that the zeitgeist had expanded to unknowingly defending my ideas. Perhaps no other collaboration has been more important to performing arts in the 20th Century than that of Cage and Cunningham.
Cunningham Events is free with gallery admission and has the following performance schedule in the Perlman Gallery.
- February 8–9
Wednesday–Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
- March 30–April 2
Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
Friday–Sunday, 1:30 and 4 pm
- April 6–9
Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
Friday–Sunday, 1:30 and 4 pm
Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest […]
Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest Debut of Zuštiak’s newest work Custodians of Beauty, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center, New York Live Arts, American Dance Institute, and Legion Arts. In Custodians of Beauty, Zuštiak questions where beauty is found and whether it needs our defense. With this piece, Zuštiak moves away from his usual large scale productions by focusing on a more minimalist approach to choreographing dance—picking away at the subject to find, perhaps, the truth of what beauty is.
I had the honor to talk to the artist himself over a cup of coffee and what follows is a series of questions and responses to get a better idea of who Pavel Zuštiak is as an artist, and how he went about creating Custodians of Beauty.
Ben Swenson-Klatt: So glad that you are able to sit down and talk! I thought we would start out with a few questions to get to know you. What inspired you to become an artist? Was there a particular moment or artist that inspired you the most?
Pavel Zuštiak: I was born in former Czechoslovakia in an area that is now Slovakia, and I was always attracted to the theater world as far as I can remember. I built my own lighting system for my homemade puppet theater when I was very young, then acted and sang on a very popular TV series starting at age nine. Early on I also studied piano—I almost went to a conservatory to study that—and then things kind of shifted; when I was 12, I started to dance by accident.
That’s actually a funny story. This was around the time when Flashdance and Dirty Dancing had just come out, so dancing was very popular and everybody was looking for studios to dance in. Slovakia has a very rich tradition of folk dancing, and every town had its own specific folk dance vocabulary and traditions. A schoolmate of mine wanted to go audition for a folk dance company, but he didn’t want to go alone and asked me to go with him. I said sure. We got to the cultural center where the audition was being held, but he messed up the dates and we ended up at a modern dance company audition instead. Everyone was in tights except the two of us! We both got in—he quit after a month—but for me it was a revelation. I was fascinated by the ability of dance to touch upon something that goes beyond words and yet can be very specific in communicating.
One particular moment made me recognize art making could be a vocation, and that was meeting Pina Bausch and seeing her work. She came to my hometown, Kosice, in Czechoslovakia in 1987 and rehearsed and performed at the cultural center where the dance company I was a part of resided. We observed her rehearsals, interacted with her, and eventually saw two of her seminal pieces, Café Muller (which she performed in) and The Rite of Spring. This experience blew me away and revealed how powerful dance and theater can be. It was truly a pivotal moment for me. Later I went to the School for New Dance Development in the Netherlands. Seventeen years ago I moved to New York, and that’s my journey.
But I would also say that very early on, because of all these different genres that I had explored, to me, in a theater performance, one is not more important than the other, so rarely I see set, music, or lighting just as a decorative element but as an element that can push the narrative of the piece.
Swenson-Klatt: You seem to be really aware of the sound and lighting, and I think you even mentioned that you are playing with scent in this production?
Zuštiak: Yeah, this is the first time. The show is titled Custodians of Beauty, so one of the very first tasks when talk
ing with designers was asking what is the most beautiful thing that you could witness in theater, musically, visually or scenically? So of course we
went through all this stuff including clichés, and someone brought up the scent of a rose.
Swenson-Klatt: And other scents,like perfumes?
Zuštiak: Yes, and I was reminded of how powerful scent can be in transporting you to a place or time in a very immediate way. This is the first show where I am playing with that, and I plan to explore that further in my next project, where I will be collaborating with a scent artist. So this is dabbling into something new.
Swenson-Klatt: Could you talk a little bit more about the collaboration you have with lighting designer Joe Levasseur, set designer Simon Harding, and sound designer Christian Frederickson, and how they are integral to Custodians of Beauty, in terms of pushing the narrative through transitions?
Zuštiak: I usually start with a question or dilemma around a certain subject or theme as an opening question or conversation, not only with the designers but also with the performers, who are equally contributing artists in the room. Out of those conversations and out of contributions from all of us, we start to look at a palette of possibilities. Ideas, scenes, and events start to emerge, and then at a certain point I end up with a series of… I call them images, but I don’t see it as a static moment. I start placing them in a certain order, looking dramaturgically at what kind of trajectory the show could have, and then I start shaping individual images or scenes, and their progression, throughout the show. In terms of my direction, often I come with an image or I come with a clear proposal or direction of a scene, and sometimes I know what function a transition or scene has and that’s my direction to designers, to problem solve. But it’s a lot of back and forth, a very organic process. I have worked with Christian, the composer, on five productions, and Joe Levasseur is the exclusive lighting designer that I have worked with since living in New York, so at this point they pretty well understand my aesthetic. I think we are also at a place where, we were joking, we can be like an old couple: we know when to fight over something and when to let go.
Swenson-Klatt: You bring up seeing the overall choreographic process as visual or image-based. Do you have a connection to visual arts or a way that the visual arts play into making movement?
Zuštiak: I think there are choreographers who are creating or editing through kinesthetic feedback, and that’s how they shape and edit the work. For me, it’s seeing the work and seeing all the elements together, and I am more and more curious in reduction: how far can I push reducing expressive modes into a simple statement or gesture that would hold much more than you are seeing? Like reduction in cooking—you taste something but there is a depth—many different ingredients that went through a long process to get to that point. Or like a capsule that locks together complex layers, or a statement. I like to see how far I can push that without losing the intensity of what goes into it.
Swenson-Klatt: And the way that all the different elements that came together. In other interviews you’ve discussed the research that went into this piece, like how its title is pulled from a 2009 address by Pope Benedict XVI when he met with artists at the Sistine Chapel, as well as the influence of Alva Noë’s book, Action in Perception, and Susan Sontag’s essay, “An argument about Beauty.” Could you talk about your research?
Zuštiak: The original speech by the pope already touches on some references from history. He quotes Plato, for example, who talked about beauty as something that shocks us out of ourselves, which I find fascinating, as a way of being disarmed as an audience member, which also leads to a certain loss of narcissistic vision and makes you aware of larger issues or gives you a sense of humanity. In the show there a few moments where we are eluding to this sensibility of breaking the fourth wall, to making the audience realize that we are here in the same room, that this is something happening collectively.
I came across an article with the same title in a wonderful Dutch magazine Works That Work, published by a Slovak editor, Peter Bilak, which mentions the pope and his speech to leading art makers of the time—his insistence of holding onto beauty as something important in their art making. I was perplexed that this was high up on his agenda, although the relationship of the church and art world is nothing new. That led me to research beauty throughout contemporary art history, and I realized how problematic this subject matter is and how in certain parts of the art world, beauty has become almost taboo. Often we feel more comfortable talking about something as interesting rather than beautiful, which Susan Sontag states at the end of her article as an argument for the definition and existence of beauty: “If you are watching a sunset it would be strange to say it is interesting rather than beautiful.” I find that when we say something is beautiful we are laying our cards on the table, while when saying something is interesting we are holding them close to our chest.
Swenson-Klatt: It’s kind of like calling on people to really stand by what they believe in. I think that is an important concept to tackle especially today, when sometimes it is almost easier to not have an opinion but to instead stay on the sidelines and say, “That’s interesting.”
Zuštiak: I think the resistance towards beauty also comes from its associations, for instance as something being pretty or as something that has to be symmetrical, these preconceived ideas of what beautiful means. Who defines that? I think the question itself has also become controversial: who is in charge of the definition of what is and what is not beautiful? Although the pope is approaching the artists as custodians, the title Custodians of Beauty for me is more of a question mark, i.e. who are the custodians? Is it the audience member? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is it the curator, who presents the work, is it his or her responsibility? The questions that this subject raises are challenging and lack straight answers, and I found it to be a fertile ground for a new work.
Swenson-Klatt: In her article, Sontag brought up the feminine connotations of beauty, and of course in mainstream media beauty has almost become attached to the feminine. Did you play at all with gender?
Zuštiak: Yes, there is one scene that acknowledges that. I am acknowledging feminine beauty as an image or association, although the notion of beauty as the cover of a fashion magazine often relating to a product was not something I was going for in this piece. I was more interested in beauty that is at the edge of terror. You know you can be in the presence of a tornado and it can be a beautiful sight, but you are also at the edge of something that can consume you. I believe there are artworks that can produce the same effect.
Swenson-Klatt: Is there a piece of artwork that you find beautiful? That’s probably a big question.
Zuštiak: I’m sure there is. For some reason I’m going to music. I’m thinking of the work of Arvo Pärt, music I find incredibly simple yet immensely beautiful.
Swenson-Klatt: It’s a hard question! But maybe something for everyone to think about when they are approaching this piece.
Zuštiak: And by saying something is beautiful, there is also judgment, so that is part of the show, where—I don’t know how much I want to say because people should come and see—basically, it’s a subjective matter, something can be witnessed by two people but they can have polar opposite experiences. So it’s also touching on that; it’s a subjective thing relating to judgment. And that leads to perception, which leads to Alva Noë, who talks about perception as not something that happens to you but something that you do. So he is talking about perception as an active engagement with what you are seeing. And for me, not just with this show but for any show, the audience is the co-creator of the experience and it is a live thing. When that meets with what we are proposing and comes into a conversation, I feel like that’s what releases the magic of a theatrical experience, something unpredictable but alive.
Swenson-Klatt: It almost seems that by setting the context with the term beauty that you are asking the audience to be active participants and to make a decision about what they find beautiful.
Zuštiak: And I’m hoping that it’s not just about this show. I’m thinking of another performance that we did in a public space. It was called Halt! and was presented in the terminal of the Staten Island Ferry in New York City. There were three performers who were among the people that accumulated to get on the ferry, and after one of the shows I got an email from someone who came to see it, and she was saying that suddenly everything in that terminal, in her eyes, was choreographed. She said, “I left the terminal and it continued. I was on the subway and it felt like everything was a dance.” So her perception shifted and I would hope that this show could also shift people’s perception. There are many things in the show that look at subtleties, the mundane, and when you start looking at things for an extended period of time or from a different angle, you start to see things differently, so that’s also what I am hoping to achieve with the show.
Swenson-Klatt: Do you have any last words as the audience prepares for the show?
Zuštiak: I feel like non-dance audiences come to a dance show believing that there is a certain kind of experience they should be having rather than just having their experience, so I would say, go in with an open mind; have an experience first, and then start analyzing what happened rather than coming in with an analytical mind at the start of the show. The biggest compliment I received for my work was from an audience member who said, “I did not understand it but I know what it was about.” I think dance is not the best medium at telling stories but an amazing medium to tell stories in its own language.
Pavel Zustiak’s Custodians of Beauty will be performed Thursday through Saturday, October 20–22, 2016 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.