Three years in development, the trilogy cycle inspired by the harsh, memorable wartime novel receives its broadest exposure yet, as centrepiece in the renowned theatre’s annual La Mama Moves!
Photo from The Painted Bird by Pavel Zuštiak / Palissimo, photo: © Peter Snadik
Three years in development, the trilogy cycle inspired by the harsh, memorable wartime novel receives its broadest exposure yet, as centrepiece in the renowned theatre’s annual La Mama Moves! Dance Festival.
The New York City premiere of The Painted Bird by choreographer Pavel Zustiak and his company Palissimo runs through the 30th of June at La Mama in downtown Manhattan. Varying its theatrical frames, the ambitious dance trilogy indicates the lasting influence of expatriate Polish novelist Jerzy Kosiński’s book from 1965 that inspired Zustiak – though in an abstracted way, for themes of trauma and coping, rather than the narrative of rural atrocity.
Kosiński had been a boy in occupied Poland in the early 1940s, and Zustiak’s sympathy with affliction is tempered by his own upbringing in communist-era Czechoslovakia. The performance venue, La Mama Experimental Theater Club, serves as a co-commissioner of The Painted Bird – and as a theatrical platform with an exceptional history in the U.S. for presenting works from East and Central European artists.
The trilogy received its world premiere in September 2012 at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio – another co-commissioner of the piece, as was the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław, Poland. The three panels, premiered as they were completed, are designed to function independently – though Zustiak says the triology should “add up to more than just the sum of the parts”. Strange Cargo, the third part, was shown at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan in 2012, produced by PS 122 – another of the trilogy’s commissioning venues and, along with La Mama, a vital, longstanding presence on New York’s performing-arts scene.
With five dancers, live music by composer Christian Frederickson and percussionist Ryan Ramery, intensive lighting by Joe Levasseur and projections, it utilizes Zustiak’s core creative team. With the audience on either side of the stage - Zustiak termed it “tennis-court style” in an interview – Strange Cargo also indicated his approach of disorienting viewers from passive expectations. It’s one means of revealing themes inspired by the novel, not its narrative horrors - which transpire largely among civilians, not the Germans, witnessed by its 6-year-old protagonist, and later provoked controversy for Kosiński’s claims about his own childhood as a Jew in occupied Poland, and for disputes about his authorship.
Zustiak abstracts thematic content from this volatile source that brought fame to its writer, born as Józef Lewinkopf to a professor at Lódż University and a pianist who’d studied at the Moscow Conservatory (his father changed the family name in 1939 as anti-Semitism intensified). The trilogy alters audience perspective over its sections, which compounds this tough movement material. The opening section, Bastard, is a virile, visceral solo for the Slovak dancer Jaro Vinarsky, eventually joined by a crowd – 50 volunteers participated in the Ohio production. It illustrates the Polish folk legend that gave the novel its title: a crow, captured and brilliantly painted then returned to its flock, will be destroyed by its fellows.
The second part, Amidst, features three dancers mingling with the standing audience in mist and harsh spotlights. Amidst premiered at the Baryshnikov Center in midtown Manhattan – another important performance venue, and site of an installation dance performance in 2007 that also dealt with loss and trauma, by William Forsythe’s remarkable company.
Zustiak’s project received ample attention from critics as it evolved, including two top New York dance writers. Claudia La Rocca of the New York Times termed Vinarsky “gorgeously intense” in her review of Bastard in 2011, citing Zustiak’s piece “as much about the watchers and the watched”, and pinpointing “a terrible stillness that might have been the prelude to an act of eroticism, violence or both”. The veteran Deborah Jowitt – who began her 44-year tenure at the Village Voice around the time Kosiński’s novel was published – saw the parts separately, then anticipated the trilogy’s full premiere in her Dance Beat blog at Art Journal. The choreographer, in Jowitt’s view, “creates no movement that looks like dancing for its own sake […] The superbly expressive performers run themselves ragged, pummeling the air with their bodies, never fully at rest”.
The Financial Times critic Apollinaire Scherr, though, published a 4-star review of Bastard then called Strange Cargo “gnomic but also predictable, jarring yet numbing”. The issue for The Painted Bird as a trilogy performance will be the audience’s experience of several hours of intensive dance mated to its sonic component and aggressive visual effects. The choreography and score were developed in tandem, and Zustiak worked between setting the movement language and improvisation to create “scenes that feel as if they were happening for the first time in front of the audience”. With two intermissions, the piece shifts the audience in each section, from proscenium stage to open installation to being face to face for Strange Cargo – with themselves. “When they enter, it is not clear how the space functions, what the rules are – and I like that uncertainty”, Zustiak said. “I expect them to be alert and active”.
In comments after a PS 122 performance in 2012, he showed special interest in Kosiński’s experience – the novel remained banned in Poland until 1989, the writer’s mother received threats. The choreographer commented on art imitating life, while life can also imitate art. As a book of wartime and Holocaust remembrance, the original is renowned for searing events and a detached persistence of tone from the writer who went on to receive the National Book Award in 1969 and an Oscar for the screenplay from his novel Being There.
Still from The Painted Bird's promo video, photo: press release
In an interview with Paris Review in 1972, Kosiński spoke of memory and imagination: “The remembered event becomes an incident, a highly compressed dramatical unit that mixes memory and emotion, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings”. He found “no essential difference between war and any other traumatic experience”, saying that “It depends on how it affects the mind”. He agreed when interviewers cited his friend Roman Polański, who said that violence is horribly traumatic only when you look at it from a particular point of view. (Kosiński had been invited to visit on the night in 1969 when Polański’s wife, Sharon Tate, and three other friends were murdered by the Manson gang.)
His later career was marred by accusations of plagiarism, and by books that came to reflect his successful lifestyle more than enduring human concerns. Kosiński viewed himself as “court jester” to the powerful – he married the widow of a steel magnate and was close with Zbigniew Brzezinski - and was ardently anticommunist and right wing. Unimpressed with youth liberation, he frequented sex clubs in pre-AIDS Manhattan, and helped start AmerBank, the first western bank in Poland after 1989. He killed himself in 1991 in the bathtub of his West 57th St. home near Carnegie Hall, after social evening also attended by the writer Gay Talese and a Republican senator from Maine.
Zustiak’s own biography reflects an emigrée artist’s efforts. He was born in Kosice, now in Slovakia, then trained at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam. On moving to the U.S. in 1999, he started Palissimo in New York City in 2004 and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010. In his thinking for The Painted Bird, he extends those views of Kosiński and Polański to the general audience, chosing to render the work “abstract to the extent that people from different backgrounds would have reference to their culture referring to atrocity and violence”.
La Mama puts his full piece at the forefront of the contemporary performance world. Its theatres have served since the 1960s as the early homes and laboratories for theatre luminaries including Robert Wilson and Sam Shepard, and the composer Philip Glass - an era when founding director Ellen Stewart was bringing Jerzy Grotowski and then Tadeusz Kantor’s artistic visions from Poland to transform the New York scene.
In recent years, the theatre has presented the Belarus Free Theatre, giving their work high visibility where it is banned at home, and helping to facilitate that company’s work in exile. It is the epicenter for Polish companies performing in the U.S.: theatre legends including Gardzienice and Scena Plastyczyna KUL, dance innovators Dada von Bzdülöw, the puppet theatres of Wrocław and Białystok, director Radek Rychcik’s rock-music provocation In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, and the only semi-professional production that’s yet played in New York City of Gombrowicz’s Operetka – a harshly playful work exposing the unruly mechanisms of revolution.
For performance schedule and additional information, see the La Mama website.