BRATTLEBORO — Pavel Zuštiak just might be the only major choreographer working in America who got his start performing as the Czechoslovakian equivalent of a Mouseketeer.
“I was a television star in my home country when I was 9, in an hour-long show that was aired once a month,” says Zuštiak. “The show was quite popular in the Eastern European bloc and was rather similar to the Mickey Mouse Club here in America.”
He says his culture helped him stay grounded despite early fame and let him focus on the path that led him to postmodern dance.
“Unlike in the United States, where every child on a popular show becomes a superstar, people in Czechoslovakia can be rather low-keyed about television celebrity, so I had a fairly normal childhood,” he says.
At 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, audiences at New England Youth Theatre can see the latest work by Zuštiak and Palissimo, the dance company he founded, in “Endangered Pieces,” presented by Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) in association with Guilford Sound.
After, the artists will be on hand to chat with the audience. Parents take note: this performance may contain nudity.
Dreamy and calamitous
In Zuštiak's “Endangered Pieces,” events unfold in a series of dream-like scenes set against looming calamity. As VPL describes the performance on its website, “A man in an empty space: in a field, onstage, in combat. Is this his ultimate battle and can it be won? Throughout, the visceral trumps the literal, leaving visual impressions, both alluring and unsettling, that linger and gestate in the subconscious.”
A 2011 Guggenheim Fellow in choreography, Zuštiak is the current artist-in-residence at VPL in Guilford. He says he is excited about his stay in Vermont. He'd been here only once before, and that was for a day.
“I am happy to put my stuff down at VPL and have the time to add finishing touches to 'Endangered Pieces.' In Vermont, at NEYT, we are going to be doing the entire piece, and even though we are calling it a work in progress, it will be as close to the finished performance as we possible can make it,” he says.
The piece will have its official world première Oct. 2 at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City.
Zuštiak, based in New York City, was born and raised in the former Czechoslovakia and left in his early-20s to attend school in Canada. There he would earn his MBA.
“This was right after the collapse of of Communism, which was a great time to go into the business world in Czechoslovakia,” he explains.
But Zuštiak retained his love of the arts, and after earning his MBA he continued his education and studied dance.
“After school I expected to work as a choreographer somewhere in Europe, perhaps Amsterdam,” he says. “Yet, rather offhandedly, I had applied for a green card from the U.S. [visa] diversity lottery. I had completely forgotten about it, when I discovered I won.”
Zuštiak then moved to New York City, aiming to join an established dance company. In 2003, he formed his own: Palissimo.
There, Zuštiak has created bold and innovative performance works that integrate sound, set design, dance and video. As artistic director he assembles artists of various disciplines to create cutting-edge work through research, risk-taking, and experimentation.
Except for a few core members, the company collaborates with new artists for each project. Palissimo's mission is to attain artistic liberty in pursuit of communion and dialogue with the audience through live performances, research, and teaching.
In 2007, Zuštiak was awarded a prestigious Princess Grace Award for choreography to support his collaboration with Laboratory Company Dance in Pittsburgh. He was also nominated for a Bessie Award for “The Painted Bird Trilogy,” a collection of evening-length works “excavating the themes of displacement, otherness, and transformation.”
This four-hour cycle, which was three years in the making, was inspired by Jerzy Kosinski's controversial novel of the same name.
“All my works have what I call an Eastern European streak,” he says, and explains that means he generally pursues darker ideas in places of tension and conflict.
“I find these to be dramatically and thematically the most interesting stories to tell. People who know my work have often called it both human and humane, which I like. “
Dark, but not hopeless
He relates a joke shared among people who work with him: “When's your next comedy?” Although Zuštiak pursues heavy themes, he says, “that does not mean I exclude humor in my work. I suppose I would say I look at situations that are dire but not hopeless.”
Zuštiak adds that he believes the theater should “offer a refuge where audiences and artists seek a haven of solace and enter an arena of disquieting questions.”
He says the impetus for “Endangered Pieces” began “with a piece of news that circulated about a year ago about suicide rates of veterans returning from Afghanistan. Pursuing that, I studied the rate of suicides at the Brattleboro Retreat.”
He began working from a central concept: human beings are their own worst enemies.
“As I got into the work, I somewhat moved away from that, into more specific issues involving our misuse of natural resources and the atrocities of war,” he says. “I follow how history repeats itself. Nonetheless, 'Endangered Pieces' is a very abstract work, and this theme of looming danger may not be apparent to many people in the audience. But it does provide an underpinning structure for the work.”
In addition to “Endangered Pieces,” Zuštiak's VPL residency will include another public performance of sorts, “Cooking with Pavel Zuštiak.”
Zuštiak will be in the kitchen chopping and cooking, and discussing with composer Christian Frederickson his approach to making immersive dance-theater pieces.
This unusual event will be open exclusively to members of VPL Performance Club on Sept. 21 from 6 to 9 p.m. at VPL in Guilford.
Led by VPL Director Sara Coffey and choreographer/performer Candice Salyers, VPL Performance Club is a new book-club-modeled venture where participants attend an exciting range of performance works and experiences.
“Endangered Pieces” was created in residencies and with support of Abrons Arts Center, Czech Center New York, Vermont Performance Lab, and Stanica Å½ilina-ZárieÄie, and made possible with funding from The Jerome Foundation, The Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Trust for Mutual Understanding, and New Music USA.