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Talking to Pavel Zuštiak: A Cultural Democracy in the Performing Arts Interview

The Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, led by Kyoung H. Park, has designed an artist survey to invite artists to share their experiences working in the field in order to open up public discussions regarding diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. Over the course of the next few months, we will highlight interviews with artists who are in conversation with the Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, and we invite members of our community to help us gather more information by completing our survey here. Our team will synthesize our findings and share these interviews and our findings online.

Pavel Zuštiak

Pavel Zuštiak

1. How do you identify yourself? How does your identity influence or inform your work?

Reading these questions I feel there is a certain agenda that is not quite clear to me but I hope to shed some light on my experience and perspectives.

I identify myself as an artist from Central Europe who is based in NYC (born and raised in communist Czechoslovakia, immigrated to NYC some 14 years ago). My work is rooted in dance and movement but I allow each production element to contribute in equal measure to the “narrative” of the work. I attempt to create work for stage and beyond that reaches spectators as total theatre multi-sensory experiences.

But of course this conversation and definition would go very differently if I spoke with someone whose only association with the word dance is Dancing with the Stars or poledancing…

As I grow older I strive to expand any definitions of who I more broadly (hence, feeling more comfortable calling myself an artist than a choreographer). Identity is formed through our experiences with our place of birth, its culture, political system, time when we were born (belonging to a certain generation), color of our skin, our sexual identity, where we are currently residing, our political and religious beliefs etc. Even though they represent aspects of someone’s identity I find it often limiting to define someone just by those and leads to quick judgment and dismissal. I find them limiting and reductionist in expressing a complex identity “portfolio” of an individual. I see how these labels became limiting to my growth and provided exclusion rather than inclusion. So in my life and work I attempt to expand those defining lines so I can be enriched by people around me and enrich those that allow me to.

I see how it is helpful to place, to categorize people – but we are so quick to jump to conclusions based on a label. We are quick to jump to conclusions. We are quick to jump to conclusions.

My latest trilogy work The Painted Bird was touching on many aspects of this. I think we all belong and are all excluded at once – it depends on who is defining those categories and how they are being defined. The title of the Kosinski’s book that I used for my work comes from a scene where a little boy meest a bird trapper in a Polish village during the second world war. He paints a bird in brilliant colors and releases it. The bird joins its own flock, which then kills him, thinking it is an intruder. Being rejected by your own.

I feel more comfortable being called an artist rather than a choreographer. I was an actor and singer as a child, played piano for 12 years, and am still messing around with sound design. I started with dance at 12 years old but was always interested in things that were at the intersection of genres, work that was unexpected in its form. I grew up in Czechoslovakia and was there during the Velvet Revolution, lived in Canada, then in Amsterdam where I went to the School for New Dance Development and 14 years ago I moved to NYC. Again, I see that definitions of what dance and what theatre are, differ in Europe and in the U.S. I feel somehow stuck between theatre and dance categories in the US.

Audiences tend to be stirred emotionally by my work, which makes some uneasy. I am curious to find out more about this. I feel the audiences in NYC or maybe US (?) are more prepared and receptive of the work that is abstract, also work that responds to the popular culture and is campy or ironic – a lot of this work inspires me and I like but that is not the work that comes when I am in a studio making my own work. People found my latest pieces political although I would never identify myself as a political artist. The older I am the more I walk towards loosing control in the creative process and allowing the work to lead. It is not easy to trust that. I am sure that all of who I am is somehow there in the work but find it tricky when coming into the process with an agenda to get across in the work – that often leads to propaganda or just bad art.

2. Do you face challenges in the field based on the way you identify yourself?

I face challenges being part of this field! This field is challenged and endangered! Being a theatre or dance artist in NYC is difficult and getting more so as it is becoming more and more expensive to live here.

3. Where do you (or can you) locate representations of your culture [community] within contemporary performance?

This is a difficult question as I am not busy with identifying that niche (maybe I should be) because I see it in a constant flux. I know that I am not interested in repeating myself. There are artists that find their formula that works and they stick with it. I get bored. It probably serves them better from the business point of view.

4. Are there moments in which your cultural identity [community] is misrepresented or underrepresented, and how do you address this?

I do not consciously try to represent a certain community. But I feel more and more threatened as an artist in the US and am concerned about the role and place of an artist in the American culture. I am not talking about popular culture or mainstream art but about non-commercial art. United States Artists stated in their brochure few years ago what was an eye opener and a shocker:

“While 96% of Americans place a high value on art in their lives, only 27% believe artists contribute strongly to the good of society.” (!!!)

5. Have you been a working artist in another culture [community]? Has this experience exposed something about current practices that we can learn from?

I am from the former Czechoslovakia and I studied in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I have been back in Slovakia for creative residencies over the last 3 years so have a little better understanding of what is happening there now. Although I am sure NYC audiences are perhaps more open they are also more jaded and opinionated. I sense freedom and space here to do my thing. “Live and let live” attitude. Plus I feel a sense of belonging and support from other artists in the dance and theater community here – because we know how difficult it is to make work here and although very competitive I feel people are mostly supportive.

There is an arts center in Slovakia that I am very proud of and is an example of a vital and thriving arts community: Stanica Zilina Zariecie where we had residencies in the past – it is a train station (an hourly train goes from there to a nearby spring wells) around which admirable team of artists created 2 theatre spaces, gallery, café, arts school for children, they are building another gallery and now are in the process of remodeling/renovating an old synagogue into a Kunsthalle. They created a beautiful community around the work they do, often with minimum funding and I always look forward to going back. They are people who love what they do, they work at high professional level, work grassroots and are VERY innovative in executing their vision – an example: the walls of their main theatre space S2 were built from beer crates donated to them by a beer sponsor – they built those walls themselves with beer crates covered with mud inside (!!!) Talk about thinking outside the box!

Their new additional gallery will be made of the shipping containers.

Also I remember when I was there the first time I was surprised to see the staff that is working long days during the week together would still hang out off-hours over the weekend! It is truly inspiring place.

6. Have you worked in other cities/regions and can you tell us about the reception of your work there in comparison to NYC?

Last year we performed nationally outside of NYC in places like Wexner in Columbus, Ohio, Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids in Iowa, or PADL West in California and I have to say that audience in these places were very attentive and very vocal about their experiences. I personally am not a fan of Q/A after the shows but we had pretty extraordinary feedback from people in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for example. So there are exciting places outside NYC that I hope to explore although my feeling is that there is and will be less and less national touring as we knew it.

And we had very nice reception of Bastard in Slovakia and Czech Republic (aforementioned Stanica and also Archa Theatre in Prague among others) although I have to say I was nervous about presenting my work “back home” when we went in 2010 after years of me living in NYC. Nobody is a prophet in his own land. But it turned out to great.

7. Describe an ideal situation in which your work is presented. Is there anything you’d like your audience to know about you before viewing your work?

A presenter that loves your work that you have direct and open communication with. Once at the venue, presenter that is present when you need them and absent when you need space to do your thing. A fee that allows you to pay everyone in the show properly, and your Company.  Marketing done well in advance, house is full of people who are excited to see the work. Ticket prices at various levels so everybody can see it but pays at the level they can afford. You are asked to come back. AND there is a great bar in the lobby of the theatre or the center – this is something I miss here and love in Europe. That is where the best conversations take place – before or after the show…

Pavel Zuštiak, a NYC-based director, choreographer, and performer, was born in communist Czechoslovakia and trained at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam. He is known for sophisticated, multidisciplinary works with piercing emotional content and abundant surrealist imagery that explore “the darker shades of human behavior” (The New Yorker) and reach spectators as totalizing multi-sensory experiences. Zuštiak is a recipient of 2013 LMCC President’s Award for excellence in artistic practice, 2012 NEFA Award, 2010 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, 2010 Maggie Allesee National Choreographic Center Fellowship and a winner of the 2007 and 2009 Princess Grace Award. Zuštiak was named an ambassador of Košice European Capital of Culture 2013, his birth city. His four hour work The Painted Bird just received two 2013 Bessie nominations: as Outstanding Production and its soloist Jaro Vinarsky as Outstanding Performer.

Zuštiak’s work was funded by CEC Artslink, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Jerome Foundation, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New England Foundation for the Arts, Princess Grace Foundation, The Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Design Enhancement Fund, a program of the A.R.T./New York, The Greenwall Foundation and Trust for Mutual Understanding.

The Painted Bird (Part II): AMIDST is now available for streaming or download at OnTheBoards.tv: http://www.ontheboards.tv/performance/dance/amidst

www.palissimo.org . www.thepaintedbird.org .
www.facebook.com/Palissimo . @palissimoco


About kyounghpark

Artistic Director, Pacific Beat Collective


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