Saturday, December 08, 2018

"Custodians of Beauty"

Cal Performances presents
Emma Judkins
Photo Liz Lynch
Pavel Zuštiak and Palissimo Company
Custodians of Beauty 
Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley
December 7th, 2018

In any Cal Performances’ dance season, there is much to luxuriate in. New chapters in decades old artistic collaborations; a wide swath of choreographic genres and styles; and a curiosity for newness. One of the ways the longtime arts presenter embodies this final quality is in their programming design. Most years, Cal Performances includes one or two (sometimes more) companies who have never performed in the Bay Area, exposing regional audiences to a fresh creative voice and perspective. This past weekend brought one of these debuts - Pavel Zuštiak and Palissimo Company in 2015’s Custodians of Beauty. An eighty-five minute conceptual collage directed and choreographed by Zuštiak and performed by the incomparable trio of Viktor De La Fuente, Emma Judkins and Justin Morrison, Custodians was both cool and thoughtful.

Zuštiak included some commentary in the program, which concluded with a two-part question, “where do we find beauty today and does it need our defense?” While I’m not sure that I saw the latter line of inquiry, I was struck by how the former sentiment rang clearly throughout the work. Whether an extended movement vignette or a short creative snapshot, scene after scene oozed simplicity and purity. Physicality was unhurried and smooth; arm gestures, uncomplicated and natural; directional shifts, clear and precise. Small motions were celebrated and mined, like the movement of the head or the gaze of the eye. A giant smoke cloud was cast into the audience and simply allowed to dissipate; a vocal offering (which incidentally was performed with incredible musical prowess) hung hauntingly in the air. Every artistic idea in Custodians was distilled to its very essence; no pretense, no extraneous stuff. I found this particularly impressive seeing as how the piece employed so many different disciplines – sound, text, visual art, effects, choreography, video, song. But in Custodians, movement was movement; song was song, text was text. Not a hint of spectacle or ostentatious-ness cluttered Zuštiak’s varied artistic explorations.

While a paragon of clarity and distillation, Custodians did have some challenges. For those of us who suffer from any kind of motion sickness, the first moments of the work, with its bouncy, shaky videography, certainly triggered it. For the most part, I found the score to be compelling, though it occasionally ventured into uncomfortable territory – high-pitched soundscapes and atmospheric tremolo that left the ears ringing. While that kind of discomfort can certainly be purposeful, in this case, it distracted from what was happening on stage.

And at close to an hour and a half, Custodians was far too long, especially because some of the chapters felt like they could have been edited. For example, one lengthy section found De La Fuente, Judkins and Morrison moving methodically through a series of cluster sculptures. The transitions were slow and small, close to Butoh in their tempi. I was into it; the shapes and living figures they were creating were really something to behold. But as it continued and continued and continued, the idea lost its early potency. For me, the pull and magnetism of the first few postures had disappeared. The same was true for a later sequence of patterned aerobic running, bouncing and hopping. Again, interesting and dynamic, but just too long. Finally, there was a moment when the lights went up and the three performers ventured into the house. Each invited an audience member up on stage for a brief standing pause, after which they returned to their seats. I’m all for exposing the porous boundary between the performer and the viewer, but this didn’t feel like it served the piece at all. In fact, it brought unnecessary clutter to an otherwise uncluttered theatrical container.    

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