THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
A review by Christopher Bernard
For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror . . .
Custodians of Beauty
Pavel Zuštiak and Palissimo Company
One of the many peculiarities of our post-postmodern age (though a clearer term for it would be “hypermodern”) has been the attempt to deconstruct (a polite word for “demolish”) certain terms of value that have come down to us through the ages of Western civilization: “truth,” “goodness,” “equality,” “freedom,” “liberal,” “democracy,” and the like.
One of the terms that has received special scrutiny in certain purviews of academia (where such demolitions are practiced, frequently under the innocent eyes of college students) has been “beauty.”
I always ask myself why such demolitions are performed: why would anyone want to deconstruct “truth” or “freedom” or “love”? Why would someone want to destroy “beauty”?
Knowing who will gain by such demolitions is often more fruitful than knowing who will lose. For, if we lost “beauty,” most people, I think, would agree that we would lose much that makes life worth living. But who would gain by it? One can understand why some feminists might, with good cause, resent “beauty,” since “beauty” has been used against women by men since the beginning of time: men have a weakness in worshiping beautiful women and despising ugly ones. And the most beautiful woman in the world knows that her beauty is only temporary: it is only a matter of time before she will lose it and fall into the worthless category of the ugly.
One common argument is that “beauty” creates “ugliness,” and that if we lost “beauty” as a value, we would lose “ugliness” as a pejorative. This, however, remains to be proved. It strikes me as, at best, unlikely: without “beauty” we would not lose “ugliness.” We would merely end up with nothing.
Which brings us to the modern dance performance, “Custodians of Beauty,” by Pavel Zuštiak and the NewYork‒based Palissimo Company, which was performed over a recent weekend in Berkeley as part of Cal Performances’ dance series.
This dance clearly belongs to the ongoing discussion of the meaning and value of beauty. “Custodians of Beauty” takes its title seriously and with less irony than one might have expected. Zuštiak’s dance is (as I read it) about exploring the boundaries of what we think of as “beautiful” and “ugly,” and breaking threw them, in order to find “beauty” where we might least expect to find it: for example, in industrial noise, in half-broken bodies, in mind-numbing repetition, pointless posturing and semaphores of nonsense, in asexual forms of nudity, in inelegance, cross-dressing, smoke and darkness and embarrassment and silliness and shame. There is even some dancing that pretends hard not to be—as dance is, for some of us, the very definition of classic forms of beauty.
And it almost succeeds. Though that “almost” is a bit wider than one might have hoped.
The roughly hour and a half work is broken into some fifteen to twenty scenelets, performed against two large movable panels, one of them a greenish-gray, the other a heavy scarlet red scored over with Cy Twombly-like marks and scratches. The three dancers dance before and between the screens, often making alphabet-like shapes, or taking enigmatic poses, or deaf-mute signing; their shadows thrown in dramatic shadows against them, creating phantom crowds.
At one point the three appear, seminude, wrapped in and around each other, with rumps thrust in the air like mushrooms and, in a long choreographic tour de force, role together complexly across the stage, uncoiling limbs and exposing torsos without once revealing their faces, until at the very last moment they rise to a stand and turn to the audience, defiantly human after recapitulating an evolution from some primordial fungus.
Other scenes include words spoken, screened, sung: a song based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, words spoken to the audience (in one instance, three audience members were invited to the stage, and stood, awkwardly but good-naturedly, defying us to think them less worthy of attention than the dancers they momentarily replaced), words screened against the back wall; taken from what appear to be typical comments after an avant-garde dance performances, and echoing no doubt what some in the current audience were thinking or would share with each other after the show: “What was that? Did it mean anything? I almost . . . liked it.” This dance certainly displayed a good-natured sense of humor.
At one point the smoke machine was put to use, and a cloud of steam rose in the dimly lit auditorium, slowly dissipating over the audience’s heads. At another point, an enormous black screen was pulled over the heads of the audience, from the front row to the back, one row at a time by the audience themselves after being initiated by the dancers.
At another point, an extravagant shadow was thrown against the back screen and a man in a dress appeared, mincing grandly in defiance of classic attitudes of masculine beauty (always more conservative than the feminine).
And there was a spoof of a grand finale, as the three dancers trembled and shook and pogoed around the stage to dance-club music like wound-up puppets, before a coda where, in half-seen shadows, one of the male dancers strenuously waved a huge, indecipherable banner, though whether in triumph or in futile defiance we will never know.
I found my best experience of this dance while writing about it: while watching it, on the other hand, I often felt vaguely irritated, despite the first feeling of intrigue as each part began, then out-stayed its welcome. The dance as a whole would have been a feast if, so to speak, it had been closer to a snack; as it was, it felt undernourished, repetitious, and thin; editing it down to an hour would probably strengthen its overall effect. Also it was not quite as original as it intended: these motives and these moves I have encountered more than once since deconstruction’s hey-day in the 1980s and the advent of “antidance” in Europe over the last decade or more.
Pavel Zuštiak provided “direction, choreography and olfactory design” (though, to be frank, I failed to detect any untoward smells, good or bad), the simple but effective lighting was by Joe Levasseur, and the eerie, sometimes deliberately needling, and (when called for) effectively ironic music was by Christian Frederickson. The able, brave and vulnerable dancers were Viktor De La Fuente, Emma Judkins, and Justin Morrison.
Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, drama, and art for Synchronized Chaos. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique.