Pavel Zustiak and his Palisssimo Company made its West coast première of “Custodians of Beauty” at Zellerbach’s Playhouse this week, presenting a visually saturating and multisensory experience. Both imagery and choreographic language are streamlined and minimal, weaving together a series of entertaining non-narrative exposés that border on the absurd. It quickly diminished the separation between stage and audience in three specific ways: First, when performers picked out three audience members to replace them on stage while they changed outfits; second, by blowing a smoke burst into the audience from a dark stage and then lighting it as it spreads out over the audience like fog; and thirdly, when the scrim that was up at the beginning of the performance–with a projected strip of abstract video footage running left to right–got passed hand by hand, by the audience over their heads to the back of the theater.
Each scene has its own peculiar length and rhythm, seldom striving an apex but more at meandering, exploring space and time, and the relationship to the audience. Christian Frederickson’s forward-charging soundtrack really carried the performance, propping the choreography from start to finish. It’s challenging to imagine what this performance would have without this vital force sustaining it. Simon Harding’s smart and simple two flats for staging and Joe Levasseur’s mostly dusty lighting also were solid buttresses. The choreography tended to remain on a vertical plane of standing, walking, stomping, jumping and shuffling, with arms creating more of the fluid and transverse movement than the torso or legs, and in general lacked much dimension. Twice, a shirtless Viktor De La Fuente has a brief solo, staring into the audience as he stands in place, making minimalistic hand gestures and arm movements. This segment repeats later in the performance, feeling unnecessary and adds very little to the overall performance except to its length. Likewise, the three separate solos by De La Fuente, Emma Judkins and Justin Morrison are mostly inconsequential, with De La Fuente’s embellishing his with a song that Emily Dickinson wrote the lyrics for that he delivers with surprising theatrical force that rises above what his movements.
The most captivating sequence was in the second movement when both pacing and imagery transformed to that of Butoh dance, with costumes paired down to diaper-like panties. Here the dancers appear in a cluster with only their naked backs to the audience, their heads hidden—dropped from view. When they did move, it was as one organism, like a crustacean on the surface of the sea. Their spines ripple through their long backs as they tumble and crawl before finally breaking free. This is the only segment of the performance where the dancers are on the floor and move horizontally, with their focus more introverted and less vaudevillian, playing each move and gesture to the audience. The piece ended with a much welcomed disco/club beat in which dancers delightfully bounced side to side creating a symmetric shape that was constantly moving and joyously changing shape and direction.
If cotton candy is to your liking, then “Custodians of Beauty” will fill you up. It theatrically panders to the audience rather than seduces. Its strongest mastery is in making things we’ve seen before somehow appear new and fresh. There is even a “Les Miserables” moment of a flag being waved like a victory or a truce in one of the closing images. Yet part of its charm was found in its making fun of itself as well as the audience. This happened primarily through text by Alexandra Collier when the show felt like it ended and the stage went dark. In white lettering her projected text revealed an internal dialogue, a conversation, of both performers and audience. The text questioned what we just saw, talks about it both with wonder and with dread, “I’m bored,” while asking where we can get a good dessert or if we even want a dessert. “I didn’t like it so much” was the declaration that stuck out the most for me.