Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes. One person's colorful sunset is another's abandoned city lot. Bessie Award-winning choreographer/director Pavel Zuštiak, born in Communist Czechoslovakia and now based in New York, finds grace within the human body and its states of being, through his purposefully unadorned "Custodians of Beauty" that opened Thursday at the Walker Art Center.
Zuštiak drew inspiration from a 2009 Pope Benedict speech delivered to 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel. The resulting work was developed with members of his Palissimo Company — Nicholas Bruder, Emma Judkins and Justin Morrison — three dancers who bond as a tightly knit unit but retain their unique selves through movement. There is nothing grand about the beauty they achieve together or apart. It's more about moments that encourage pause and reflection.
The evening began with a sensory jolt: Simon Harding's video of jumpy sound waves with accompanying noise seemingly generated by industrial fans. It's loud and hard on the eyes but then the scrim drops, revealing Harding's spare, silent set. And the contrast is stark. The dancers enter this austere world as black-clad androgynous beings whose flashes of skin offer light in the darkness. They begin as individuals but slowly merge together into a shadowy ball of limbs.
The mood shifts throughout the show. Bruder sometimes appears alone in front of the audience, staring, looking like he wants to start a conversation with his gestures. A fog machine produces a brief hanging cloud over the audience that dissipates into nothingness — like fleeting beauty. At one point three audience members are brought on stage to briefly interact with the dancers but this choice feels forced; the bond between performer and viewer doesn't require affirmation.
Zuštiak's keen eye for kinetic detail is particularly clear when the trio emerges, dressed only in briefs and richly lit like a Vermeer painting (the lush lighting palette comes from designer Joe Levasseur). Again they roll together (this time slowly, like Butoh dancers) but the golden lighting captures each knobby bone — shoulder, knee, vertebra — with striking detail.
The human body is a wonder and Zuštiak invites the sort of appreciation that transcends traditional measures (the pretty face, the "perfect" shape). Whether engaged in simple gesture or pogo-style energy, the dancers show us how they are "custodians" of a very particular beauty, as each of us are.
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.