I find myself once again in the lovely Playhouse at the Abrons Arts Center, which on this occasion hosts the world première of the new piece by Palissimo – the intrepidly inventive troupe helmed by the choreographer Pavel Zuštiak.

Palissimo: Endangered Pieces © Nandita R.
Palissimo: Endangered Pieces
© Nandita R.

In Endangered Pieces, the historic jewel-box space is presented to the audience in a completely stripped-down state: the bare stage gives way to the evocative vista of the theatre’s rugged walls with all its stains and scars, hinting at the history that the space was witness to over the years. While the air in the auditorium is thick with a thumping techno beat as I enter, the stage space is nearly empty, save from a few essential theatrical accoutrements – a few knocked-down lighting stands, a ghost-light and... a man’s naked body (Jaroslav Viňarský), lying motionless out in the back of the stage. With this first image, Zuštiak encapsulates the essence of the piece and lays down the vocabulary of what is to transpire in the following hour. Indeed, the nakedness – figuratively as well as literally – is the leitmotif of this work; as is the arsenal of theatrical machinery, which is made manifest over the course of the evening in a sort of an elementary display of its standard tools – the velvet curtain, the flying bar, the spotlight, the footlights, and so forth, are raised and lowered, switched on and off, as if the theatre itself were running a self-diagnostic test, readying itself for a major event that never comes. All these elements are recurring reminders of manifestations of absence that are at the core of this piece.

As the performance begins, two (clothed) men – Matthew Rogers and Zuštiak himself – walk on stage and pick up the naked body, and go through a range of poetically utilitarian motions, carrying it and handling it as if it were an inanimate object. Obviously, this is not realism, and people on stage are not meant to be characters (as a matter of fact, Rogers and Zuštiak appear as puppet-masters of sort) so the mind combs these images for meaning – wondering what makes this body, listless but not quite a corpse, reduced to no action other than the one that is imposed on it by external forces, as if its owner lost all willingness to live. That a nearly inert body manages to communicate all this while pulling off a perfectly still / stiff composure throughout makes Viňarský the star of this section: it is a mightily impressive feat and one that somehow never gets boring to watch. After a few moments of experiencing this, the feeling that settles in is one of utter devastation, begging a question: how does one go on in the aftermath of destruction, ranging anywhere from profound emotional loss to a cataclysmic event? And what is the barrier that divides resignation from the impetus to rebuild from the rubble?

Sparsely evocative but essentially open-ended, Endangered Pieces continues to unfold as a succession of scenes that evenly alternate between two contrasting modalities: those in which performers appear as flesh-and-blood, embodying somewhat recognizable “characters”, with those in which they function as avatars, perhaps most notably in a visually stunning section in which the three nude bodies, awash in hazy red light, appear suspended high up in the air on top of the lighting poles, and proceed with their descent almost imperceptibly. As is the case throughout this work, Zuštiak and his collaborators pit ordinary stage objects against poetic action, to a highly dramatic effect.

In spite of its theatrical nature, Palissimo’s latest work does not rely on conventional narration, and its pieces are not necessarily intended to “add up”; and yet it is a relief to see a dance-based work that holds up thanks to a solid dramaturgical backbone. In a way, it is as if the company created a skeletal structure with a series of sparsely outfitted vessels that invite each audience member to enter and engage with his/her own experience. If you are willing to lean in and lose yourself in this world, it could be a difficult but rewarding task. And, last but not least, in an age where many creators make cookie-cutting an art, this company deserves kudos for boldly (and refreshingly) reinventing its approach with each new piece. I look forward to seeing what they will cook up next.