Having reviewed Pavel Zustiak’s Amidst, part two (of three) of his Painted Bird opus earlier this year, I was intrigued to take in the bigger picture by witnessing the entire trilogy on the occasion of its New York première at La MaMa. The choreographer – along with collaborators he brings along for the ride as part of his company, Palissimo – sets off to riff on Jerzy Kosinski’s eponymous novel, using it as a spark for an imaginative journey, mining the violence (and consequently, ghosts) of displacement and migration – the involuntary kind, in particular.

Presented over the course of four hours, the vast stage of La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre is tactically reconfigured for each section, which aptly relates to the themes of the piece by imbuing the work with a layer of topographic dramaturgy – creating a migratory pattern for the audience as well.

I appreciate the extent to which each section offers a bold proposal for shifting the audience-performer relationship. The first section, Bastard, ostensibly a solo performed by a wiry firecracker Jaro Vinarsky, further isolates (and accentuates) its solitary protagonist by placing him in front of the audience proscenium-style. From the moment he first appears on stage, masked and gnome-like, shuffling around the stage on his haunches in a large overcoat, my eyes dart across the stage following the dancer intently, like a spotlight. The stage floor is delineated with colored tape to form a simple rectangle, and there is a sense of it being defined as a space for ritual, the grounds on which various matter is conjured up and demolished. It is such simplicity that loads the work with meaning, and associations quickly form in my mind as I follow Vinarsky’s transformations – one moment, he seems to be a traffic conductor in a busy town square; then, a victim on a minefield; next, he seems to be chasing memories of people that may once have inhabited this space; further still, a soldier in the battlefield committing unspeakable atrocities. Underscored with echoing loops of strings (performed live and amplified throughout the space), there is an ambiguous sense to the proceedings on stage, a combination of melancholia and uneasiness that pervades my psyche.

Bastard seems to culminate in an exorcism of sorts, with the protagonist smearing himself with black paint and thrashing to punk-like riffs uttering words into a microphone, words that nonetheless can’t be recognized. In the finale, it is as if all this madness finally brings to life the ghosts he had been chasing all along, as the stage gets rapidly filled up by some thirty bodies, apparently emerging from every corner of the space, including the audience risers. Swirling around the stage at first, the crowd finally begins to take turns simply laying down on the floor lifelessly, taking turns standing up and laying down, until the imprints of their bodies have covered every inch of the rectangle, ending the piece with a quietly somber, Holocaust-like image, and, finally, dispersing as quickly as they came, abandoning the protagonist on the stage alone.

When we are brought back in the theatre for Amidst, I find myself on a stage filled with smoke, meandering amongst other spectators upon the same ritual space that was filled with the surprise crowd at the end of part one, implying that we, the audience, are now embodying those ghosts of memory conjured up by Painted Bird’s protagonists. While deferring to my observations from seeing this part of the work in January, I might add that the work very much holds up on its second viewing. While seeing it within the trilogy enables me to appreciate the cleverly drawn parallels – such as the one described above – that weave their way throughout the three parts, I also find Amidst to be the most compelling one. It is here that the sum of its parts – the sharp performances, the coming together of the work’s main themes, and the multidisciplinary elements (sound, lights, video) fulfill their performative potential to its fullest. I also might add that it was stunning to watch Elena Demyanenko perform a heroic feat of replacing Lindsey Dietz Marchant (who originated the female role in this section), apparently at 24-hour notice, and pulling it off with such incredible grace.

Returning to the theatre for Strange Cargo, the final part of the trilogy, the audience is once again made to change its relationship to the performers – now seated on opposite sides of the stage, with the action happening in the middle. The other two sides of the stage floor are flanked by a long, narrow mirror, and a projection screen of the same size that run the length of the playing space on opposite sides. Initially, a sense of playfulness is established by the five performers as they enter the stage floor crawling on all fours, resembling those Japanese toy dogs in their clipped, automaton-like movement. Curiously enough, Strange Cargo also feels like the trilogy’s most contrived part – the fluid, blending quality that characterizes much of the work I’ve seen on this stage so far gives way to neatly drawn segments here, each defined with a different performance dynamic and/or framing device: the opening section feels like a video game, with various action figures inhabiting the stage floor; then it is a group of indiscriminate tourists with instant cameras fluttering about like a flock of birds; and so on – whether it is a table on which two character face off their inner demons, or a set of rolling theatrical lights between which performers create photographic tableaux, or a mirrored screen upon they watch their reflections as they simulate a street riot, different parts of the stage become microcosmic arenas upon which battles are fought – anything between wars to dramas that take place in the intimacy of one’s home.

“Everything is more complicated than it seems”, utters a disembodied voice towards the end of the performance. Indeed, Painted Bird offers a complex glimpse into a vast thematic universe of unexpected journeys and transitions one would not have imagined to traverse from the outset. Ultimately, the work has a slippery quality – airing on the side of offering suggestions rather than giving discrete answers. And it is a good thing: you will be made to thread a rich terrain upon which to wildly unleash your own imagination.