Even before Pavel Zutiak’s Amidst begins, you feel pleasantly disoriented. A thick fog fills the sprawling second floor theater at Performance Space 122. You can’t quite make out the faces of fellow audience members, even those just a few feet away. The talkative crowd drifts through the warehouse-like space, awaiting some indication of where to look or stand, like guests at a party where the hosts have yet to arrive.
There’s nothing festive, though, about what happens in the next hour, and the people we’ve been waiting for (the dancers Lindsey Dietz Marchant, Nicholas Bruder, and Zutiak, backed by the musicians Christian Frederickson, Ryan Rumery, and Tim Iseler) don’t seem much more certain about where they belong—but deliberately so. In his stormy trilogy The Painted Bird, inspired by Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel of the same name, the expatriate Zutiak (born in Slovakia, now living in New York) has been exploring the notion of displacement, of what it means to transform, rediscover, remake oneself away from home. The aptly titled Amidst,the second and most enthralling installment, premiered in 2011 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and returned, January 12–14, as one of several dance offerings in P.S. 122’s multi-venue, multi-disciplinary COIL Festival.
Ultimately it’s Joe Levasseur’s elaborate, migratory lighting scheme, almost a character unto itself, that gives us clues about where to go. Wherever a patch of light falls, we follow, flocking around its borders to witness the eloquent vignettes of winding and unwinding movement within. Sometimes those borders are concrete, as in an early solo for the pensive yet ferocious Bruder. He sprints back and forth along the length of a luminous rectangle, ricocheting between its ends to the brooding, evocative rock score—by turns pounding and subtle—composed by Frederickson, Rumery, and Jason Noble. Like many things in this prolific collage of dance, music, and video, no sooner does he arrive at some would-be destination than he departs again.
At other moments, the light, and with it the dancers, edges us out of its way like an incoming tide. During what I dubbed “the Tetris trio” in my notes, the performers scuttle along the floor in push-up positions, progressing forward and sideways in neat columns and rows, sometimes trading places by swiftly rolling or crawling over each other. The light expands along with the pathway they forge from a corner out into the center of the space.
Every so often, a thicket of arrows materializes on the floor, red and blue rivulets snaking in multiple directions, an inscrutable map suggesting the infinite possibilities for where these people have been or could potentially go. Keith Skretch’s video artistry is more smoothly integrated here than Robert Flynt's images projected on the walls, which seem peripheral, tacked on to the otherwise absorbing ebb and flow of activity.
Even with Levasseur’s illuminating guidance, Zutiak frequently lets us hover in limbo: Where to direct our attention? Toward Bruder in the middle of the room, his arm inspecting its immediate vicinity like the needle of a compass; or Dietz Marchant way off to one side, investigating the 360 degrees around her with characteristic voracity? While immersive, interactive performance can leave an audience feeling awkwardly lost, Amidst artfully imparts a sense of restlessness and uncertainty that allows us to identify with these wandering, rootless figures.
Some passages may feel heavy-handed—like the gradual appearance of the word “ATROCITY” on the floor; are there more subtle ways to imply that hardships happened here?—or obvious in their metaphors for transformation, as when Bruder and Dietz Marchant dress and undress an unflinching Zutiak in a series of outfits (cowboy, soccer player, tropical vacationer). But in the end, our gaze directed toward a blank white circle projected on one wall—where portraits of nameless faces, alluding to the passing of generations, have just appeared—we’re left with a penetrating sense that there is not much difference between Amidst’s three strangers and ourselves.
SIOBHAN BURKE is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to the New York Times and Dance Magazine.