Pavel Zuštiak

Pavel in NYC. Photo: Jeremy Lehmann

Pavel in NYC. Photo: Jeremy Lehmann

Pavel Zuštiak, born 1971

Pavel Zuštiak was born in Košice in eastern Slovakia in 1971. His father, Ján, was a director at a construction company while his mother, Zuzana, was a meteorologist for a TV station who did research and collected data. Pavel is the youngest of three boys and he recalls frequently visiting his grandparents who lived on a farm near the High Tatras. At age nine, Pavel was cast in a musical children’s television show called Zlatá brána [Golden Gate]. He also participated in a modern dance group and played piano. After high school, Pavel applied to JAMU (Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts) in Brno for theatre directing, but was advised to re-apply again since he was only 17 at the time. He instead began studying business at the University of Economics in Košice and, shortly after classes started, the Velvet Revolution occurred. Pavel says that he realized he was ‘witnessing a major moment in history.’ While studying business, Pavel took one year off to study at a performing arts school in Canada. He then returned to Slovakia, graduated university, and did one year of alternative Army service where he translated books from English to Slovak.


Pavel while on Zlata brana, a musical TV show

Pavel while on Zlata brana, a musical TV show

Pavel says that after his Army service, he had to make a decision about pursuing the arts professionally or beginning his business career. He says that although the time period was excellent for getting into business, he enrolled at a small school in Canada to pursue a performing arts degree. After one year there, he transferred to the School for New Dance Development and finished his degree in Amsterdam. While in Amsterdam, Pavel applied for the U.S. green card lottery. Many months later, while he was completing an internship in Louisiana, Pavel was notified that he had been selected for an interview. As he was not able to return to Europe in time for the interview, he rescheduled the interview and finished his internship. In September 1999, Pavel moved to New York City. After unsuccessful pursuit of performing with established companies he started producing his own work instead. In 2004, Pavel formed his own company, Palissimo, and today continues to be the artistic director there. He lives in Manhattan.

For six years, Pavel was on the television show Zlatá brána [Golden Gate]

“My father saw an ad in the paper for an audition for the TV show, for the Golden Gate show.”

How old were you?

“I was nine. And it was a show that was broadcast in the whole Eastern European bloc and it was broadcast once a month and then there was one New Year’s Eve special edition. We would learn the songs, we would prepare for the show for about a month and then it ended with five days in the studio. I say coincidence because it was kind of surprising that it was my father who instigated me pursuing that. But then it was my mom who actually took me to the audition, and I remember my audition number was very high, so we were there most of the day and I think there was a point where my mom was trying to convince me just to leave because it was probably 10:00 in the evening and there was still a long line before us. But eventually we stayed and I remember I got a telegram at the time to come to the first rehearsal and I was very excited.”

At age 12, Pavel became interested in modern dance

“A schoolmate of mine wanted to go and audition for a folk dance company. It was very popular at the time and this was also the time when Flashdance came out, and so dancing was a big thing. This friend of mine wanted to go to an audition, but he didn’t want to go alone so he asked me if I’d go with him. I said ‘Sure,’ and once we got there we realized that he messed up the dates of the audition, and the day when we came it was actually a modern dance company audition. So we stayed and both of us got in, and he quit after a month and, for me, this whole new world was introduced and presented to me.”

Pavel recalls realizing the significance of the Velvet Revolution

“I remember activists who came from Prague right after the revolution, right after the demonstration in Prague, with video documentation. It was both at school and I know that through any underground Christian groups, they would be very present there. So all of us would watch the footage from the demonstration and at that point I really felt like there’s no way that this could turn backwards. And I don’t know how much that was just my naïveté at the time, but the power of that wave that was coming felt… And also understanding the opposition and what is going to play against it, at that point I felt like there is no way it would reverse. There were too many things leaning towards that system collapsing, I think.”

Pavel describes his career trajectory after taking one year off of university to study performing arts

“I ended up graduating and getting my masters within a year after I got back; at the same time, I started to run my own dance company in Slovakia. Once I graduated, I actually did an alternative Army service. I was translating books from English to Slovak. After I finished that, I was at the point where I had to look for work. My desire to work in the arts and pursue arts was still very strong and, on the other hand, it was a very good time to find work with my business education. Many Western companies were opening affiliations in Eastern Europe, and I knew that if I take that route that it will be impossible for me to continue doing dance and arts on the side, because it’s pretty much an all-consuming career. So I decided at that point to go and get a degree in the arts and, at that point, kind of deciding and making decisions about the future.”

Pavel talks about his work with Palissimo

“My works are multidisciplinary in nature. Movement and dance is at the core of the work, but I am always bringing to every project a group of artists and designers. Even performers and dancers that I work with, I treat them as collaborators. Eventually each element of the show, from lighting, through set, through music, I see those elements as equal voices or equal elements in creating a work, creating an environment, creating a narrative. It usually starts with a theme or questions around a theme that we are discussing together and often I see myself an editor. All of us generate material that I start to sort through and edit through, and eventually create a world of images. Often I create a sequence of images that don’t connect in a linear way, but create a world, create an environment.

“Thematically, within the last several years, I was drawn a lot to themes and ideas that are themes of the narrative of my own life and questions of my own life: issues of identity; ideas of belonging; trying to find your place within a community; ideas of otherness or being the other, not fitting; how does the environment we are in define who we are. So these themes are kind of directly and indirectly flowing throughout my work.”

Recently, Pavel has been working with a Slovak dancer, but he says specific nationality is not important

“The rest of the group is very diverse: Irish dancer, Italian dancer, Czech dancer, another Czech dancer; I’ve worked with Israeli dancers. So really this is truly a melting pot. But the nationality is not necessarily as important for me when I’m selecting people. It’s more their story and their personality and who they are as humans in their life, because that reflects to who they are on stage.”

Category: New York City, Oral History