Author Jerzy Kosinski may have claimed that as a Jewish child in wartime Poland, he suffered the brutalities detailed in The Painted Bird, but the novel makes other claims. A woman is not merely raped, she has a glass bottle thrust and broken inside her; a man is not simply murdered, he is devoured by hundreds of rats. The novel is an allegory. More than Holocaust atrocities, it conjures the terror of anticipating your extermination: glass breaking inside you. The 1965 book is a pitiless document, told with fairytale simplicity, of a child contending with unfathomable horrors by exiling them from his heart to his imagination.
In the first part of a trilogy inspired by the book – the Baryshnikov Arts Center will present the second in June and PS 122 stages the third in September – choreographer Pavel Zustiak brackets the main event: the boy fingering shards of his shattered memory. The hour-long dance begins with two people and ends with a horde lowering themselves on to their stomachs as if their bones were made of china. Do they lie down because they are weary or because they want to join the boy in his nightmares? Bastard, as the dance is called, is filled with mystery.
When he lives out old memories, the painted bird (Jaro Vinarsky) resembles a cat twitching in its sleep: you can only guess what he is working over. The moves themselves are nothing special – they suggest listening, saluting, pelting stones, crawling across ice, and confronting enemies on all sides – but Vinarsky brings to each moment a sense of haunted compulsion.
The stupendous live score by Christian Frederickson of the indie band Rachel’s alternates plaintive viola with a gravelly industrial rumble that harbours a faint echo at its centre. The music mourns for the sleepwalking boy, as Kosinski’s violent tale does for its subdued teller.
Bastard isn’t perfect. When text scrolls across the back wall, the dance exchanges interiority for opaque editorial. When the conclusion’s large pedestrian chorus stares with cartoon intensity in our direction, the landscape grows muddy again: are these people looking at us or through us? But these flaws result from a virtue – precision in depicting psychic fallout. Bastard is the first Zustiak work I have seen that earns its emotional extremity – with tenderness and quiet.