Quotes From the Underground

Pavel Brun was a cultural dissident in Brezhnev’s Russia. Then, for a wondrous decade, he helped Cirque du Soleil and Franco Dragone revolutionize the Vegas show. But what he really wants to do is direct.

Greg Blake Miller

Let's imagine this: Two boys form a band and call it Simon and Garfunkel. They spend the better part of a decade creating something—a sound, a vibe—that is generally deemed, by the people who experience it, as New, and Good, and maybe even Revolutionary. The boys are pleased with what they've done, and because they are ambitious boys, they'd like to go still further, into more exquisite realms of newness and goodness and revolutionariness. They are, however, perplexed and anguished and ultimately divided by one dread question: Which one has to be Garfunkel?

For nearly 10 years, Pavel Brun worked with Cirque du Soleil. Along the way, he forged a partnership with Franco Dragone, and together with their Cirque comrades they created Mystére, and O, and brought the biggest paradigm shift to Strip entertainment since 1957, when a man named Minsky had his Follies take off their shirts. In 2000, Dragone left Cirque. In 2001, Brun left, too. Each man left on his own terms, for reasons that can be safely classified under the heading ambition.

And then they wound up working together again, at Caesars Palace, on Celine Dion's A New Day. The job descriptions remained what they had been: Dragone was the director, and the vision was to be his. Brun was to be the artistic director. He would assist in the show's making, but most of all he would be responsible, after opening day, for maintaining and refining the integrity of Dragone's handiwork. The new company that created Celine's show was based in Dragone's hometown of La Louviére, Belgium. The company had a name. It's name, in capital letters, was DRAGONE. It was somewhat clear who was becoming Garfunkel. Pavel Brun did not want to become Garfunkel, so he did, under the circumstances, what any self-respecting Garfunkel will do, and, on September 17, 2003, he decided to go solo.

This week, Dragone's new show, Le Rêve: A Small Collection of Imperfect Dreams, will premiere at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort & Country Club. Meanwhile, down the block and across the street, Brun, having left his post with Le Rêve, bides his time and does his job, a familiar one. He is no longer employed by Franco Dragone; he works for Celine Dion's company, CDA. But when he goes to work, he knows what it is he needs to do—keep on streamlining and course-correcting A New Day, keep on maintaining the original vision, keep on making Dragone's creation the best it can be.

In the past year, Brun has had a handful of near-misses with grand opportunity and one with death. Painful as they may be, near-misses with grand opportunity are the train tokens of artistic life—save them up and someday you'll go far. More troubling for Brun was the tumor–"a bit smaller," he says, "than a volleyball"–that had grown just below his heart. The tumor, it turned out, was benign, but it was big enough to crowd the internal organs and kill a man. Now it is gone. And while Pavel Brun is a man ill-fit by nature and nurture for second-billing, one imagines he is a bit more content now to be Garfunkel for a while, because Garfunkel—say this much for him—is alive.

• • •

Wait. There is, in our culture, this tendency to laugh at the second banana, to see the lesser-known partner as a sidekick, a tag-along, a bandwagon-rider who is either oddly invisible or vaguely silly. We constantly hear that art is a collaborative process, and then we—or I, in the paragraphs you have just read—proceed to vastly underrate what it means to be a collaborator. To co-pilot the theatrical airship flown by Franco Dragone is no small thing. And, while we're at it, nor is it a small thing to sing harmony on "Scarborough Fair." Partnerships are the alchemic agent of the performing arts; ambition is the solvent that dissolves them. What remains are the stories of those who suffer from and glory in the all-too-human desire to go it alone.

1. Pavel Brun's Pleasant Interlude in Purgatory

"I really don't like the word immigrant. It's kind of meaningless, because today you can immigrate without even leaving your office or the corner of your room. You can live in the virtual space of the Internet, reinvent your identity, bullshit yourself, sorry to use this word again. You can immigrate internally, and in my life, the period of immigration was the period when I lived through the worst years of the Cold War back home in Russia. It was an internal immigration. I locked myself up inside my make-believe world, and then, when the opportunity presented itself, I put my make-believe world together with the place where I live right now, but it took 12, 15 years. That's one thing: I consider myself a tumbleweed—I have no roots, but just try to hit me with a car."

—Pavel Brun

From 1988-91, Pavel Brun was the choreographer for the Experimental Studio of the famed Moscow Circus. Those were the heady, chaotic days when it was still unclear whether Perestroika would end Communism or Communism would end Perestroika. In late 1990, Brun's post brought him to Broadway for a Moscow Circus engagement at the Gershwin Theatre. For seven weeks the circus performed in a theatre more accustomed to hosting, say, Fiddler on the Roof. Just across the street, Cats was lapping up the dollars and adulation of the theatergoing public. Down the road, Lincoln Center was the home to highbrow music. "It was a crazy idea, really," says Brun. "Who needs Circus on Broadway?" But during the circus's run, the brain trust of a small, forward-thinking Montreal-based circus troupe came scouting, and the brain trust liked what it saw, and by February 1992 Pavel Brun was living in Quebec and working for Cirque du Soleil.

"It wasn't about a desire to immigrate," says Brun. "The stupidity of the Soviet Union had been clear to me since the age of 8, but I dealt with that in my own way. If I'd just wanted to immigrate I would have stayed in West Germany when I went with the band I was in, Arsenal, in 1987. As it was, everybody was surprised I came back then, especially the KGB. By the time I finally left for Cirque, it was just a matter of taking a job, taking a natural step in my career that I could not take any other way."

Brun's first work with Cirque was on Saltimbanco. He was living in a shared Montreal apartment with a trapeze coach from South Africa, learning about Apartheid and post-colonialism and making the transition to western life in a city perched "in a purgatory somewhere between socialism and capitalism."

"I had the right people around me, with the right mindset," he says. "At that time, Cirque du Soleil was very small—less than 100 people—and very observant, and very capable of listening. Everyone knew each other by first name, from the support staff to the executives. If you had a question, you didn't send an e-mail; you just asked."

He had met Franco Dragone during a trip to Canada in 1989. Now, in Montreal, they began to work together.

"Pavel understood my universe very quickly," says Dragone. "It was easy to communicate with him. He had a very rigorous manner in fixing problems in a show. Without even talking, he always understood where I was going. I could trust him 100 percent for his artistic vision, his artistic understanding of my job."

In 1993, Cirque came to Las Vegas, and Brun came with it. Mystére became a phenomenon, then O became an even bigger one. The scrappy little Canadian troupe became a big business. By 2000, Dragone, inspired by Cirque's success, set out to create his own company. In 2001, Brun, hungry for a show of his own and dismayed by the corporate residue of Cirque's success, left, too. His years in Russia had instilled an incurable allergy to bureaucracy, mission statements, lofty declarations of communal spirit, euphemisms in the vein of "human resources," and codes of conduct, all of which are as endemic to the big-business West as the Communist East.

"I think that if at work you have 51 percent happiness and 49 percent unhappiness, you're doing extremely well," Brun says. "But if it's the other way around, you should leave. And the last couple of years in Cirque, to be honest with you, I was happy only when I was watching the show. And I found it unfair just to sit and wait for the paycheck every two weeks and to have medical insurance.

"The umbilical chord was cut," Brun says. "And it was cut by me. And because it was cut by me, the cut was very painful. But like an old peasant woman I cut it and came back on the field working. I will be ever grateful to Cirque that out of 10 years I worked for them, at least eight-and-a-half were the happiest of my life. I saw a lot, I learned a lot, I met a lot of wonderful people, whether they remember me or not. That was my purgatory and integration into American life."

What Brun missed most at Cirque was the intimacy of the early years. So when Dragone suggested they join forces in a company that would be as fresh and lean as the old Cirque, Brun thought, "What could be better?" And, having repeatedly struck gold together, the two men took on the task of building the company that would build a show around Celine Dion.

I met both Brun and Dragone in January 2003, when the cast and creators of A New Day assembled at Caesars Palace's Colosseum after months of training and preparation in Belgium. The rehearsal—or "creation"—process was getting underway, and I had been hired to co-write the program. (I recently did similar work for Le Rêve.) At three o'clock each day, creation began, and I got to know Dragone first of all as the gentle, disembodied voice over the Colosseum speakers, instructing dancers when to come and when to go and when ascend to the rafters on flying harnesses. Brun had a shared office next to mine; you could pop in there most any time and find him at the computer, studying theatre plans and cast lists and rehearsal video. His first language was my second language, and I loved speaking Russian with him about his days back home. He was excited about the mission at hand, but, even then, he gave the impression of a purebred Borzoi, personable and stately and ready to chew through a fence.

2. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. Brun in the Land of the Bolsheviks

"We were idealists who could kick ass. We asked for just one thing: Leave me alone—I live in my aquarium, and if you'd like to swim with me, you will enjoy it. Otherwise, just don't spit in there."

The following is borrowed and transmogrified from The Adventures of Augie March, with apologies to the late, great Saul Bellow, a man who might have invented Pavel Brun if Pavel Brun had not first invented himself...

Pavel Brun is a Russian, Moscow born—Moscow, that somber city—and goes at things as he has taught himself, free-style, and will make the record in his own way: forbidden to knock, first to knock anyway; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, Tolstoy said, or at least ought to have said, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.

Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining ...

In 1953, when people read Bellow's unadulterated original, and it was a Midwestern wise guy named Augie who was knocking and entering and proclaiming his intention to speak plain and loud, it seemed pretty clear that what they had on their hands was a quintessential American with quintessentially American hungers. One of our country's more curious fantasies of itself is that it somehow invented the restless spirit, that rattletrap device that is simultaneously sick and healthy with its own desire to move onward, outward, forward, unencumbered and voracious, at times unstoppable, at times mired, Willy Loman-style, in the murk of the unachieved dream. But Pavel Brun of Moscow has a thing or two in common with Augie March of Chicago, not the least of which is the capacity to be at once chronically dissatisfied and oddly cheerful, a capacity that is the signal trait of the high achiever, American or otherwise. The Adventures of Augie March might be the Great American Novel, but it was written by the Canadian-born son of Russian immigrants, a man whose American energies were stirred by the act of brushing the Old World soil off his britches. And the sport of britch-brushing, of removing the debris of inherited prohibitions, is by no means a game for the traditional immigrant alone; it was practiced in the Soviet Union with a peculiar mix of rigor and glee by "internal immigrants" like Brun, people who did not glove the knuckles, who knocked on doors they were told not to touch, who entered at and exited at their own risk. Pavel Brun was born into the most somber century of his somber city, in which the suppression was blunt indeed. Put a guy like Brun into a place like Brezhnevite Moscow, and it's somehow unsurprising that he winds up in Las Vegas, and Communism winds up dead.

• • •

"I remember, I was in elementary school, 1964, month of October, and on the first page of this grammar book for 7- and 8-year-old kids, was a big picture of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, and in a very thick font underneath: 'Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev is the outstanding fighter for human freedom worldwide.' And then the outstanding fighter went to his country house in Pitsunda on the Black Sea coast, and another outstanding Stalinist, Leonid Brezhnev, took over, arrested him, brought him back to Moscow, and forcibly retired him. Then we received a note from our teacher and we were asked to pass it to our parents. Well, I read the note. It said, 'The school strongly recommends using scissors or a razorblade to cut out page number one.' And I thought to myself, Wait a minute, yesterday he was the outstanding fighter, and today I have to use a razorblade! Well, I kept him in my book. And I still have this book."

Pavel Brun was once a mime. This is another one of those cases where something that is seemingly small turns out to be really quite big. As a member of the Moscow Pantomime Ensemble, Pavel Brun was not only a mime, but the heir to Sergei Eisenstein and the great Russian silent filmmakers of the 1920s, who did not have words to work with but created a vocabulary of images and body language and used it to say things they could never get away with in syllables. (They didn't get away with it anyway, but that's another story.) "I know pantomime is a dirty word in America," Brun says, "but in those days, in Moscow's counterculture, it was as popular as rock 'n' roll and jazz." Brun's gang of mimes was an underground troupe, creating and performing outside the official confines when all of culture was officially confined. Few bricks-and-mortar theatres could be legally used, no footage shown, no music recorded, without the cooperation of a highly uncooperative state culture machine. So, like the early Russian rock bands who held surreptitious concerts and made amateur recordings and the dissident writers who circulated carbon-copied typescripts, Brun and his troupe worked outside the law.

"First of all we were not paid for what we were doing," says Brun. "We did it out of our passion and love of art." The second problem, of course, was that underground performers could, if the mood struck the folks in charge, be sent to jail. The third problem was that it was virtually impossible to find rehearsal space. But one of the fringe benefits of underground culture is that it teaches you to be more resourceful than the average artist. "We found rehearsal spaces in the most controversial, unbelievable places," says Brun. Foremost among these was the Social Club of the Institute of Nuclear Energy, a place that was officially secret and not accountable to any regional or city authorities—in particular, the Institute was not accountable to the Amateur Department of the Ministry of Culture of the Moscow Region, which was the outfit responsible for making life miserable for troupes like Brun's. "So this top-secret Institute of Nuclear Energy became the epicenter of underground western art in Russia," says Brun. "All the jazz and the rock 'n' roll and the performance art. We didn't have to report to anyone; there was no censorship." The degenerates had hidden from the authorities in one of the most authoritative places in town. "It was proof of that German proverb," says Brun. "The most visible place is usually the most invisible one."

Brun worked with the Pantomime Ensemble from 1972-81, transforming the troupe's work from classic pantomime to true physical theatre. Meanwhile, he studied at the Moscow State Circus School, the Moscow Art Theatre School and the Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts. Such double lives were not unusual in Soviet culture: In the underground, you lived for today; in the temples of high culture, you studied for tomorrow, just in case tomorrow came. In any case, Brun had a lion's appetite for theatre of all kinds: his ideal from the start was to learn enough to create new forms through the fusion of old ones.

It was at the Institute of Nuclear Energy that Brun met Alexei Kozlov, one of the country's great jazz musicians. "He was playing Blood, Sweat and Tears, Tower of Power, Chicago, all this crazy stuff," says Brun. Kozlov was the leader of a jazz-rock fusion group called Arsenal. In 1984, Brun, who played guitar and piano, became a member, too, and infused the band's musical performances with a comic-theatrical element. Gorbachev took office in 1985, and Arsenal became one of the cultural pioneers of the glasnost era. Performers who had spent most of their artistic lives underground toured the entire Soviet Union, and then India, and then West Germany. Somewhere along the way, Brun taught his comrades to breakdance.

• • •

"When they took this person, Nikita Khrushchev, this person with maybe not a big brain, but a great deal of personality, I said, uh-oh, maybe not everything I hear in school or on TV is the exact truth. That was when I started to think: If they said, Let's go right, my first thought was, Oh, something is happening on the left. Critical thinking, freedom of speech at home (as long as I kept the normal lexicon), the desire to challenge everything, drove me indeed into this state of internal immigration. I didn't become an outcast. I was a strong boy, I could kick asses, I was in sports, I was respected. I was a good student. But the thing was, everything I heard from radio, I had to reverse in order to know the truth. I loved to read the front page of Pravda, because if they say that things are so brilliant, I know we're in deep doodoo."

Pavel Brun was born September 12, 1957. His father was an architect. His mother was an architect, too. They would have liked their son to become an architect, but when it came time to apply for architecture school, his general line of thinking, as recalled 30 years later, was as follows:

"Why? So I can design the same fucking five-story shoeboxes as everyone else?"

So Pavel Brun, son of an architect and an architect, did not become an architect, and wound up, instead, in circus school.

This was in 1974. Brun had already spent two years with the Pantomime Ensemble. What his parents had hoped was a passing fancy wound up being the pursuit of a lifetime. And, frankly, if they were hoping for anything different, their hopes couldn't have been terribly high.

By the time he was 12, Brun had befriended a handful of boys who were as distrustful of the regime as he was. "They were my fellow internal immigrants, and there was some kind of a country that we built among ourselves." One of the boys, Evgeny Ryaboi, went on to become one of the best jazz drummers in Russia and wound up playing with Grover Washington in the U.S. Another, Vladimir Obergan, became one of the top fashion designers in Europe. "And all this," says Brun, "thanks to those idiots who told us 'Don't go there, don't touch this, don't wear this, cut your hair.'"

The boys idealized and venerated western pop culture; they made gods of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia. The counterculture of the West provided spiritual sustenance for the would-be dissidents of the East. "I once had an argument with a dear friend," says Brun. "I told him that if I were Brezhnev or Suslov—this ideological monster, the Gray Cardinal who ate raw beat fruit and cabbage and never took a piss without a gun in his hand—you know what I would do? I would buy an enormous quantity of Levis 501s and put them everywhere. The second thing I would do, I would buy all the Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, Grateful Dead, and make it widely available in official stores, because as soon as you and I see that this is selling out in official state stores, we will be the first ones not to buy it. The second these idiots officialized it, we would be the first to protest. Because protest came first. We were not faking."

• • •

"My father was born in prison camp, because my grandmother was arrested when she was pregnant. At the age of 12 he was part of a guerilla squad in the war against Germany. He was adopted by the guerillas, and before he learned to read and write properly, he learned to shoot and how to drink. He became a clinical alcoholic, and it took his life at a very early age. My father died when I was 17. He was five years younger than I am right now."

In the early 1970s, an illegal copy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago was winding its way through the homes of intellectual Moscow. At the time, Soviet television was regularly and roundly denouncing Solzhenitsyn as a sort of ideological plague agent; soon he would be expelled from the country. One day, at considerable risk to the fellow who delivered it, the book—a scathing exposé of the Soviet prison state—wound up at the Brun household. The ground rules were that you got the book for three days and then you had to pass it on.

"I swallowed it, I would say, in maybe a night and half a day," says Brun, "reading non-stop, and I was vomiting, I'm telling you. That was perhaps the moment when real hatred was boiling in me."

The morning after Brun finished the book, he woke up, the stale taste of described evil still in his mouth.

"Something in my head said, 'You will outlive the Soviet power.' I looked around. I said, 'How? How will I outlive it?' There was no more voice. I don't know, it was a kind of revelation, or enlightenment, or, I don't know, just a little gift that was thrown toward my cookie jar."

Eight years later, there was another gift. "We had an evening of music and movement improvisation at the Central House of Artistic Workers," Brun recalls. "There were two or three dancers and mimes, and three or four jazz musicians. At one point, there was a pause, and a very close friend of mine was listening to the radio, and all of the sudden he shouts, happily, 'Dude, we're fucked! Finally Communism is dead!' I said, 'What are you talking about?' and he says, 'They chose a Polish Pope. He will ruin it!'

"And he was right."

• • •

For a student of the Cold War—and I confess to being one—Brun is quite the action hero. While the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. were banning ABMs and building more ICBMs, a war of ideas was being fought in the kitchens and courtyards of Moscow and St. Petersburg and Vladivostok. The battle was intellectually fierce, potentially dangerous, undeniably romantic and immeasurably consequential. Among the weapons were irony, slang, symbolism, selective devotion to the giants of Western pop culture, voracious reading, a studied apathy toward politics, cynicism about the way things were, and a measured idealism about the way things could be. All you had to do to join in was to speak your mind.

And it was the artists, with their ability to couch socio-spiritual commentary in Aesopian language and gesture, who spoke loudest of all. It was, looking back, one of the last great movements in which intellectual life could have the stirring arc of a pulp comic, and Pavel Brun, young and athletic and angry, was quite at home among its frames. Even today, he has the kind of good looks that come easily to a cartoonist's hand: the thatch of applesauce colored hair, round eyes the pale blue of Crest toothpaste, a nose quite sufficiently rendered with an upside-down number 7. His mouth, when it is still, is small and thin-lipped and could be drawn with a single stroke of the pen. When I met Brun in early 2003, he was 45 and looked 10 years younger. Now, in the wake of his surgery, he is 47 and looks 47. But the instinct to fight remains. The great battle for independent art in the Soviet Union was only indirectly about, say, the right to write a book that called Leonid Brezhnev a corrupt toad and the Communist Party a state-sanctioned mafia. That much went without saying. The larger mission for Brun and his compatriots was to insist on the right of a human being to express himself as an individual, motivated by the hunger to communicate, and constrained by conscience alone. This mission was more spiritual that political—albeit in a society where a spiritual act was de facto a political one. It was the mission of artists long before Lenin arrived at Finland Station, and it remains the mission, Brun will tell you, right here, right now.

3. The Enduring Dissatisfaction of Underground Man

"The rebellious spirit doesn't have a nationality or an era. I don't consider this a destructive behavior, to be rebellious. When I am coming into the door and I am checking the lock—Is it strong enough?—it's a form of protest. I'm not taking anything for granted, you know. I want everything to be done perfectly, in agreement with my set of values and demands. I might be wrong, because my set of values may not be yours. But I'm okay with that. I agree to disagree."

For more than a decade, Pavel Brun has been intimately involved in creating shows that people seem to like very much. Nearly eight million people have seen Mystére since it opened in December 1993. Over 5.5 million people have seen O since its October 1998 premiere.In its first two years, A New Day has been seen by over a million people. But ask Brun what his signature achievement was, and he'll tell you it was that he quit smoking.

"With all honesty, O was a huge letdown for me," he says, "because that was one step shy of Kà, where the machine outplays the human. I don't ever want to accept the domination of the technical aspect over the human vibe."

Meanwhile, Brun can't help but look at A New Day and see opportunities missed.

"I was hoping we would reinvent Celine," he says. "I really know there is another side of Celine Dion that I have seen in her French videos, where she is just being her wild self, and she is not trying to be the grande dame. There is one song where she is with French musicians in a hotel suite, with a messed up bed, wearing ripped up jeans and a T-shirt, no make-up, with hair like this. They are playing and she is jumping on the bed, singing, and I thought, wait a minute, where is this Celine in our show? If we saw this Celine, wild, you know, ripped up jeans and stuff like that, and all of the sudden she appears in Tom Ford or Gucci, then we have amplitudes between plus and minus and electrical spark in between. Then we're talking about drama. But when it is flat from beginning to the end, so-to-speak classy from beginning to the end, it doesn't make any frigging sense. I need to have a moment when I see Celine with a candle and with no microphone and maybe with a little accordion, and singing something very, very small— and then kick my ass with Titanic or something like that."

Brun also believes that the bulk of Celine's songs for A New Day should have been written specifically for the show.

"We should have had a block of greatest hits for the fans, but the rest of the music should have been composed originally, and people would come to the show knowing that there are songs, there is music, there are images that can be seen first and performed only in this theatre. It didn't happen. We missed the point. Sometimes you can have four aces in your hand and lose that hand."

At the heart of these misgivings are the philosophical differences between Brun and Dragone. Brun, for instance, believes that Dragone should have strayed further from his Cirque heritage in creating A New Day. Dragone, on the other hand, can—having created 10 shows for Cirque—make a compelling case that the Cirque heritage is his heritage, that the artistic lifeblood of Cirque du Soleil is precisely the blood he has given it, and that, therefore, in going solo, he shouldn't be expected to set aside trademark mannerisms—the abstraction, the narrative looseness, the Gallic sensibility and subtle political undertones and magical realism—that are his own. In many ways, whatever A New Day might lack in edginess and dramatic spark it makes up for with the dreamy texture and oddly stirring minor key that are hallmarks of both Cirque and Dragone. "People look for the difference," says Dragone, "but we have to look for what is common."

One of the artistic approaches that Dragone brought with him when he left Cirque and began building A New Day was the fluid, open-ended rehearsal process he calls "creation"; performers and choreographers and designers work for months and months on the stuff the show is to be made of, but the show itself remains remarkably malleable right up until opening day—and often beyond. In Dragone's process, a show finds itself through rehearsal; it begins to express what it can be and should be. Pieces are rearranged; emotional and narrative arcs are reconfigured. The process is partially an editorial one (we can again think back to Eisenstein), in which the overall vision takes shape through the cutting and splicing. It creates an atmosphere—depending on whom you ask—of either exhilarating anticipation or maddening uncertainty. Sometimes both.

"I like the idea of Franco," says Brun. "He is definitely an interesting artist, but he's grabbing the hunk of clay and he wants to sculpt this teapot, but he might as well end up sculpting a fountain in the end. It's all kind of ever-evolving. Well, that's not my way of working."

Brun, whose job it has been to fine-tune Dragone's productions, would ideally prefer to envision a show in full, down to the last details, before even approaching a potential buyer. He understands that all live performances grow and change, but he wants to start from an initial vision that is both fine-grained and organically whole. Ironically—or maybe not so ironically—it is the Russian rebel rather than the mild-mannered Belgian who stresses the need for more detailed advance planning. The tension between the two approaches is not necessarily a bad thing: One of Brun's old Russian friends is the film director Andrei Konchalovsky, who in the early 1960s played the let's-think-things-out-ahead Brun role to Andrei Tarkovsky's let's-see-what-happens Dragone, and the synergy between the two resulted in Andrei Rublev, which many critics consider one of the greatest films ever made. The man who composes as he plays can benefit from the company of a guy who starts by putting all the notes on paper, and vice versa.

"Franco has always appreciated what Pavel does," says Brian Burke, the resident choreographer for A New Day. "They've been hand in hand for more than 10 years, and that's a long relationship to have. Franco said to the company, 'Pavel is my eyes and ears,' but I think Pavel just wanted to go to a position of not being underneath anyone anymore. Artists are artists, and sometimes they bump heads."

The break came last year, after Brun had begun to work with Dragone on Le Rêve, once again playing the role of sorcerer's apprentice, once again helping to refine and facilitate another man's vision.

"Did I feel his frustration?" says Dragone. "Yes. Very clearly. Pavel would never make me feel it, but I felt it for him. I don't think we are finished working together; we will have other projects. But I will support him in anything he will do. It's very important that he goes out on his own now and expresses himself. He has so many things that were always expressed through other partners, and now is the time for him to explode."

4. How the Work Became its Own Reward

"Am I American? Yeah, I have an American passport. But is Rachmaninov American? Is Baryshnikov American? God knows. We are authentic bastards. We are gypsies. And we will continue making our contribution to the notion of art. Not American Art, not Nevadan Art or New York Art. Just art."

Because a man needs a job, Brun continued his work with Celine Dion, making the sort of subtle changes he'd been making since the show's premiere—bringing the band, which was once hidden, onto the stage; shuffling the song order; trying to keep the cast healthy and happy and disciplined. Meanwhile, he began putting together plans for projects of his own. "As soon as he started creating his own work, I saw him beaming," says Burke. Then, almost simultaneously, the most promising of the plans fell through and Brun fell ill. A man whose most endearing and enraging trait was his bluntness grew more elusive and opaque by the day.

"Pavel has always been very no-nonsense, very direct," says Ken Tilden, the production manager for A New Day. "His eye as a director is very precise, he can immediately interpret and communicate what's going on both onstage and off. When things get bogged down in politics, he's always been the one who can cut right through it and make our job 10 times easier. But when he got sick, the energy just went away. I don't know if it's fair to say that a person's desire to express himself is stronger because of the environment he grew up in, but Pavel's desire is stronger than I've seen with just about anyone else. When you see a person like that lose his inspiration, it's just scary."

"I spent an enormous amount of mental and spiritual energy just thinking, 'What is this and when will it kill me?'" says Brun. "'Will I see Christmas or not, will it be painful or not?'"

The tumor was removed on February 18 by Dr. Robert Wiencek at Sunrise Hospital. For the last two months Brun has been occupied mostly with follow-up appointments and physical therapy, but along the way he rediscovered—and for an intellectual, the value of such a rediscovery cannot be understated—a theoretical underpinning for his work with Celine Dion.

"I was reintroduced to the notion of viniyoga," Brun says. "Viniyoga is an undeservedly forgotten physical practice that was designed during the great Mongol invasion of India especially for the treatment of warriors who were wounded on the battlefield. Basically, it's very little movement, next to none, and it's very personal interaction between the patient, or disciple, and the instructor, and it all goes in the following way:

"I, as instructor, hold your hand, and by the frequency of your pulse, the fluctuation of your temperature, the wetness of your skin, I try to direct you to sit in a certain way, to breath in a certain way. And the gash in your neck that you received from someone's sword is healing right before your eyes. I can show you my scar and you will never believe that I had surgery less than two months ago.

"Maybe it will be too pompous from my side, but I would compare my relations with the Celine Dion show to an instructor of viniyoga with someone who is wounded. All I have to do is keep my hand on the show and feel if the temperature is right, or should I correct it a little bit. That's the best that I, Pavel Brun, can do, and have to do for maybe a little while longer before I am done. I feel the temperature fluctuating. I feel the pulse is not steady. You know? But then when I find it perfectly steady, I will have to answer another question: Does it have to be perfectly steady?"

  • Get More Stories from Thu, May 5, 2005
Top of Story