Saturday, March 04, 2006

Powerful People: Miguel Gutierrez Talks about Retrospective Exhibitionist

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Miguel Gutierrez and The Powerful People

Just when I think we have hit a slow dance decade, someone like Miguel Gutierrez comes around to shake me out of my dance-watching coma. He directs Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People and is widely known for creating thought-provoking, visceral and challenging work. I saw Gutierrez dance with Joe Goode and John Jasperse and was suitably impressed, but it was his own work that really caught my attention (by the neck so to speak). This summer at ADF I saw Retrospective Exhibitionist and was thrilled to hear that Sixto Wagon was bringing him to DiverseWorks.

Recently, Gutierrez was named as one of "25 to Watch" by Dance Magazine, and "2005 Artist of the Year" by New York's Gay City News.His works, enter the seen (2002), I succumb (2003),and dAMNATION rOAD (2004) have made him an in-demand artist. He has toured internationally to the Open Look International Summer Dance Festival in Saint Petersburg, Russia, TOUCH 2005 Festival in Archangelsk, Russia, London Calling (to the faraway towns) Festival in Bologna, Italy, the Hong Kong Fringe Club, and to the dialogue/preview program at Springdance in Utrecht (in April 2006). His work has received support from the Trust For Mutual Understanding, Arts International, Pro-Helvetia (Swiss Arts Council), American Music Center, Meet the Composer and he received a 2004 fellowship in choreography from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Gutierrez is active in the supporting the work of other artists as a curator for Dance and Process at The Kitchen and the monthly performance party, SHTUDIO SHOW, at Chez Bushwick. He's danced with Joe Goode, Jennifer Lacey, Jennifer Monson, Juliette Mapp and Ann Liv Young and is currently dancing in Deborah Hay's O.O. In 2002 he won a Bessie for his work with John Jasperse Company from 1997 to 2001. He is on faculty at the American Dance Festival, teaches regularly around the world and was a Movement Research Artist-In-Residence from 2001 to 2003.

Gutierrez lands in Houston this week and brings us into the process of his latest work.

What got Retrospective Exhibitionist off and running?
MG: After my last show, dAMNATION rOAD, I felt confused as to why the hell I was performing. Is it for the fame? The money (Ha ha)? For love and adoration?
I had done a little piece for a loft showing here at the end of 03' and I liked some of the material that I was exploring in that. It was hyper-personal and more process oriented and more experiential than declamatory. A few months after dAMNATION rOAD I decided to continue working with that material and then I just basically got underway.

I realized that I had never given myself the opportunity to really think of my work in the context of a long-form solo. I was interested in the idea of excavating into my performance history and giving myself permission to do anything that I wanted, whether or not it had been done before. In fact, it had been done before and that was all the more reason to do it again. Because it had stayed with me meant it was me also.

The beginning is fantastic; it's a bit like a steam roller. The music is blaring and you come storming in, naked except for those red sneakers, caring a ton of stuff. (You nearly clobbered one of my fellow dance critics at ADF). It's one of the most potent attention-grabbing beginnings I have seen a long while. There's a kind of "what is this guy going to do next" feel to it. You absolutely commandeer the attention of everyone in the room. Can you speak to the scene you are setting?
MG: I am creating the space. I am bringing my studio into the theatre. I am the performer/stripper/crew member/working choreographer. I am ripping off my friends' Heather Kravas and Beth Gill who also have made pieces where they create the space at the beginning of their work. I am wearing the outfit (sans the wig) that I used to wear when I as a J/O stripper in San Francisco in the early 90's. It is the promise of sex with none of the follow through. It's ridiculous.

Artists often have a love/ hate thing going with talk backs and/or panel discussions. There's a hysterically funny part in the piece where you mouth the words of yourself in one of those after performance Q & As. It really points to the idea of both elevating and dismissing artists as alien. What's that section about for you?
MG: I looked at that video of a show we'd done at Jacob's Pillow and just laughed at how I sounded like a retarded valley girl. How can anyone (including me) believe any of this shit? It suddenly occurred to me that artists' ideas are so important and meaningless at the same time.

Speaking of Q & As, at ADF you were remarkably forthcoming about all the research that went in the piece. Can you share some of that process?
MG: During the summer of 2004 at ADF I decided to treat my time there as a residency with a minor teaching component. So I worked there and showed and early version of the solo. Then I went straight from there to Vienna's Impulstanz and saw a lot of work and great art. After that I went to a two week cultural exchange project in Moscow where Jeremy Wade, Heather Kravas and I spent time in a studio for two weeks with four Russian dance artists. Some things like the initial mic/amp stuff and the obsessive self portraits came out of that.

I had a residency in Lexington NY, which was totally incredible. I worked in a cabin for a week and felt like a weird art-driven Ted Kaczynski. I also developed a mentor/friend-to-the-project relationship with Heather Kravas. She helped me to articulate things about the piece while completely letting me go into the places that I wanted to.

There is a virtuosic bit of dancing in the middle. It's a bit like a tease. There's seems to be a joke embedded that alludes to dancer as "Shamu" the whale. Can you comment on that observation?
Shamu has to put on a show and he is trapped in that tank. As a dancer you are expected to be heroic, you are expected to deliver the goods. Everyone has paid their money and goddammit there had better be a dance show at a dance show. That dance is the reference dance where I string together bits from everyone I've worked with as well as pieces that I've seen. I use myself as an artifact of all that has come before me and all that is trapped inside of me. It's the burden of history, the pressure of having to "do."

Close to the end of the piece you burn your ass with a candle on a stack of books that grows steadily higher. I recall that the actual books were significant. How many these days? Is this section a cover or quote from a performance artist?
MG: This part isn't a direct quote of anyone, or at least it wasn't when I made it up. I've since heard of several folks have done fire-related thing (Gina Payne is one). I usually use four books, but at ADF I got cocky and used five, and never practiced---SHIT! During the performance I was like, 'Oh my god my ass is burning." But the show must go one and now I have that scar. Perfect. As to which books, I will assemble that in Houston and let the meaning find me.

Retrospective Exhibitionist seems like a work that possibly put some closure on an area of exploration for you. Is this true? If so, where did the piece leave you?
MG: I no longer feel like I have to please everyone. I trust myself more. I also perform from a place of love rather than from a place of having to prove something to someone. During the process of making the piece I was released from a lot of my desire to "get gigs," or rather I moved away from my ambition and moved closer to a commitment to my own work, finding out its intricacies, idiosyncrasies and mysteries. Ironically, now the phone is ringing.

As to where it's left me, I'm not sure yet, I'm still finding out. At first I was apprehensive about rehearsing this show again to come to Houston. I thought, "ugh, those feelings are dead for me now." But I have found that I love rehearsing the piece, that it's become its own performance practice (a la Deborah Hay) and that it's an experience that allows me to continue to deepen my consciousness as a performer.

How does Difficult Bodies connect to Retrospective Exhibitionist?
MG: In a way it's a dream of the solo, or I guess the dance that I didn't let myself make in the solo. It uses movement specifically to embody the questions that emerged for me through the making of the solo, and yet at the same time it is its own beautiful, curious beast. It's similar to the solo though in that its about offering something and then taking it away, and then being yourself, and then having to negotiate the reality of others. It's about activating the power of the kenetic/sensory body, releasing me exclusively from my "self," and offering it over to three incredible women, whose dancing I just adore.

It is the respite and diffusion and empowering and vulnerability again. How do you outwards from yourself? How does your moving/dancing get to "mean" anything. There are my guiding questions.

What have you taken from your days with John Jasperse and Joe Goode?
MG: I learned that creating work is about asking yourself complex questions and trusting that the space of dance/theatre can house these questions. I appreciated the meticulousness with which both of these men work. With Joe it was about an authority and a steady hand. With Jon it was more about subversion as an invitation of insecurity and instability.

You are dancing in Deb Hay's new work, O,O Tell me about your time with Hay? Was that an easy choice to work with her? Have you incorporated her methods into your own performing?
MG: I told her after The Match that I was interested in working with her. Basically it's been one of those serious life-changing events of my life. Deborah is brilliant and so committed to her experiments and questions and her process that it is a gift to spend time with her. I appreciate that she has never "institutionalized" her work, which she's kept it close to her. It's coming directly from her. I feel completely and utterly changed as a dancer/performer as a result.

Do critics know what to do with your work? I notice that they tend to default to the list of what you did as a way of writing about the piece.
MG: I hate the descriptive/cliff notes school of dance criticism. Why are people afraid of talking about ideas, imagination, and context?Critics get afraid because they could be wrong. (Hey, I have to stick up for my people.) Certainly someone has gotten your work.The most satisfying review I've read of my work is by Eleanor Bauer, a very young dancer/choreographer. Her review of Damnation Road was descriptive and complicated.

What's on your mind these days dancewise? Otherwise is fine too.
I am just continuing to figure out what my work is. I am happiest when I am creating. I am interested in creating experience that can be personal and super emotional without being like a Spielberg movie. I am playing with layerings, punk expression, sex differences, my body, the visual vs. the aesthetic, the genuine, the fake, helping people to feel things, permission, permission, permission, going into any direction that strikes me, not worrying about "dance" and knowing that it's still the place form which I outward into other spheres. I want to continue to make art from the very center of my heart.

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DiverseWorks presents Miguel Gutierrez and The Powerful People on March 3 & 4th at 8pm. Call 713-335-3445 or visit

This interview was commissioned by Dance Source Houston.