Guest Post by Jane Jerardi
Miguel Gutierrez comes to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago this weekend with one of his newest works, And lose the name of action. The evening-length piece features a striking cast of note-worthy performers – Michelle Boulé, Hilary Clark, Luke George, Miguel Gutierrez, K.J. Holmes, and Ishmael Houston-Jones. Inspired by Jørgen Leth’s film The Perfect Human, the elusive logic of dance improvisation, philosophical quandaries about the brain, and the 19th century spiritualist movement, the piece draws connections between the analytical and the unexplainable, grappling with the limits of language and the ever-present spectre of death. It features music by Neal Medlyn, lighting design by Lenore Doxsee, and film/text by Boru O’Brien O’Connell.
Often cited as a provocative voice in the contemporary dance and performance scene, Gutierrez — like many in his generation — works across mediums. His poems appear as published performance texts and he designs solo performance works as well as projects with collections of performers and collaborators under the moniker the ‘Powerful People.’ A Guggenheim Fellow, his work has appeared as such venues as the Festival D’Automne in Paris; the TBA Festival/PICA in Portland, OR; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN; UNAM in Mexico City, and ImPulsTanz in Vienna, among others. Equally admired as a teacher, he has built a following for his improvisation/choreography classes as well as his ‘DEEP Aerobics’ workouts. In mid-January, I met Miguel Gutierrez at the Abrons Arts Center amidst the first weekend of the American Realness Festival – an annual festival of contemporary dance and performance in New York. We chatted in a quiet spot near the dressing rooms about his upcoming engagement at the MCA – including the powerhouse cast performing, the ghost hunt they went on during a residency to build the work, and the limits of language when it comes to dance. Here are some excerpts from our conversation…
Abrons Arts Center, New York, NY, January 13, 2013
Jane Jerardi: Maybe first we should start first with you just talking a bit about the genesis of the project you’ll be performing at the MCA, And lose the name of action?
Miguel Gutierrez: Sure. I think I’m going to paint my nails as we do this [pulls out two shades of blue metallic nail polish] if that’s okay with you.
JJ: Sure. Talk about mind and body…!
MG: It feels like the right question to paint your nails to… Well, the piece really came out of a couple of things. In some ways it was an extension of Last Meadow [Gutierrez’s previous piece], which is unusual for me, because usually when I finish a piece I want to change gears. But, by the time we got around to finishing Last Meadow, I realized I was only beginning to understand what I was doing. Towards the end of the project, I was introduced to this book The Meaning of the Body, by Mark Johnson, which calls for getting rid of the mind/body split, once and for all. It’s beautifully stated, but reading it as a dancer, there was a moment where I thought, “This seems fairly obvious.” For a person who has any kind of relationship to somatics, you of course recognize that the mind and body are connected; that perception is an embodied practice, and that all contexts are experienced through a sort of corporeal interaction. I thought to myself, This sounds like a contact improv class. And I thought, why is this new? I think it was that initial indignation that led to the piece. I felt like why isn’t this something that is known? The second impulse for the work, was my dad. My dad had a series of neurological problems in 2008. He had a series of blood clots in his brain that were note properly diagnosed for several years. He had stroke-type things and then seizures, which then progressed during my research for And lose the name of action.
JJ: That sounds scary.
MG: Aside from the fact that it sucked, I think a couple of things came out of it. Here was a person I knew in a certain way, and suddenly he was changing. It sounds sort of basic, a basic experience of change. I say basic, but it was a quite radical. Suddenly, I was subjected to doctors telling me, This is what’s happening, This is what’s not happening – but no one knows what’s happening. Everyone is guessing. You start to see that that the way we constitute a sense of self and reality are deeply subjective. And, out of your control. You’re in the hospital with your dad and there’s nothing you can do, aside from being present. At the time I was thinking, “What is it that I can offer here? As a dancer? As a person with some naïve study of somatic practices?” I can be present. I can be an emotional support. I can be resonate and present in a way that is specific to what I do. It felt clear, but I felt very conscious that I don’t share a language with these doctors. I can’t assume they know of specific somatic practices or say, “Hey, have you heard of the Feldenkrais Method?” or “Do you know about Body Mind Centering?”
JJ: You realize how marginalized some of these movement practices are.
MG: Absolutely. I mean marginalized isn’t even the word. They’re invisible. I started to see how when people talk about brain, they are talking about mind. Lots of words are being used interchangeably. There’s a lot of lack clarity in definition between disciplines. How is it that we have the same vocabulary but we aren’t using words in the same way? I started to examine the value system around my teaching and practice. What is valuable about an improvisational performance practice? It is a kind of knowledge and a way of knowing, but quite different than other modes of knowing. And I though about Why am I so invested in this ‘unknowing knowing’? Why am I so mistrustful of alleged truths? That was all the stuff that led me into And lose the name of action. Then, I started thinking about ghosts and the paranormal. What about an immaterial body? What about a discipline of study that doesn’t even presume that the body has to be tangible anymore? When we had our first residency we went on our first ghost hunt.
JJ: Tell me about that.
MG: We went on this ghost hunt with paranormal investigators–crazy ladies in Tallahassee, FL… which sounds funny, but are these ‘paranormal investigators’ wrong? For them, it is true. If they see a ghost or hear a voice, if they’re having that experience, then that’s their embodied truth. That’s what’s going on here in this conversation of perception and truth. If I experience my father as my father even if he’s in a coma, is he not my father? If I feel that this is blue [pointing to his nail polish] and this is a lighter blue than the other blue [pointing to another bottle of darker blue nail polish] and I have a certain feeling about it. Am I wrong? Because there’s actually no way for me to definitely know how blue this is. It’s all these kinds of…
JJ: Big questions. Really big questions.
MG: So, yeah [laughing] that’s what the show is about. [Joking] It’s just about a couple small things…
JJ: So how did this all play out in your explorations in the studio?
MG: A lot of talking, a lot of improvisational exploration… In the piece, the bodies are the proof of themselves.
Because of the way that the piece exists – even though the audience is onstage, even though people are really close to us – it feels like something is at a distance. I had originally thought it would be really great to make a piece that didn’t involve bodies at all. I mean why do there have to be bodies? It’s so weird and silly – why are there bodies on stage at this point in history? Can’t we just go…
JJ: Totally virtual?
MG: Yeah – not even virtual or holograms – but… there are people that are doing that – work that’s about post-human bodies – but, I am still invested in the interpersonal dynamics of being in the room with people. That’s what keeps me interested in my work.
JJ: I think it goes back to the value thing. What’s at the core of what you do?
MG: And where do you build knowledge? Where do you build a sense of how you understand things and how you perceptively locate yourself in the world? When I look at dance, I can understand it. What does that mean? Not one specific, concrete meaning. Rather, as I’m watching the dance, I am understanding it and grappling with comprehension. And that perceptual act becomes a way to construct meaning. That doesn’t necessarily translate easily into language. I mean I like words. I can talk. But, dance actually offers another perceptual experience in time. I don’t think this is exclusive to dance, either. Mark Johnson argues that reality is actually an aesthetic experience. He doesn’t use this exact language – but we’re choreographing our way through our lives. And, that feels really powerful in relationship to what performance or a body in action can do. It doesn’t always happen. Most of the time, dance is written about exclusively as a visual rendering but, that’s not the whole picture…
Working with Deborah Hay was pretty instrumental for me. Something she would say is, “The movement is just a costume for perception.” And, I feel that’s really true. That’s my experience of dancing actually… So much of what intrigues me about dancing is about contending with myself in the moment. And all the fucked-up-ness of that question.
JJ: “Contending with things in the moment” is the way that people talk often about improvisation. You’re working with a pretty incredible set of improvisers as collaborators performing in the work. I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that? I mean it’s a very diverse, powerhouse group of people.
MG: Yes. I wanted to have a group – well first, that weren’t all young 20-year olds. I wanted a diverse age range for this piece. I hadn’t worked with a group of people who were older than me before. And, I wanted a group of improvisers who could own themselves in a very clear way. I wanted to work with people who seemed restless or curious. And, I feel like that’s pretty true of this group!
JJ: So, you’re working with Michelle Boulé…
MG: Hilary Clark, Luke George, KJ Holmes, and Ishmael Houston-Jones. At first, I was a little like – oh my god, who am I to tell these people what to do? It really did feel that way. Which was great, because I wanted to be challenged directorially.
JJ: It seemed to make a lot of sense to me because you’re dealing with a kind of big existential topic – life and death, philosophical truths such as ‘person-hood’ and ‘being.’ It requires a certain maturity.
MG: Yes. It feels important that the audience is looking at people who have contended with things. I also think that I was going through something about casting in general. This thing that often happens in the dance field is people don’t take into consideration the representational value of the bodies that are there.
JJ: Which is kind of saying, maybe the visual does matter. The way that we read bodies matters.
MG: Absolutely. Bodies come marked. But, it feels like often the problem with the visual rendering thing is that people ignore it in the most important aspects in some ways. Because they think “I’m dealing with abstraction.” Or, something neutral. I know that when I first went into dance as an adult, I was excited about how it contrasted to theater, because I didn’t feel like I could get type-cast in the same way. I didn’t have to audition to fulfill just one thing. It wasn’t like – “Oh, I’m that Latino kid.” So, it’s funny to have come full circle and now become hyper-conscious about who is on the stage. But also, I think now more than ever – the way artists work – you’d be hard-pressed to find a choreographer whose not working explicitly collaboratively with their dancers. Although, I sort of suspect that’s always been true. There’s a real thought around how you have people involved in your process.
JJ: I wonder if we could talk about some of the other collaborators involved and, some of the sources because in a way you could think of sources as collaborators.
MG: Somewhere towards the beginning of the process I read Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. I realized that writers give themselves permission to do so much. You really can go there. You can interrelate different things. A novel – or that kind of novel let’s say – doesn’t aspire to be minimalist. Certainly there’s editing. But it doesn’t see reduction as the only compositional value to explore. As someone who has struggled with living in an aesthetic climate where minimalism is privileged above all else, I’m excited to encounter work that deals with interrelating or association. I started to realize that what we were making – in a sense – was a novel. For example, each dancer wears multiple costumes in the piece – I’d never done that before. Or, even having people leave [the stage space].
JJ: By having people leave and re-enter there could suddenly be chapters.
MG: Yes, I really feel like the piece does unfold in that way.
JJ: Even though a lot of the piece comes from the idea of embodiment, you’re also using text in the piece. Could you could talk a little bit about how the text figures into the work? What drew you to using text?
MG: The bulk of the text it written by Boru O’Brien O’Connell (who also collaborated to create video projections). Some of the text is an appropriation of George Berkeley’s writings.
Text is often used as the locator of meaning. And, if it exists in a performance – that’s when we’re like – there’s the meaning! That definitely happens in this piece. But, it also functions as a texture. It functions…almost like a kind of perfume….
JJ: That’s a nice image.
MG: …A kind of experience that’s not even exclusively about it being attached to understanding.
And lose the name of action appears at the MCA, Chicago January 31 – February 3, 2013. For more information and tickets: http://www.mcachicago.org/performances/now/all/2013/884 This performance is part of the IN>TIME Festival. http://www.in-time-performance.org/
Jane Jerardi is an artist working in the media of choreography, performance, and video installation. Currently based in Chicago, her work has been presented at such venues as Transformer and The Warehouse (Washington DC), Defibrillator (Chicago IL); Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church and the LUMEN Festival for Video and Performance (New York), among others. She is one third of the cohort that runs Adult Contemporary, an alternative art space in Logan Square. She teaches at Columbia College, Chicago, where she is also on staff at the Dance Center.