Since 2001 the Brooklyn-based dancer and choreographer Miguel Gutierrez has premiered some 10 new pieces locally and at festivals throughout the world. His work has begun to reach a wider audience over the last two years, first with his solo piece Nothing, No Thing—which incorporated text and music to try to reconcile emotional reactions and physical sensation—at the 2008 LaMaMa Moves Festival, and his nationwide collaboration freedomofinformation. Conceived as a protest piece, the performance took place on December 31, 2008, and involved dancers in 32 states remaining in movement for a 24-hour period while blindfolded and ear-plugged. Originally performed solo by Gutierrez in 2001, the marathon dance refers to the blinding and disorienting state of displacement experienced by populations in Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives have been irreparably disrupted by war.
Recently, between working on music projects, teaching dance and curating performance series in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Gutierrez and his collective, The Powerful People, have been preparing their latest piece, Last Meadow, for its premiere this month at Dance Theater Workshop. Dark and dreamy, the new piece explores American identities and dreams through the iconic films and dramatic life and death of James Dean. Not that Gutierrez’s work is all gloomy pessimism: Everyone (see below), a piece from 2007, stages a delirious celebration of optimism and affection. “I attempt, in my work, to tap into what feels charged for me,” Gutierrez explains, “what feels vital and challenging and, for lack of a better word, necessary.”
The L Magazine: What do you feel makes your work (both solo and with The Powerful People) different from other contemporary dance groups and choreographers?
Miguel Gutierrez: This is a tough question because I feel honored to work inside of a community of challenging, intriguing artists working in New York, across the country and abroad. I draw a lot of inspiration from the work that others do, and I aspire to make work that exists in dialogue with them. It’s not always easy for me to see, with real perspective, what makes my work “different” from others. Plus, saying “other contemporary dance groups and choreographers” is extremely reductive. There are so many artists working in so many different ways.
I can say that I attempt, in my work, to tap into what feels charged for me, what feels vital and challenging and, for lack of a better word, necessary. In saying “necessary,” I mean both what feels integral to the specific piece I am making and also what feels necessary in relationship to other people’s work, to the form of dance/performance in general, or to the world at large.
This is a huge, ambitious, unwieldy and perhaps even naively foolish task, so I think of it more like an ongoing mantra that guides me while I work on the more tangible aspects of a piece. I think that the continuity of that determined intention somehow makes its way into the work, and I think that people (not just “dance” people, but folks of various backgrounds and vocations) tap into the energy of that. The work contains all of the turbulence of my belief, frustration and doubt in what I’m making and in the possibility of it expressing, in any way, the profundity of that turbulence. I assume people (the performers and the audience) are smart and that we share this multiplicity of belief and doubt, thought and emotion.
Basically, for better or worse, I really give a fuck. A huge fuck. But it would be arrogant to say that this is different from anyone else. It would also be naïve not to admit that I know that part of why I make what I make is because I am trying to fill in something that I think would otherwise not be there.
Much of your work is very explicitly politicized and contemporary. What role do you feel dance should play in the larger cultural context?
Well I live in the world and dance lives in the world, so the relationship to politics and/or “contemporaneity” is unavoidable. My questions about dance are the same as my questions about being alive in this world at this time. Why are we here? Where is the space for meaningful interaction? How do we dismantle structures that encourage static, “coherent” ideas about the way things are and instead promote structures that allow for plasticity, introspection and ambivalence (in the classic sense of the word: multiple valences or values)?
That said, I am acutely aware of the fact that: a) we are all products of our class and social backgrounds, and b) the nature of the contexts that my work gets presented in is definitely on the privileged side (theaters, festivals, etc.). These are unresolved problems for me and ones I feel like I need to be more conscious of. I am pretty fucking entrenched in the dance and performance world, so I am sure that I am blind to a whole lot.
I don’t want to make cultural waste. I want to take the opportunities that I have to try to make things that affect people, and that scare me into depth of my feelings.
Dance is a great form to encourage people to exercise their “experiential” muscles, the complexity of their ineffable sensations and multi-dimensionality of their weird interior lives.
Where you'll see his work next: with The Powerful People in Last Meadow at Dance Theater Workshop, 9/15-9/18.