Miguel Gutierrez in conversation with Rennie McDougall on “Age and Beauty” at New York Live Arts
Rennie McDougall: I realised that we’ve known each other for a while now but the only piece I’ve seen of yours is HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE? in Melbourne.
Miguel Gutierrez: That’s crazy.
Which does feel crazy.
(laughing) Because it’s my most terrible work. I’m kidding! Sorry. Wait how is this going to be? Is this gonna be like a preview, or like an interview? Like a transcribed interview?
I’m gonna transcribe it.
But it’ll be like an interview back and forth.
Ok cool. I just want to be careful.
I mean it’ll be about… the trilogy.
(laughs) Lord of the Rings. Ok great. Great great great great.
But I am going to – just for formalities’ sake – read out all of the titles. ‘Cause I like the titles.
Yeah of course.
So Age and Beauty is the collective title.
And then there’s Age and Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or dejected emoticon with ampersand hair (&:-/)
Age and Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or aghast face emoticon with hair and beard (&:@&)
(laughing) I like this interpretation.
And Age and Beauty Part 3: DANCER (in capitals) or You can make whatever the fuck you want but you’ll only tour solos or The Powerful People or We are Strong/We are Powerful/We are Beautiful/We are Divine or teary emoticon with falling mouth and hair (&:’///)
Does that sound right?
Sure. That’s good.
I’m curious – I don’t know if I’ve invented this – but in terms of the three parts and the idea of age, a kind of linearity between the three of them. The first one having a youthfulness to it, and the second one being in a presentness, and the third being a kind of imagined futurity?
Yeah. It’s A Christmas Carol. (laughs) It’s basically A Christmas Carol meets the Spectrum [queer club in Brooklyn]. (maniacally laughs)
That can go on the program.
I mean I think both Part 1 and 3… well in Part 3 there’s a very explicit discussion of futurity, or a naming of the word. As there was in Part 1. It’s funny, for me Part 2 is a little bit like the ball and chain piece. It’s like, ‘this is all the shit that’s happened, this is what it takes to make the work.’ In the discussions that are playing out between Ben and the person who plays me [Sean Donovan].
But it’s hard for me to fully understand where the pieces exist in time. And in Part 3, I would say there’s kind of an allusion to futurity and this science-fictiony landscape, you know? But it’s all very put on. It’s acknowledging that, in the way that I’ve always thought was interesting in science-fiction films, how it’s just these completely constructed notions of the future. Costume or sound-wise, it’s like the future is all these weird glippy-gloppy sounds and funny little outfits, and these are just aesthetic notions based on it. So it’s kind of borrowing that idea.
And something else that you have written about specifically is Queer futurity. And that seems very specific in terms of not necessarily realistic imaginings.
Yeah, not at all. Definitely in the casting of the piece, there’s a kind of proposal – a Utopian proposal – in this idea of this group of humans that… what does the constellation of these people together signify?
Yeah it seems like from reading about Part 3, the casting of that work is very important.
Critical. Absolutely. I feel like it’s always, in a way, how I start. From thinking about who the people should be, and how they are in the work, that’s always where it goes. And then I think – in the writing of some fucking grant – I was talking about how this assembly of people is sort of like my idea of a future notion of a dance company, or something.
It’s funny… I was finishing up rehearsal in the space, and there was a group of people coming in to rehearse after us, and I had been rehearsing with Ezra [Azrieli Holzman] and Jen [Rosenblit] and Alex [Rodabaugh] and Ishmael [Houston-Jones]. And then this group of dancers came in and they were all very young and fit, you know, a very particular group, very aligned (laughs). And I was looking at them and it was like looking at these fucking aliens. And I thought ‘that’s so weird’, what my conception of what a group a dancers has to be is now forever altered. And I’m not at all invested in the normative notion of it. I mean I’m not the first person to have thought about that, or to have done something about that but…
Well, it’s weird that it’s still so persistent.
It’s so persistent. It’s become almost alarming to me when I see dances that don’t seem to have any kind of self-consciousness around that. Like I’m just really confused. Everyone’s between 25 and 35, often they’re all white, certain kind of body, and even a shared… a practice that feels uniformly shared. It just seems kind of strange that that’s just an inherited idea.
At some point it became interesting for me to really look to theatre and to film as a kind of inspiration for how to think of casting, where you’re getting these specific different people to fulfill different visual representations. Because of course visual representation is a part of… ha ‘a part of’ – an enormous part of the experience when you’re an audience member.
It also feels important to you that over the course of the works that you’ve made you are always bringing in new people. It’s not like one group of people that you’ve brought together and you keep working with those people exclusively.
No, that changed in 2006, after making Retrospective Exhibitionist and Difficult Bodies, and I’d been working with the same group of people for the first three or four years. And then I just started to realize that ‘Oh wait, I never ever ever ever ever wanted a company.’ I mean I like the idea of people who share a practice over years, of course, that’s really beautiful. But those dynamics just get entrenched so quickly and the idea of what a thing has to be… I was just suspicious of that.
So from there forward it’s been project based. Even though, like I said, Michelle [Boulé] is in almost all the group pieces… She has been in all the group pieces, actually. And I’ve worked with the same lighting designer [Lenore Doxsee] for the whole time. So there are obviously things that have been through-lines.
I don’t know, because I’m not conceiving of a project at all after this. But I feel like we’re just entering this moment where it’s impossible to not think about who we place on stage. It just feels so major to me. Especially in this moment of discussion of representational politics in this country with Black Lives Matter, and especially in queer politics, the emergence of transgender discourse becoming really the front line of the discourse. It just feels like, as far as I’m concerned, we’re forever shifted. And dance can choose to stay behind or move with it, you know? Or even advance it, I’m not sure yet.
I mean, it’s interesting working here.
Yeah. I mean, this is the best residency I’ve ever had in my life, because you’re kind of left alone to do what you want in the space. But I walk out there in the lounge and I see people in very very different dance worlds than I am, which is totally fine and lovely. But it’s like ‘whoa’, I forget that people are in studios learning counts and making patterns. (laughs) And I’m here doing other kinds of things. I mean I’m not here to denigrate that, I think it’s fine. I like that shit too.
Well actually, now I’m thinking… I saw part of Part 3 when you performed at the Poetry Project at St. Marks. And I’m just remembering now how choreographic it was, surprisingly.
And very much invested in steps, and bodies, and arrangements in space.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, the part that you saw particularly – we call it Trio Z, the thing between me, Jen, and Alex. Totally an homage to choreography. But also for me a kind of proposal of another… I do think that there’s a specificity to that choreography that is also idiosyncratic. In the way that it was constructed and in the language that inspired the construction was very specific to certain ideas around half-assed-ness and strange emotionality and bizarre inter-relationships. And I think also because it was constructed with Jen and Alex, who are themselves choreographers, and who have such particular, wonderful sensibilities. You know, I was very grateful to exploit (laughs) those abilities. So that ended up being an insanely fun section to make.
And then the idiosyncrasy of that in relation to the movement material in Part 1 which is very much synchronous…
At the beginning. It changes as the piece goes on. But yes it starts with this celebration of this weird thing that we learn how to do as dancers, when we learn how to move in synchronicity with each other. Which is such a strange obsession that people have…
Which is maybe why when I saw Part 1 online, I imagined a kind of youthfulness about that, about this thing of two people dancing side by side in unison.
I think of it less as a youthfulness… Though there is a youthfulness in the sense of total enjoyment of doing moves together. Fierce moves.
And really presenting it.
Yeah it’s all super-crazy-frontal, the audience on the one side. But I also think of the old adage, that the quickest way to see the difference between two people is make them do the same thing. Right? So I love how it highlights this insane difference between Mickey [Mahar] and me.
A place that Mickey and I really meet is in our shared interest in this hyper-specificity. You know, like anal let’s-go-for-it kind of dancing. So that was such a fun thing about getting to know him. Because he was trained as an Irish step dancer. And he’s incredible – he’s like champion caliber. So if you get into it with him, he can really get into it. I mean, I’m no champion folk dancer, but I definitely have that part of me, from the years of dancing with John [Jasperse] or in my own work where I can get all weird and anal about that stuff.
You know, it’s funny, I have to say – this is neither here nor there – but unfortunately it’s never really foregrounded in the discussion of my work, the movement. The way I think about it, the way I construct it, the specificity with which it’s constructed. It seems like that really eludes people’s perception (laughs).
Well, it’s kind of the hardest thing to quantify or to talk about.
Yeah, and it’s funny because then people will talk about it with other people’s work and I’m like ‘That’s just not interesting. That way of moving is not interesting or that kind of choreography is not hard to make.’ So I just get annoyed, but it’s fine.
Well, there’s the conversation about what the movement is, and the also how the movement gets produced. Which is even further from people’s experience.
Absolutely. It’s true. In And lose the name of action, I think one of the great successes in that piece was the movement material. And it’s this constant blurring between what was improvised and what was not. All the movement that was set was coming from these elaborate improvisations and we really worked so hard to maintain that spirit of uneasiness that improvisational movement can have. Because there’s something about the uneasiness that’s so… I don’t know. It’s inherently queer to me.
Yeah. Do you… a lot of the time when you’re building material you start from language, or from your writing? Is that true?
It depends on the piece. I mean, And lose the name of action was intensely influenced by what I was reading, what I was researching. So there was this real kind of translation process of language into movement.
With Mickey in Part 1 some of the first things we really did were these practices called Instant Performance.
Instant Performances for each other. Which were improvisation-based, and we never… to this day we’ve almost never talked about what that is supposed to be. It only ever emerges in the practice of doing it for each other, and together, and then it has taken on its own logos I think.
Then there’s this whole other section which actually is a complete translation of text into movement, where we take the monologue that we do in the piece, and then we did this old-school thing where we created a gesture for every word. We transliterated it… so in that regard, yes.
And for Part 3… it’s been somewhere in the middle because a lot of it is improvised so there’s a lot of discussion of what the score or the idea is. But also because… actually, Ezra, who is in the piece and is 8 years old, is very adept at hearing sophisticated verbal directions and translating them into actions so I don’t feel like I’ve had to be all ‘well it’s a child so I better give stupid directions’. Ezra can totally handle a pretty sophisticated direction.
But I always try to be very mindful of the extent of language that’s used to describe something. I often try to leave things intentionally ambiguous.
I want to talk about You can make whatever the fuck you want but you’ll only ever tour solos.
That’s sort of a concession to the market reality that I at least have been part of. I know it’s not necessarily a reality for a lot of my peers in New York at least, because it’s quite difficult to be a dance artist in New York and access the market. But in my experience of making… the thing that’s been kind of fucked about making project-based pieces that are different in scale from piece to piece is that as soon as you make a solo, and if you have a solo and a group piece, people will be like ‘the solo, that’s what we’ll bring’.
I mean, it’s also just functional to market. I think it’s also the world, the way things have changed, the economics have changed, and how there’s this kind of phenomenon of festival culture. They want to have works that go up and down in a day and the normcore aesthetic of ‘I’m just wearing my regular clothes and I’m in the museum and I’m just using the natural light of the museum’ you know, that whole fucking thing. Which feels to me, as much as anything else, like an economic choice. As much as it feels like a sort of aesthetic evolution. It’s a fuck of a lot cheaper than ‘Hey I wanna have lighting and I wanna have costumes and I wanna have seven people on stage’. And again that’s not a huge group of people but in terms of international airfare (laughs) it becomes a disaster.
So, I think it’s also an allusion to the fact that there’s a sociality that has been really satisfying to me, and it’s one of the great things about this field is that sociality. But then there’s all these ways in which the field also conspires to keep you alone. Or it feels like that; conspires is a bit of a strong term. But I have felt very aware of this in the last few years.
I was thinking actually about sociality – it does feel like the most important part of what’s really going on here, for all of us. The fact of how we met through BalletLab in Melbourne and now there’s a close relationship here. Or the fact that Ezra who is your godchild is performing in Part 3. That the way the performing communities come together, just because of their need to come together is the sustaining thing.
And it is hard to imagine how the market of it, the very non-profitable market of this, could sustain itself without the sociality of it.
I think it’s what sustains people; certainly people who don’t travel with their work. Because there’s this idea of community and there’s this notion of common struggle. I think what started to happen for me with the travel is I started to feel really displaced from my allegiance to the community here. And I started to go from thinking of New York as a kind of aesthetic standard to a regional aesthetic. And I started to see the ways in which the lifestyle here and the economics here and the history here and the reverence that people have for certain kinds of histories here started to really define and dictate what was considered successful here. And good here. When, internationally, that is not at all a concern, you know, for people who are in other situations and contexts and markets.
And so that has really confounded me. It did a number on me in terms of this sociality bag because I started to feel like I had become critical of the scene here – I mean, I’m critical of the scene anywhere – but sometimes I feel like that commitment to sociality actually prevents us from a certain level of criticality. To move our work forward. But because in many ways the situation here is such that you don’t get anything from the work beyond performing it, that sociality is a way of reassuring you that what you did was valuable.
You know, I started to realize once I was touring more that that wasn’t enough. I needed to engage a certain level of criticality with the work. I was also curious about its discursive value in relationship to other scenes and other situations and contexts. Which maybe just meant a different sociality than what I was used to. We’ve all heard the typical conundrum of going to Europe and you perform, and people right afterwards are telling you what they thought of the work. Like they’re walking up to you and they’re like ‘Well, I really didn’t like this part,’ and you’re like ‘Whoa whoa whoa, where’s the “great job and you guys looked beautiful” part?’ That’s the part that you get used to growing up in the American dance scene (laughs).
Oh yeah. When I first got here I was kind of amazed at how…
Overwhelmingly positive people would be after a show. It’s kind of amazing and sometimes really intense.
It can be very beautiful. I mean it’s a very beautiful thing that people genuinely feel really heart-engaged. In a way that when you tour or perform elsewhere, you’re a little discombobulated by peoples’ distance. And also by the fact that they really are OK to have their own feelings about things and not make you feel OK.
It also a weird side-effect of our… of this form. That you are in a position to have shown your work to somebody and then to be able to look them right in the face directly after they’ve experienced it. Not every form has that strange intimacy with the artist.
And I also think it’s like the question of ‘Where does the discourse need to be?’ It’s like, part of me still believes that once the show’s over, my work is done. The work is on you now. And if you want to get into it with me about the show, fine. But also I don’t fucking care. Like ‘the show’s over’.
Because I was reading something you said…
Oh shit, I said totally the opposite! (laughs) The total opposite of this!
Well not quite, but you were talking about your larger works and of this idea of reading them like a novel. Or that you’re seeing them like a novel. And I find this kind of difficult because I feel like that about a lot of works that have a lot of information in them to be unpacked and dealt with, but the manner or the way that that can happen is really hard when…
The manner, what do you mean?
As in if you’re in the audience, you’re sitting for an hour and a half, all the information hits you at once…
Sure, sure, and you’re like ‘What?’
Yeah how do you process all of that and then how do you engage with that outside of just yourself.
Sure. I mean for me that came up when I was making And lose the name of action, and I had just read Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom, and had really enjoyed it, and I was just so jealous. He can have fifteen different themes in there. He can deal with his family and America and politics and post-9/11 and infidelity and mining and interracial love, he’s able to do all that because he’s given this expanse of time. And I guess when I was making And lose the name of action I needed to feel that I could do something similar in relation to time.
And also – I’ve talked about this a lot, which maybe this value has shifted in me – but against what I feel is often the fault notion of reduction in performance, of like ‘we have to get down to the core and just give them that’ which I’m always sniffing out what the real message is there.
Of there being a singular…
Yeah a singular thing. Or an implicit notion of minimalist value. And also this fear of living in that murkiness… I feel like increasingly we are obsessed with bite-sized palatable truths and understandable things. I mean I don’t feel like the work I’m making is so fucking obscure to be honest. It’s not a four-hour Matthew Barney film. You know? Like, it’s not. It’s personable and it’s engaging, compared to something else.
I mean, you’re saying you’re jealous of Jonathan Franzen for his novel, but you are kind of doing the same thing, especially by making a series.
Was that a reason for doing that?
Absolutely. At some point it was really great to think about constellation, and if you don’t have to say it all in one stupid fucking show, you know? If you can actually extend the thought beyond the confines of a one-hour long or ninety-minute piece, which is the thing you’re supposed to make. What would happen?
Maybe this is how the discourse opens up as well. Because people are coming to see the works and it exists over a longer period of time because it exists in the space between their experiences. So they’re stitching things together.
Exactly, which hopefully is something people are doing anyway. But yes, a series aspect forces that notion of interpretive relationality, right? And I hope they do that beyond just the boring ‘Well I really like this piece but I don’t like the other.’ You know? I mean whatever, you can’t not have that. That’s the nature of a person but…yeah.
I’m also interested in DANCER in capitals, in the title. And feeling like that’s something of a reclamation for you.
…and of repositioning yourself as not maker or choreographer or director. I’m curious about that.
Well, I think it was originally about this idea of, again, knowing the cast would be this kind of motley crew of folks, that I wanted to foreground the idea that ‘Here is a group of dancers. This is the dance. These are the dancers.’ And so just putting that word forward right away and then, again like we talked about earlier, this kind of love of using movement as the conduit of the message…for the message. Again maybe this is sort of my thing with myself, that people always forget that I dance. People are always like ‘Oh you’re a performance artist.’ And I’m like ‘I am not a performance artist.’ Like I’m too good of a fucking dancer to be a performance artist, like I’m sorry please don’t call me that. (laughs) I’m too good at dancing and I’m too skilful at time. You know, I understand time really well and what to do over time over the course of a piece and how I want to manipulate time. So it doesn’t help me for people to call me a performance artist. (laughs) Which is like, no slight on performance artists.
Maybe a little slight…
Maybe a little. No, no slight, not at all. (laughs).
Is that current? Did that thing of being called a performance artist…
It’s funny everybody’s calling themselves performance artists now. I see it on SCRUFF.
Just on SCRUFF. That’s their performance art.
Ha, well, if only.
I still for some reason in my head, epistemologically there’s a difference between saying performance versus performance art. I mean I’ve taken to just saying that I make performances. I make shows. Because it feels like the most truthful thing, and I also like keeping it active in the sense of I do something. It’s not like I am something. You know?
Well, you fulfill many different roles within that. I mean for one, you’re making all the music for this. You’re making a sculpture right now.
Yes. We’re talking about my Barbra Streisand-like ability to write, direct, act, and produce. (laughs)
You’re the Barbra Streisand of contemporary dance.
(laughs maniacally) Yes there’s a little European mall in my basement. That I go to at night.
She has like a weird little European mall in her basement.
What does that even mean?
I’m serious. She has like… haven’t you heard about this? Barbra Streisand has like a little shopping… I feel like it’s like a replica of Paris? In her basement! Yes!
And how many shops…?
There’s like stores that sell little things, I swear to God. You’ll have to Google it. Look it up later. The most psychotic sounding thing… There was this guy that made a show about it, because he worked at it. I don’t think anybody can go besides her.
But are there people working there like 24/7?
I don’t know! Yeah 24/7, yeah it’s a post-apocalyptic mall.
That sounds crazy.
Yeah anyway, sorry. But you know what it’s like… God, I feel like I’m just wielding all my axes to grind tonight, but it’s like I just get so bored of the fact that we can’t accept interdisciplinarity now without making a big stink about it. Or using the word, like, I never use the word interdisciplinary. But I am… I make stuff, I don’t need to get into this big fucking brouhaha about what it is. And I’m hearing from so many people that make multiple things. So many choreographers are also writers or are also painters. There’s no great mystery there but it still like when I’m being introduced at a party and it’s like ‘This is Miguel. He’s a dancer.’ I’m like URGH! Or ‘He’s a choreographer’ I’m like Oh God! You know? It’s so disappointing. It’s so disappointing that people are still caught up in these stupid…this hole of language. But I get it. This inability to… I mean, it’s stupid. I don’t wanna talk about it…