Heavens’ Coming to the Bay: An Interview with Miguel Gutierrez

By Jesse Hewit


Arriving on the West Coast in June, as part of a teaching/performing tour, Miguel Gutierrez will present his newest work, HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE; the piece has been performed in many contexts and will present its newest permutation at the Garage (SF) in June. Gutierrez will also be participating in VERGE, a festival at the Garage in San Francisco, for international and national artists. Interested in enduring philosophical questions about desire, longing, and the search for meaning, Gutierrez’s work sits inside a legacy of process-focused experimental dance while drawing on far-reaching influences such as endurance based performance art work, noise music, ecstatic experience in social and religious rituals, the study of mind/body modalities like Body-Mind Centering, Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method, and various histories of spectacle including Broadway, Vegas, and queer performance in alternative clubs from the ’80s until now. His pieces are notable for the interplay of movement, text, sound and light, which creates, for the performers and the audience, an immersive state of immediacy and attention.

Jesse Hewit: Miguel! Hi. On behalf of the Bay Area dance universe, we’re glad you’re coming to town! I’m looking forward to you interacting with some of the steady buzzing energy around queer dance and performance that’s floating around. Have you heard much about this?

Miguel Gutierrez: Yes, of course! I’ve been hearing a lot through you and Keith [Hennessy] and a bit through Abby [Crain], though I don’t know a lot about the specifics of it and I hope to get clued in when I come.

JH: Will you speak about your relationship to living/dancing/making art in San Francisco?

MG: I’m excited to come to San Francisco to perform. I’m also grateful that Joe Landini invited me, because I’ve been really disappointed that no one out there invited us to bring Last Meadow, the last piece that we’ve been touring, so I guess lo-tech solos are the way to maintain a relationship to the city. As for living and working there, the multiple times that I’ve lived in San Francisco affected me in such profound ways, that it feels sort of crazy to try to parse it out. It was in San Francisco that I came into the first fully realized version of my “self” as a young queer person and where I first saw performance [of Contraband, Ricky Darnell and the High Risk Group, Joe Goode, and others] that re-formed everything I had ever been taught about dance or performance, and which convinced me that there was no other path for me to follow. It was also where I was exposed to the politics of diversity–gender, sexuality, race, class, that whole shebang–which changed the way that I looked at the world, forever.

Repeatedly, it was a sanctuary for me, in my sister’s home, or in the bedrooms of tons o’ guys, or on the streets of the Mission, Castro, SOMA, or in the clubs I went to when I was 19. It was where I began to explore my own work, and it was where I developed my identity and skills as a teacher. It was where I learned that quality of life shouldn’t get cast to the side–although I seem to have a problem remembering that these days. Jesus, I have a tattoo on my arm that says “siempre contigo” [always with you], so that I’d “never forget” what I learned from living there. It was basically my first real home. For years I kept thinking that I would move back, but at some point I realized I didn’t feel that way any more, and that what I needed from it, I got, and that I now wanted different things. But I’m really excited about going there.

JH: You’ll be teaching for a few days after performing HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE at the Garage. For those of us who don’t know, what is HEAVENS, and why did you make it?

MG: Well, I actually made it because I was asked to do something in a festival, and they couldn’t present any of my other pieces, so I went ahead and made something new. This is one of the main reasons I ever make anything–because I’m asked to. Beyond that, well, I’d rather let you see it and see for yourself, but I guess I’ll just say that it’s a piece that I only expected to do once for a very specific context but then I kept getting chances to perform it, and so I kept developing it and it turned into “something.” In that sense, it’s been a piece that’s reminded me to keep my practice alive, regardless of whether I’m making an “official” piece (the ones you write the grants for, or the ones that get advertised with postcards). I love doing it.

JH: Recently I was really taken with Ralph Lemon’s idea of “anti-dance.” What do you think is still interesting and/or important about dance? Is thinking through modes of dance and movement still generative for you?

MG: First, I’ll say “absolutely,” in response to that last question. It is still very generative.

The “anti-dance” thing is a huge topic. I understand that thing of wanting to talk about it–the “anti-dance” idea. That’s actually been a huge driver in a lot of my work. However, in my “research” (hateful word) lately, I’ve been interested in embracing the long (often fraught, yes), but ultimately intimate and now sophisticated (if I can dare to use that word) relationship to dance that doesn’t always need to point a finger at it first. As such, I’ve been interested in approaches to movement/dance that consider it as a mode of perception that (potentially) unifies a vast array of primary and esoteric senses, and that in itself, proposes a way into non-verbal, non-rationalistic or dualistic approaches to intelligence and poetics. Well, ok, maybe not “unifies,” because I’m not looking for a grand design, but rather dance is the container that allows me to look at this. I am interested in dance’s (and the body’s) archetypal link with the “feminine” (a tremendously reductive way of putting it) in opposition to a patriarchal approach to talking or thinking about the body or art-making. I’m interested in early 20th century developments of aesthetic and somatic understanding that put gestalt or an awareness of a total “situation” at the forefront of sensory experience and how dance (and dance-based performance) can be a really great modality to frame questions that emerge from that perspective.

I have this idea of late that dance’s ability to confound is one of the trademarks of its power, and one of the things that feels most interesting and vital about it. I know that, for sure these days, I feel the need to see things that I don’t understand. I like that dance continues to be my “home form” (the long marriage, so to speak) that I can place these different frames onto.

JH: I feel like you’re someone whose work is very much about transmission and is rather responsive to your audiences. How are you feeling about the role of audience these days? Do you feel like you have any responsibilities there?

MG: I’m aware of many different audiences. First of all, there’s the audience at a show, and they feel really different every night, regardless of where the performance is. Inside that audience, I experience many subsets of audiences. There are the people who you know, and there are the strangers. There are the “V.I.P.s” (presenters, local artists, etc); there are the haters who walk out or who stay, give you the evil eye or gross energy the whole time, or who are seething with envy disguised as criticism; and then there are the people who are super obviously into it. There are also those who are everything in between or beyond those previous categories. There are the hotties who you catch a glimpse of who you hope think you’re hot, too. There are the people who you think are sort of there by accident–in a good way (like their friend brought them, or for some freak reason, they saw an ad for the show and just decided to come check it out)–and the ones who are there by accident in a bad way. I guess that mostly what I’m saying is that I have a real distrust of the notion of “audience” as anything that is monolithic or truthfully perceivable by me. I know that I still, despite myself and despite the direction of my work, often find myself wanting more from the audience than I could ever hope to get. At the same time, I have noticed that I am heading in a direction where I don’t “need” them as much in the old way of “please look at me….” Something is shifting around that. Last Meadow was a pretty big shift for me about that. So was/is HEAVENS.

JH: Perhaps because the position of being a performance-maker can be so financially precarious, we often cast ourselves as being at the mercy of our audiences in ways that go a little too deep and become unhelpful. I also like your identifications of all the different types and permutations of audience; monolithic notions of audience definitely don’t seem to exist.

MG: Yes, and the other major experience I have of “audience” now is the imaginary one in the studio with me when I’m working; the audience of expectations, judgment, historical categorization, critics, etc. And of course, there’s a lot of experience of audience in me perceiving myself dealing with all of these questions.

As for responsibilities, I give a lot in my work. I am generous. I am generous in my performing as are the other folks in my work, for sure, but I am also generous in that I deal with big stuff in my work: big heart stuff, existential stuff, etc. Some people don’t want to go there, or don’t buy it, or, who knows? I believe in making the show as good as the show demands itself to be, which is a very personal process, and which really only reveals itself slowly and methodically through working. Sometimes it is responsible to keep people in the dark. Sometimes it is responsible to make them work a bit. But (and I think that this was a gift that Joe Goode gave me) I believe in creating points or resources for entering into the work: “invitations.” Granted, one person’s invitation is another person’s, um, non-invitation.

I also believe though, in making work where the work itself is a frame that encompasses presentation, pedagogy, and experience. At its best, the work almost “teaches” you how to experience it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that is how I think about it. I think that there is a sort of invisible value that I hold while I’m making work that just gets in there.

JH: In general, how are you feeling about dance these days?

MG: Great! Confused. Happy. Thrilled. Convinced it is the most perfect thing. Convinced of its irrelevancy. Subjugated by it. Liberated through it. Completely bored by it. Moved to tears a lot by it. Knowing, and sage-like even, at times in my viewing of it. Surprised by finding something new in it still. Frustrated that I don’t allow myself to do it more. Secretly convinced that it’s the best way to just figure it out. Content to walk arm in arm with its weirdness, its smallness, its privacy and naïveté. Intrigued by everything I still don’t understand about it. Constantly gauging when I’m going to stop doing it.

JH: What are you looking forward to most in coming to San Francisco?

MG: I look forward to the drive to the city from the airport, which I really love. I’m excited to see my sister’s family. I’m excited to put my work in front of people there, and I’m really excited about teaching there, because I feel like I’m really working at something that I want to share and explore with others. I want to get some good food, meet folks, I don’t know, and see old friends. And, I want to go to the top of Dolores Park.

JH: Sounds pretty solid. Thanks for chatting, Miguel, see you this summer.

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of In Dance.

Jesse Hewit makes and shares dance and performance work, teaches and curates, and writes about the things he sees and thinks. He lives in San Francisco with human and animal companions, and works as a cook.