I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Back in 1996, I was teaching at an improvisation festival in San Francisco. On my last night there, one of the organizers invited me to a going-away party for some dancer in Joe Goode’s company who was moving to New York. His name was Miguel Gutierrez—in the Bay Area he was somewhat legendary. I’d never met him or seen him perform, but I was lured by the prospect of a party and free beer. The atmosphere at the event itself was a mixture of a drunken Irish wake for a dearly departed and a shipside bon voyage. People were teary and I felt genuinely distraught because he was leaving them, but there was also a celebratory feeling that one of their own was moving onward. We must have exchanged numbers, because not long after he arrived in New York my friend Jennifer Lacey called me needing a man for her new project. Working with Jennifer led Miguel to work with John Jasperse for seven years. The rest, as the cliché goes, is downtown dance history.
Since leaving Jasperse’s company, Miguel has employed wide-ranging choreographic strategies to create a body of diverse and distinct works. freedom of information was originally performed in 2001, as Miguel’s response to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Miguel simply moved continuously for 24 hours from midnight to midnight on the last day of the year, in his Brooklyn studio, while blindfolded and ear-plugged, without eating or stopping. He had a jug into which to urinate in full view of the public and we were invited to come and go as we pleased. In his first evening-length piece, enter the seen (2002), he investigated the concept of personal territory and allowed the intimacies of the dancing body to be experienced at extremely close range. The piece was also performed in his Brooklyn loft and we in the audience sat on the floor around a mostly empty room. Miguel also creates more formal yet still boundary-pushing group works for his company Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People (MGPP). One of my favorites is 2005’s Retrospective Exhibitionist and Difficult Bodies, two works presented as a diptych. In Retrospective Exhibitionist, a solo, Miguel shuttled through his own real and imagined performance history using a TV/VCR, boom box, mic and amp, video camera, and other simple props. He showed us footage of himself as a teenager, the only boy in his dance studio in New Jersey. He lip-synched to himself speaking at a post-performance Q & A. He performed a fierce dance of movement quotations from all the people who’d influenced him thus far. He wore a Boris Badenov T-shirt and a shaggy blond wig. In Difficult Bodies three women move together in a simple formal design that made the kinetic power of their bodies and their connection to each other unique and urgent. Miguel created the live music for the trio by looping sounds and words incessantly to create an almost classical, heroic euphoria.
Last year Miguel asked me to perform in And lose the name of action, which is still in progress. When I asked him why he wanted to work with me, he responded that he was tired of seeing older choreographers scoring for and dancing alongside “skinny white girls in their twenties.” Since I fit none of those criteria I guess I was a shoo-in.
— Ishmael Houston-Jones
Miguel Gutierrez I’m not going to see you on Skype, I’m only going to hear you?
Ishmael Houston-Jones Yeah. I can see you, though; that’s the important thing. Did you get my little intro?
MG I did! It’s great, although it makes me sound like an asshole.
IHJ Well, you are.
MG That’s not true.
IHJ Don’t you have a book coming out?
MG No. I’m going to go work on a manuscript at a RADAR Lab residency in Akumal, Mexico, and then we’ll see if anyone wants to publish it.
IHJ So it’s poetry?
MG Yeah, I’m going to work on poems. It’s like I’m coming out as a poet.
IHJ That’s cool. I remember when I was a guest curator at that Mad Alex Presents series back in the ’90s; you did a reading of your San Francisco writing.
MG I talked about being a sex worker.
IHJ I remember being really engrossed by what you were writing.
MG It’s weird that I didn’t make myself more public as a writer then. I was just working out my craziness. I shared the bill with Don Shewey. I thought that his story was so much better than my writing that I got really insecure. I didn’t want to read anything in public. I have those stories somewhere.
IHJ They’ll come out posthumously.
MG Yeah, exactly: “I Was a Twenty-something Whore.”
IHJ Well, weren’t we all?
MG Weren’t we all …
IHJ Back then you were also in a band called Princess that I was a big fan of.
MG Yes, I dropped out of it the moment that we got signed to a label.
IHJ Why was that?
MG Because I’m an exquisite self-saboteur. At that moment I also realized that I wanted to make dance my primary focus. I freaked out because I didn’t think that I’d be able to do that and also be in a band and tour around. Perhaps I was under the misguided impression that to do both would be madness.
IHJ But music and singing have figured in your dance work since then. You are very specific about how sound functions in your work, whether you create the sound score yourself, write songs, or collaborate with composers. You have a great voice, and you’re very musical, so that has remained in your work.
MG Yeah. It’s funny though. It’s in the work, but it’s not always foregrounded as a melodic or harmonious thing. A lot of time the vocalizing is noisy or weird sounding. I haven’t taken full advantage of my singing-pretty voice. Ironically enough, in France, when I did Alain Buffard’s show (Not) a love song, which had one musician and three performers all singing, people had the impression of me more as a singer than as a dancer.
IHJ Is that piece ever coming to the US?
MG No, no. Nobody could afford it or nobody was interested. Who knows how that works?
IHJ There seem to be two tracks to your own dance-performance work: the large, more spectacular and conceptual group work and then these incredibly personal, small but complicated and equally poetic solo pieces. You seem to be balancing and doing them at the same time, which is great. I connect more on a visceral level with the bigger works—I get overwhelmed with emotion when I see these pieces and experience them on a gut level. But I see Miguel more in solo pieces like Retrospective Exhibitionist and HEAVENS WHAT WHAT I DONE. Is that intentional on your part or is it just me?
MG I’m so happy to hear that someone likes the big works! Solos tour a lot—because they’re cheaper—so I get frustrated that the group work doesn’t get to have its full day in the sun. But, yeah, the solos are often furious sketches. It’s this intensely personal expulsion or exorcism of something immediate. The group works are different. For example, the piece we’re making now, And lose the name of action, I think of as a novel. As you know, this piece comes out of years’ worth of research into overlapping concepts of body-mind in neurology, somatics, improvisation, the paranormal—all of that dovetailing with the way my father’s neurological problems in the last few years have affected me and my family. There’s a lot in there, so it’s been a long haul: you go away from it, you come back to it, you go away from it, you come back to it, you refine, you finesse.
Also, with group works, things are outside of you. These other bodies are not you, so you have the time to be directorially or dramaturgically precise. Your role as the director is to attend to that energetic container of the process. It’s more of an externally conscious operation than this kind of id-driven solo. Choreographers I know who have never made solos will try and work on them: they’re so freaked out by the process since they can’t analyze themselves, they can’t refine them in the way that they’re used to with group work. To me, the freedom of not having to worry about that stuff is what makes solo work compelling. You can make these intensely quick decisions and you don’t have to be responsible to anyone. I think you’re right: as a result, the work stays more in the realm of personality and individual crisis. Whereas the group works, by their very nature, speak to context, history, and the zeitgeist. The ideas that inspire these pieces end up mixing with the different experiences that are happening to the entire group, me included, throughout the time that it takes to make them. So there’s the interplay of ideas and real-time experiences coming together in a layered way. This is what is satisfying about taking a long time to make a group work.
IHJ After seeing Last Meadow at Dance Theater Workshop in 2009, I remember leaving the theater feeling deeply moved. I couldn’t even stay for the toast after the performance; I felt this heavy sadness even though there was nothing overtly depressing in the piece or that would read theatrically as gloomy or glum. I mean, there were moments, but in leaving it I just had this incredible feeling of loneliness and sadness. Last Meadow is often described as “that piece about James Dean movies,” but I saw the quotations from those films simply as a frame around something about the emptiness of America and the inability to communicate.
MG Oh my God, yeah. That piece is actually very sad. The soundtrack alone—there’s a recurring piano motif that Neal Medlyn wrote which I find gut wrenching. There’s this sense of cycle and mortality and return and generation and degeneration. There is a pathos to that cycle, like the Buddhist concept of samsara—the endless cycle of suffering that we’re embedded in. Last Meadow is so much about that. It’s the question: How did I get caught in this place? So I’m not surprised that you felt that way about it. You know, for me the experience as a performer in the piece is not a light one, but since it isn’t a solo, I gave the heavy lifting to Michelle [Boulé].
IHJ She’s brilliant.
MG Yeah, she’s incredible at it, and it’s such a fucking relief for her to be the focus. That’s probably why I don’t have a nervous breakdown after that piece, the way I do after my solos.
IHJ So do you want to talk about the new work, And lose the name of action?
MG No, I don’t want to. (laughter) What do you want to talk about?
IHJ Well, the process has been really great, as well as the wide range of information that is being shared amongst the cast. The cast is not made up of “skinny white girls in their twenties.” I don’t participate in other people’s projects that much, so this has been really good for me to not make it all about me.
MG So, you want to know how it’s been to work with you?
IHJ Yeah, exactly. But seriously, talk about the casting because I was really surprised that you asked K.J. Holmes and me to be in this piece.
MG Casting is such an alchemical, mysterious process. From the moment that I decided to start working with different configurations of groups—which, I guess, happened in 2006—so many things opened up for me. If you were to make a film or a theater piece, you would immediately think about casting, because there’s an awareness that the representation of the bodies is a texture of the perceptual experience as much as anything else. At least in American contemporary dance traditions, there’s this idea that the primary read is about the movement, about the choreography. In fact, the primary read is the people that you’re looking at. Even if choreography and movement is at the center of your project, what we see on stage are people—the bodies make the work come alive. So when seeing very abstract work, like Trisha Brown’s or Merce Cunningham’s, I have distinct feelings about one version of the company from a specific time period compared to another version of the company from a different time period. We talk about that in the community: “Oh, when that person was working with Trisha, or when so and so was working with Merce,” and how that leads directly to the kind of work that was being made at the time.
In relationship to my own trajectory, I keep trying to be more rigorous and honest about how I want to challenge myself next regarding the people I want to work with. A lot of times I am responding to not only my previous piece, but to what I’m seeing in the community and in the field. Retrospectively, the casting choice often appears distinctly linked to what was going on in my life at the time. I knew that with this new piece I wanted a group of performers who were not all the same age. One of the very first things I thought was, Wait, I’ve never directed anyone who was older than me. It’s weird. Again, if I were a theater director or a filmmaker, that probably would have happened by now and it wouldn’t have been a big issue. It’s this vestige of dance training where we think that the most important person in the room is the oldest; because of that, we cast dancers younger than ourselves. I realized—particularly when I cast you and K.J.—that I’m afraid to direct older people. I feel like, Why should I be telling them what to do? What do I know?
IHJ You know a lot.
MG You cannot argue with the elders, but you can tell the younger people what to do—it’s a dumb construct. Then in terms of a physical diversity, both in color and size and stuff like that, I was seeing these performances that I really liked, but whose casts were entirely white and of a very particular body type. Who is in your work represents how you think the world is or should be, or whose stories you think are worth telling. And when I say stories, I don’t mean it in this boring narrative sense; I mean, literally, the story of a body, the body stories that you think are worth representing. I definitely subscribe to the idea that bodies come marked. There is no such thing as a “neutral” body. Bodies hold specific representations of identity and different kinds of energy. All of this is there before you’ve even choreographed anything, before you’ve asked a person in your cast to perform any kind of action. When I look at a performance, I’m getting tons of information just from the bodies that I’m seeing. Values emerge from the choice of these particular bodies. If I see a show and everyone on stage is young, white, conventionally beautiful, fit, then I come away thinking, Okay, this is how this choreographer defines what a “dancer” is or has to be, and the values worth exploring for this choreographer have to do with this kind of body only.
Clearly when you get into questions of diversity, the choices you make can get tokenized and clichéd, but I prefer those attempts to saying, “Oh, well, it’s just who is there in the community, so I’m just going to work with white people.” When I bring up the topic, nine times out of ten that’s people’s first response, “Well that’s who is in the community!” Like, you don’t think it has anything to do with your choice? I find that to be really irresponsible actually. Years ago Dean Moss wrote a letter to John Rockwell who had given him this dumb review for his great show figures on a field. Dean wrote something like, “You are incapable of imagining a dark body as a universal body.” Like only the white body can be the universal body; everything else is a deviation from that, it’s the Other. That’s such a beautiful, challenging argument: How do we destabilize the idea of what the central body for dance should be? If we manage to do this, then hopefully these different trajectories of power and sight and representation start to get more complicated.
IHJ I feel really challenged in the work. As you’ve discovered, I have very little interest and less ability in learning set choreography—almost all of my own choreography is improvised—so remembering set phrases of movement was difficult for me, even when that movement was based on my own improvs. Also, you have me singing in public. In falsetto, no less. I think you’ve gotten over your fear of directing older people really well. And I appreciate the group as a group and coming together with Hilary Clark and Luke George and K.J. Holmes and Michelle Boulé and you. I’m exploring things in myself that I don’t in my own work, which is good.
MG That’s great to hear. In relation to the solo versus group stuff, it’s always scary to direct a group because what exactly are you asking them to do? Are you asking them to be you, or are you asking them to be these versions of themselves that you have projected onto them?
There’s always this mix of authorship and agency when you work with other bodies. I obviously have a very specific practice and a belief system around what I want to see, especially in relationship to a particular piece. I like working with performers who are great movers and are comfortable with talking or singing or doing things that might appear “ugly.” Sometimes this means getting people out of their comfort zones and pushing them a bit, according to my need for the project to be successful on “my” terms. But for me to not address and invite the reality of that specific body and what it brings, outside of my preconceived notions of what it should or shouldn’t do, would be bad directing. So it’s this constant negotiation of solo versus group, my desire as choreographer versus the individual’s ability and interest and timeline—something that one person might figure out right away will take longer for another person to figure out, and vice versa. We often associate one kind of timeline with virtuosity and skill, but I don’t think it’s always that way.
IHJ I wanted to talk about you as a teacher; you’re one of the few people whom I have studied with in my old age.
MG You’ve been one of my prime students.
IHJ I’m at the American Dance Festival right now. When you were here, you taught this special composition workshop for three or four weeks. And when I was teaching down here in North Carolina a few years ago, I also studied with you as well as with Jillian Peña. I admired your way of teaching composition and have tried to copy it, but I can’t. You were very specific about time—you would cut people off if they went over the allotted time. You didn’t allow applause, which I actually thought was a minor thing, but I’ve tried to do it and it’s really hard to get kids, especially younger kids, not to applaud each other and use that as a barometer of what’s the better work. Also, you didn’t allow comments on the works. You gave the class readings by a wide variety of creative thinkers beforehand—Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Anne Bogart, Annie Proulx, Jerzy Grotowski, and others—but in class you didn’t offer comments on the dance assignments. I don’t know how this happened, but, miraculously, people came in the first week doing their jazzerina pieces and by the end, in a matter of a couple of weeks, they were making incredibly moving and textured work. I just thought, Oh, he’s a magician.
MG I have a lot of hidden ideological reasons for all that stuff. They’re not so hidden, I guess. Feedback can be useful, but it’s also such a curse, especially in the YouTube age we’re living in, where everyone and his asshole has an opinion about something. I find opinion to be useless most of the time, particularly when you’re talking about the act of creating, in which there has to be a really wide berth of permission. If the class were a semester or a year long, we would probably get to a point where we could talk about work in an effective and useful way, but in six classes, sitting around and being like, “Well, this worked and this didn’t work” for these two-minute sketches wouldn’t be a smart direction to take. It’s more interesting to bring attention to what happens in the act of making, because it is such a psychological process: the things that we confront—our strengths, our weaknesses, our terrors, our hidden desires—all the things that we carry around with us.
We think of composing as being this way of harnessing and generating something externally. In fact, it’s about unearthing something that is already present that perhaps our cognitive minds aren’t even aware of. So it’s important to create these limitations around time or how we show “approval” for what someone has done beyond ego-feeding propositions and without creating a pecking order in the classes. Who am I, even as the teacher, to decide whose work is good or not? That’s not my job in that moment, and it’s not useful if I reveal that in the class. That person making a bunch of crappy pieces probably needs to make tiny pieces before they make their “Oh shit!” hot piece, you know? If that person is told in the first or second class, “Well, why can’t you do it more like Joanie?” then they think, Oh, I have to be like Joanie, my ideas are not interesting, my process and my timeline is not valid. What I would be enforcing is an old pedagogical operation of suppression.
I make stuff because the act of creating is this extraordinary zone where I get to try something that is basically not allowed. It’s so stupid to come at it with a bunch of restrictions and suppressions. When I hear people speak in terms of, “Well, nobody is doing this now!” I’m like, “Then what? Is the project of creating that everybody sniffs out the party line and marches toward it?” Aren’t we all looking to be surprised and delighted? Aren’t we also hoping to look at someone and imagine one thing and then discover something else about them—through what they do and what they make? To me it’s like a fucking spiritual enterprise. To invite that out of people feels really important.
IHJ It was an incredible experience going through that class. I want to talk about aerobics too, and your role as a master aerobics teacher.
MG (laughter) Cult leader?
IHJ Dictator. What is the name of the project?
MG DEEP Aerobics: Death Electric Emo Protest Aerobics. It’s essentially a one-hour absurdist aerobics class where there’s a playlist and I guide people through a set of tightly constructed, fairly ridiculous improvisations following the structure of a conventional aerobics class: warm-up, heart-rate stuff, arms, abs, and then cool down. We’ll practice, say, electricity to Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by shaking violently and then zapping each other with our electric energy. I never intended it to become this big thing, and then it did. I suppose I could make it even a bigger thing, but I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to be known only as the DEEP Aerobics guy. When I first thought about doing it I wondered why aerobics couldn’t be as ridiculous as it actually is, and also why you couldn’t use it as a sort of frame or vehicle for personal transformation in a psychic and emotional way. I find the form of aerobics, or that kind of mindless exercise, to be … I mean, it’s basically fascism, right?
IHJ Of course.
MG You’re dealing with the body of fascism, which is to repeat and follow. The fact of the matter is that there is something chemically useful about that setup—chemically, meaning hormonally, relating to your endocrine system, that is. If you activate the body physically in a certain way, whether the action is dumb or intelligent, like bouncing up and down for an hour, something is going to happen to you. You’re going to sweat, your breath is going to get going; things are going to happen in your body whether you plan for them to or not, right?
MG So why not take that to this other level full on, almost like encounter therapy, where you do these direct, emotional confrontations. It’s just such a combination of so many different mass-group experiences that I’ve had in my life—I actually was an aerobics instructor.
IHJ I did not know this.
MG Yeah, I was an aerobics instructor for Rhythm & Motion, this place in San Francisco, and I hated it! I hated being that happy on purpose. That’s why I never went into Broadway—I don’t want to be told to smile. I also hated being responsible for other people’s fitness. I found that so gross. I felt like I was collaborating in people’s physical stupidity or self-hatred. DEEP also incorporates elements from massive street political demonstrations, contact jams, and more kind of hippie-dippie group-circle activities. Things where there is some shared code about how to move with a bunch of other bodies. There is that beautiful thing that happens when you are commanded to do something, and you’re like, Okay, I’m going to do this thing that I would never do because I’m too afraid or self-conscious to. But if someone takes responsibility for the permission, then we are able to do things. That’s the role of the guru, right? I learned a couple of years ago that that word guru literally means “destroyer of darkness.” So the guru takes on this role that says, “I will pull this thing out of you; I will happily take responsibility for doing it.” I think I’m good at taking the responsibility and giving someone else permission to be crazy. They don’t need drugs or booze or to go to some faraway town or on some meditation retreat to tap into their craziness. That said, I don’t like to do DEEP too much though, because it does freak me out to be this hypnotizer. Somebody said once, “Oh, it’s like you’re hypnotizing us.” It is awesome but also kind of creepy.
IHJ It is kind of creepy. Well, the next time you do DEEP and I’m in the same city, I promise I’ll come. I’ve always been too self-conscious and afraid—
MG You can’t be afraid! That’s so silly; you’re already so obviously a master teacher!
IHJ But the idea of taking an aerobics class scares me.
MG What part of it scares you?
IHJ I’m not good with silly.
MG That is about the most insane thing I’ve ever heard. There could be no greater lie than that. (laughter) None of that should be coming out of your mouth.
IHJ Okay, I’ll do it.
MG Do you want to ask me anything else?
IHJ How’s your love life?
MG How is my love life? Uh, hopefully better after this interview.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee