Miguel Gutierrez has a message—and some tips—for people who insist they don’t “get” contemporary dance. Even though he’s gained international acclaim for his own emotionally raw pieces, he admits that they can be hard to understand. During a rare quiet moment on a bus ride from Philadelphia to New York, Gutierrez, one of the most provocative dancemakers of his generation, talked by phone with assistant curator Michèle Steinwald about those and other topics related to his newest piece, And lose the name of action. The Walker presents the world premiere of this work to launch the 2012–2013 performing arts season.
Dance: A Second-Class Artform?
Part way through the making of Last Meadow (2009), the piece before this new one, I was introduced to The Meaning of the Body, a book looking at how we can, once and for all, destroy this Cartesian notion of a mind/body split. It is arguing for an approach to perception that is totally embodied, where an individual’s body is in a continuous relationship with its context and environment. Instead of processing everything through our minds, it argues that in fact, the way we process things is rooted in our corporeal context.
I first thought, “It’s so great that this writing exists.” Then I was struck that this seems very obvious: For a dance person or anyone who has done any work with somatics—duh, of course perception is the body! Later, I was dumbstruck to see that a huge part of what happens in the history of Western philosophy is this tension between mind and body. It comes up over and over. Because you can argue dialectically, you can argue your way out of the body and out of the experience. Words can function in that way.
Words in relationship to thought have been privileged above the experience of this allegedly unstable body. The values in the hierarchy of rationalism, of patriarchy, of science, of provable fact always win out over the allegedly mysterious or unstable—or, I would argue also—feminine or feminized body. These divisions persist within our culture, and I wonder if all this has some sort of relationship to the way people perceive dance as this kind of second-class art form: this thing that’s just a bunch of fucking bodies moving around up there. And maybe that’s partly why dance has fallen into this status as, like, the gimpy art form: this distrust of the body. There’s an idea that to go into an exploration of the body is this indulgent, non-rational thing.
My interest with dance has always been, in a way, its instability—the way that it proposes an area that is mysterious, not easily understood. These thoughts made their way into Last Meadow and I wanted to keep pushing at this interest in this intangible thing with And lose the name of action.
Those thoughts dovetailed with my father’s series of neurological complications over the last several years. That led me into learning more about the brain and thinking about how we deal with construction of personhood in the body. What is considered intelligence? How does the subjectivity of the body remain present, when a person’s cognitive or ratiocination capacities become diminished? I was spending lots of time in the hospital, and thinking about the way we deal with our bodies as these machines, things that get plugged into and cleaned and kind of left there. It seemed so counter to my experience of working with the body, which addresses its sensitivity and its frailty in a much more holistic way.
All that shit basically went together for me: neurology, philosophy, somatics, dance. And I didn’t really make the link right way, but I also started to think, “Well, what about bodies that don’t theoretically exist at all, that are perceived, like ghosts?”
Going Beyond Visual Experience
If I could fucking count the number of times I’ve had to sit there with a presenter or some European artist, or a lazy visual artist, and try to explain to them the value of the choreographic experience or the dance experience … It kind of amazes me. These people are the purveyors of the obscure in their own fucking field, but then you bring them to dance and they’re like, “Nope. Don’t get it. Don’t understand it. Don’t want to know.”
Part of that is the curse of performing arts, or of dance: for the person performing it, it is at heart a sensory experience. A kind of insides-out experience. For the person witnessing it, at first glance it appears exclusively as an external, visual experience. But actually that’s just the first confrontation of perception—the moment you smell someone or hear them breathe, you’re like, “Oh, wow. Human.” It’s like such a basic, dumb thing but it does do wonders. It sort of breaks down this notion of object.
So I do think there’s a sensate experience, and an energetic experience, and also an imaginative, internally reflective experience when you witness dance. There are a lot of layers of perception going on. But because of the history of our sense of the visual, and because of how we often culturally deal with bodies, I think we stay at that first level of the visual representation. I have consistently thought out strategies to disrupt that. I didn’t invent this idea—people have been using it for ages, and it’s a neat cliché. But it’s OK because it’s necessary.
Why should it be so strange to remember that you’re dealing with another body? It’s part of the code of performance, the contract, which I love. I feel like I’m skilled at manipulating and working with what the rules of that contract are. I like all the different loopholes.
You Only Think You Don’t Get It
I wish that there was a formula, or a fucking pill I could give people on these other ways of perceiving dance. Because I am also filled with conflict and contradiction around it. I understand why people have that reaction. Some of my favorite artists are often the ones who the general public—or the layperson or even the presenter, who may not have that sort of roots in dance—wouldn’t get access to.
What I try to do is first just promote patience. [laughs] Not having an instant understanding is not a liability of dance—it’s actually this kind of anti-capitalist thing that’s built into the temporality of the form. You want this work to say “blah” to you right away. But it’s a time-based form, and it doesn’t work like that. It just isn’t going to deliver to you.
This idea of what it is to live in time with something, and to be with it—it’s becoming increasingly difficult in our day and age, where all of us, myself included, have attention spans that are shortening by the fucking day. It’s like a personality trait. There are people who can sit with themselves and sit with something, and who are OK with not getting something right away. And there are people who can’t.
When people don’t understand something, there’s often a jump right away to dislike, or to “this thing failed to sell itself to me.” I think, “No, you maybe didn’t give yourself permission to not understand it.” There’s something about that permission, to detach and kind of blend into the occupation, that is really critical, really important. People always have experiences and feelings that they think they’re not supposed to have, or that they’re not allowed to articulate as their experience of the work.
I know my work often confounds people. A lot of times I hear—I’m just repeating what’s been said to me, and not to toot my own horn—“I saw the work, I couldn’t fucking deal with it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And now, I need to talk to you about it. I don’t understand why I can’t stop thinking about it.” [laughs] I had that experience a lot when we did dAMNATION rOAD in 2004. I definitely had that experience with my solo, and with Last Meadow. It weirds people out.
What I’m trying to explain to people, with my work in particular, is that I’m not working mono-conceptually. I’m not explicating or demonstrating an idea. I’m using ideas as source materials to generate intricate interrelations between elements. That interrelationship becomes the experience. Often, it’s seemingly incoherent. What I’m doing is not linear, it’s more associative: placing things in relation to each other so there’s an understanding of value. The way to interpret it is not to come out with a statement.
In my head, all this stuff has become linked. These things about what is obvious, what is mysterious, what do we offer, what do we withhold—that’s the direction that I’m going in.