Interview with an Artist: Miguel Gutierrez responds to Julie Phelps

Interview with an Artist: Miguel Gutierrez responds to Julie Phelps

 Pictured:Mickey Mahar and Miguel Gutierrez
Photo: Ian Douglas

In January 2015 I found myself once again at American Realness, a festival that is an oasis for the experimental, the queer, and the fringe during the meat market mayhem of presenter festivals that happen this time of year in New York. It was at American Realness that I finally encountered Miguel Gutierrez’s new work Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/. I entered the theater knowing, from video, reviews, and personal impressions, that this work belonged within the discourse churning around CounterPulse:

How is art a tool of social change?
How do body-based explorations impact cultural discourse?
How do artistic experiences transform our imagination of what’s possible in our world?
How do race, gender, economics give or withhold voice in our society?

The best answer to such broad questions is often other well articulated questions. For me that is what Age & Beauty Part 1 is — a poetic question, a playful proposition, an existential inquiry. In that spirit, I asked Miguel a series of my own questions to ponder the subtext, to open up new reads, and to frame the presentation of this work in San Francisco this month at CounterPulse.  -Julie Phelps

PHELPS: Age & Beauty Part 1 has elements of improvisation as well as highly formal technique, both of which seem to be presently investigated by makers in New York City, but often not in the same work. How do you see this work in relation to other work happening in New York right now?

GUTIERREZ: Part of the reason I was interested in making the Age & Beauty series was that I started to encounter young artists in New York and elsewhere (including San Francisco) who were self-identifying as queer performance makers. I found this interesting but I also became curious about why this identification now, cuz my relationship to the idea of queer performance dates back over 20 years and the use of the term now seems to suggest a “newness” that I’m not sure I can see as being new at all. Where the idea of “queer” performance lives is an ongoing question I have about this piece and also about other work that identifies as such and other work that doesn’t call itself queer but seems queerer than work that does.

New York is both blessed and burdened by its relationship to a certain idea of white abstract formalism. It is a hard legacy to ignore or detach from if you live here, because it defines everything about the way people see. I’ve always seen myself as being part of not only this history but also the histories of “experimental” improvisation that came out of 80’s and 90’s east village era improv (Ishmael Houston-Jones, Yvonne Meier, Jennifer Monson, Jennifer Lacey), the San Francisco I encountered in the 90’s (Sara Shelton Mann, Keith Hennessy, Jess Curtis, Stephanie Maher, Carrie Field, Abby Crain, Marintha Tewksbury, Samuael Topiary), queer club performance from SF and NYC (Klubstitute, Club Uranus, Justin Vivian Bond, the Sick and Twisted Players, Mona Foot’s Star Search, Mark Dendy’s character Sandy Sheets and so many more). And I’ve been traveling to Europe since 1996 and seeing work there that has had a huge influence on me in terms of its confounding mix of slickness and frustrating mono-conceptuality.

In terms of what is happening “now” in New York, it’s too hard for me to parse out what is going on – it’s too big. I fit in and I don’t. I think I add irreverence and messiness to the aspects of the history here that are dry, white and formal and I bring “order”, and maybe even traditional ideas of theatrical structure, to practices that are sometimes more sprawling. In this sense I feel pretty much the way I’ve always felt in my life – bifurcated and bicultural.

PHELPS: Do you anticipate that the translation of this work to San Francisco from New York will impact the formal/metaphorical/socio-historical read of the work?


PHELPS: I experience this work as being as much about maleness as it is about age. How are you considering gender representations in this work?

GUTIERREZ: This is such a huge topic and a challenge to unpack because these representations are tied to issues of age, education, urbanity, race/ethnicity, fashion, dance and the way it is read as objectifiable and how that exists either in the realm of the “feminine” or the heroic depending on what you’re seeing and who you want to fuck on stage. And then the intersection and irreconcileabilities (if that is a word) of how gender is discussed and deployed in queer, trans and traditionally “gay” discourses. I can’t pretend to hit all of these ideas in any kind of neat way. I am a 43 year old Latin-American queer artist who struggles to reconcile his seemingly “radical” desires with homonormative desires, having come up in a very culturally assimilationist family while knowing that the intersections of my queerness and Colombian-ness created a whirlpool of weirdness regarding my relationship to maleness. And then I’m dancing with this young, brilliant, beautiful, cool but passionate white skinny creature who embodies a whole other idea of queerness and gender fluidity, a kid who wears frumpy long skirts to the bodega and is polyvalent in his sexual desires. I wear a bathing suit, he wears “jock” clothes. The whole idea of gender is both complicated right away in the piece and it’s also like who fucking cares about gender but it’s also like we’re these cis-guys so of course it has these meanings. It’s a lot.

PHELPS: As a follow-up, later in the season at CounterPulse we have a piece with Sara Shelton Mann and Keith Hennessy — Keith is making a solo on Sara about her legacy as performance maker. How do you think the conversation about age and beauty is different for women working in dance?

GUTIERREZ: Seeing Sara’s Mira Cycle 1 in 1991 was one of the most powerful and formative experiences in my life.

I don’t presume to speak for women working in dance but it’s obvious that it is a very sexist field, which is reflected in programming and funding choices. I’ve never understood why Sara doesn’t have an international touring career. She is a fucking freaky genius and legend and the influence she’s had on multiple generations of artists in SF is incalculable. This field, like so many others, is especially cruel and dismissive to women once they pass the mid-40’s mark it seems. I know many would argue it is cruel and dismissive way before that point. This has always been something that I’ve been mindful of since at least my early 30’s, and it is wrong.

PHELPS: The full title of this work positions you as the subject and Mickey as the comment on your subjectivity. What was the intention of this choice?

GUTIERREZ: It’s no secret that the Age & Beauty series is about my mishegas and my own crisis. I am very inspired by the narcissism and meta-commentary of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. One of the most pleasurable aspects of knowing Mickey has been knowing that the dissonance of our outward appearances is tempered by the consonance of our personalities and wit. As a performer Mickey is gifted with the ability to “accept” or even invite the role of object while at the same time defining his agency on his own terms. Or at least that is the projection that I have placed/formed onto him for this work.

PHELPS: The comments on power and privilege in this work are plural — the fetish of youth, the influence of age, and so on. Is this work an aspirational gesture that suggests alternative notions of age and beauty? Is it an illustration of difference? Is it a metaphor for some other existential inquiry? Does this work have a purpose?

GUTIERREZ: I think there are many metaphors going on in this piece. Mickey is an angel of death, a shadow, a driving force, a death star, an ideal, an impossibility, a partner, a twink, a supermodel, etc. I am a guy huffing and puffing and digging in deep to a history and being fierce and frail and monstrous. I am warm and heavy and earthy and seductive and too much and too loud and dry and aloof and wanting and desperate and totally ok with all of it. Together we are all of those things and more and maybe just a big older swarthy-ish guy and a skinny white guy. I can’t ever really know what the experience of seeing the piece is like for others, but my hope is that we are passing through multiple representations and relationships throughout the piece. I’ve never been interested in creating a single read – I don’t think most makers of performance are at this point.

Does the work have a purpose? Hahaha.


It means I have to stay alive and decently in shape till the next show.
It means I get to spend and share time on and off stage with an artist who I love and admire.
It means I get to share something with people and let the thing swim in their minds/bodies/lives as something to give them inspiration/something to reject/something to identify with.
It is my service to the gods and yes I mean that.

Presented by CounterPulse and Gravity
Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/
Miguel Gutierrez

MAR 6-7, FRI-SAT at 8PM
CounterPulse, 1310 Mission Street @ 9th

Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/ is the first in a series of pieces that place a queer lens on the representation of the dancer, the physical and emotional labor of performance, and mid-life anxieties around relevance, sustainability, and artistic burnout.

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