Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Hunger Games, a Queer Reading

Panem, as depicted on film especially, is a particularly gender binary and sexually disciplined place to be.  Adherence to strictly conservative gender roles and heteronormativity are perhaps most visually underscored by the film's painstaking commitment to racial and ethnic mulitculturalism.

Those of us who have read the book know that Katniss' home District 12 has a color spectrum of (in musical terms) piano to pianissimo, in that the colors range from Aryan blondes with blue eyes to Mediterranean olives.  If anything, the book's message on color is considerably more conservative than that of the film.  In District 12 a pallid pallor is associated with the bourgeoisie while the lowliest and most impoverished inhabitants of the Seam (District 12's ghetto) are darker olive.  Katniss' own mother was raised bourgeois and went slumming, as it were, to be with Katniss' father - a decision that ultimately caused her much pain and their family much hardship.  Katniss, inheritor of her father's low-brow complexion, is left to provide for the family by any means necessary, including (and especially) illegal means.  In the novel, characters from outside District 12 are typically described physically by one superficial and colorful trait (if at all) such as red hair, green eyes, gold eye shadow.  The film, in multicultural contrast with the book, has taken great pains to showcase this dystopian future North America as ethnically diverse.  Characters with no previously specified race are sometimes African American.  Tributes and others can be of east Asian descent, or Latino, or (America's favorite) ethnically ambiguous.  Even whitewashed District 12 contains a token black woman in the crowd.  While I am sure that many could (rightfully) state that the casting practices of The Hunger Games film were not diverse enough, I wish to point out what seems from this vantage point to be an overt attempt at multiculturalism for two reasons: first, to note that this racial and ethnic diversity is visually striking, particularly when Hollywood tends strongly towards whitewashing (how many film scenes include a New York City subway car that is not filled primarily with people of color?), and to point out that the same care was not taken to ensure that the actors in the district portrayed gender diversity.  In fact, I would say the opposite was true.

I posit that the film's overt overtures toward ethnic diversity have a distinct effect on the palpability of the lack or loss of diversity on the gender spectrum and the presumption of heterosexuality.  District 12's Reaping shows the girls (all in dresses) and the boys (in their best clothes but nonetheless in ruggedly masculine work boots) cordoned off from each other.  Boys may be young, but never effeminate.  A girl like Katniss may be tough, but her long braids are feminine enough and she sure looks pretty in a dress.  Even the toughest female competitors in The Games are model thin and sport well kempt, feminine hairstyles.  Female tributes from the Spartan districts that train pseudo-professional "Careers" have not been bred for an abundance of testosterone and come in at a waif-ish if physically fit size two or four, if not the Hollywood norm of size zero.  Katniss is one of (if not the) most masculine females on screen, which isn't saying much.

Then there is the matter of Madge Undersee.  At the outset of the novel, Madge is Katniss' only female friend, a girl with whom she can be her sullen self and not be under pressure to talk about "girlie" things.  In the novel, it is Madge who gives Katniss her iconic Mockingjay pin.  In the film, a lone Katniss purchases the pin for her sister, who then returns it to her for The Games.  Furthermore, Katniss articulates early in The Hunger Games film as well as novel that she never wants to have children; in other words, she would choose heterosexual failure over reproduction.  Later on in the series, as Katniss is struggling with her own ambivalence regarding her two male friends/suitors, she and Madge have grown closer.  Katniss initiates Madge into her private and subversive world of hunting and the forest, something she has otherwise only shared with Gale and her father.  On the one hand, Madge could not be Katniss' companion and partner/competitor in The Games because the tributary heteronormative binary ensures that she will be paired with a male counterpart, and even in the novels Madge dies (in a classic film trope that euphemistically confirms a character's latent homosexuality) before her relationship with Katniss poses any threat or complication to the binary heteronormative choice she must make between Peeta and Gale.  On the other hand, this only major deviation from the novel's plot does more than simply highlight Katniss' loneliness and mostly self imposed ostricization from her peers in District 12.  It also enacts the erasure of Katniss' only non-familial homosocial relationship that exists outside the Arena, policing even further the assumption of heteronormativity.

Finally, there is the issue of The Capitol.  Unlike the strict heteronormativity of the districts, The Capitol reads like an ongoing Gay Pride parade.  Even in the novel, Katniss finds the minimal degree to which her stylist Cinna succumbs to the Capitol's inherent effeminacy to be reassuring.  Even in the novel, Hunger Games TV host Ceasar Flickerman makes self deprecating jokes about his age and waistline which serve to confirm his vanity on those subjects.  Even in the novel, there is an equivalency created between the Capitol's wealth and excess, its cruelty, and its flamboyant femininity.  On screen and in full color, this equivalency is shocking.  It is not merely that the Capitol seems to take every negative stereotype attributed to gay men or LGBT culture in general and amplify it, from narcissism and superficiality to an embodied representation of even more nefarious anti-gay slander (Games Victors are supposedly showered in wealth and comfort for the rest of their lives, effectively "recruited" to the Capitol lifestyle; compare this to homophobic arguments that gays "recruit because they can't reproduce").  It is not merely that the visual cues in the on screen Capitol read beyond colorful, excess, or consumerist to culturally legible representations of effeminacy as associated with queer male effeminacy.  It is also that there are no other options for gender non-normativity or a release from heteronormative relationships outside the Capitol.  Food, while excessive in the Capitol and scarce in the districts at least exists in the districts.  If one is clever and strong and willing to take a (subversive) risk, one can even guarantee one's family a sustainable amount of food by hunting as Katniss does.  But while Katniss is possibly the only individual who has articulated a desire not to conform to heteronormativity ("I don't want to have children"), she is also unable to access that desire.  It is, it seems, an unimaginable and therefore unlivable life.  In contrast to Katniss' ultimate heteronormative salvation, Haymitch has no partner and no children and his life is barely livable, with him inebriated at every turn.  He only comes to life when he is tutoring his "recruits" in The Games.  Ultimately Katniss will be forced to choose one of her two male suitors.  Spoiler Alert: she'll be in District 13 at that time.  I wonder if, when that film is made, we'll finally see a butch woman on screen as the equally evil President Coin.  I fear we will. is a pretty thin article that confirms the popular belief in Katniss' androgynous power.  If she is seen as gender non-normative, we need many more truly gender non-normative characters on screen! is a strong but brief foray into some of the same concerns as this article.  It briefly mentions but mostly glosses over the queer issues in the film and primarily focuses on issues of violence, Katniss' portrayal as a strong female, and goes further into concerns around ethnic diversity than does this writing.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Patience is everything ...

"Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn't matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!" - Rainer Maria Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A fleeting moment of "zen" ...

I had a moment of zen recently. Maybe it wasn't zen. I'm not sure how I would characterize it, if I would characterize it. So I'll describe it:

I was taking class, sadly for the first time in a while. After hanging upside down for a while, and lying on the floor for a while, both with my eyes closed, we came together to begin. As I was trying to focus on what the teacher was saying, I couldn't help noticing everything. Sounds inside the room, outside the room, colors, the feeling of my skin against my shirt, how high the ceilings were, the difference in temperature between the bottom of my feet on the floor and the top of my feet in the air, peripheral vision, images in front of me, space behind me ...

It actually was scary. I thought I could go crazy. It was so much information, so much sensory input! And I felt completely unmoored. In this moment of everything, I felt the value of singular focus. And as I groped for a landmark in my experience to hold onto, to ground myself, I realized something else: my "normal" point of reference, the anchoring point of my experience, is my subjectivity. And when I became no more important than anything else - when my feet were no more important than the difference in temperature between top and bottom - I felt completely lost.

The thing is, after a moment it felt INCREDIBLE! But as soon as I began to luxuriate in the experience, to enjoy losing myself in time and space, I lost it. It's been a week. I can't seem to get it back. I haven't actually tried traditional meditation. I'm not sure why I hesitate to, but I will say that I've tried to meditate in the past and it's never gone particularly well. It did surprise me that my moment was in a large group. But it was still a private moment.

I feel like I'm trying too hard to get that feeling back. And I'm not sure what strategies to use. It affected my whole day in a positive way. A week later, and it's still the most exciting and important experience I've had since.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Who or What is Postmodern?: Miguel Gutierrez and the Quest for Suitable Terminology (2008)

According to Miguel Gutierrez, the form of any work of art is dependent on the values system of the artist. To that end, he tries to develop a new values system for each new work (Notes, 2008). In 2006 he stated that he is “not a choreographer” (DM, 2006), but simply a “dance artist.” Later, in the New York Times he reiterated that, “The word [choreographer] doesn’t somehow acknowledge the different strategies people are using to think about and create their work . . . If ‘choreography’ is simply about the arrangement of bodies in graphic space, then no, this doesn’t adequately describe what I am interested in.” (NYT, 10/2007) Nonetheless, he lists himself as “Choreographer, Performer” in programs for his work. (DTW Program 2008)

Gutierrez’s work certainly does incorporate more than bodies moving in space. He utilizes sets, props, text, theatrical lighting and costuming, and various forms of sound (live and recorded, pop music and experimental soundscapes). His program biography additionally states that he is a “dance and music artist” and that “he collaborates with a wide range of contemporary dance, music, and visual artists.” (DTW Program 2008) So what is Miguel Gutierrez? And furthermore, is it postmodern? To answer such a question, one must consider what “postmodern” means and what its parameters encompass.
The first usage of “post-modern” as it referred to dance was historical in nature. Yvonne Rainer used it to set apart herself and her contemporaries (specifically the Judson Group of choreographers) from their predecessors including Merce Cunningham, Jose Limón, Doris Humphrey, and particularly, Martha Graham. The Judson movement was one that shifted away from the narrowly defined strictures of dance vocabulary and composition as defined by the Modern Dance canon. (Banes 1987 xv-xvi)

Gutierrez’s work can be considered in a dance historical context. He does come after Graham and the other Modern Dance choreographers on an historical timeline. In fact, he presented his first evening-length work almost exactly forty years after the first “post-modern” dance concert at Judson Church. (Gutierrez’s enter the seen premiered in February, 2002. The first Judson Church concert was in July. 1962.) Perhaps he is post-postmodern?

Let us consider that the historical purpose in using the term “post-modern” was to signify a break with the Modern Dance tradition. To name a rebellion. Does Gutierrez’s work rebel against the work of the post-modern choreographers of the 1970s and their strictures? Yes and no. To better consider this question, I will begin an in depth analysis of Gutierrez’s individual works and the ways in which they rebel against or conform to the principles and ideals of post-modernism as proposed by the Judson choreographers in the 1960s. I will also consider his works within a broader aesthetic conception of postmodernism. Most aesthetic idioms classify their movements in terms of the discernible qualities of the work and the shared concerns, ideals, and sometimes training of the involved artists. While artistic movements in visual art, music, or writing may appear somewhat confined to specific periods of time, it is not so common (as it is in dance) to name movements and schools of thought solely on the basis of their placement on a timeline. It therefore seems appropriate to consider the discrepancies that arise between the term postmodernism as it is used specifically within a dance historical context and its use in a broader aesthetic conversation as it refers to discernible characteristics of works within other artistic disciplines.

In Gutierrez’s I succumb, the dancers begin wearing street clothes - jeans, t-shirts, denim jackets, and sneakers. This presentation of professional performer in markedly anti-theatrical or “everyday” clothing is congruent with presentations of post-modern dance in the 1970s. In I Succumb the musician, Jaime Fennelly, is creating his sounds in full view of the audience. The dancers who are outside the clearly delineated square of light are still visible on the outskirts of the demarcated space. These visual elements are aligned with Rainer’s aesthetic decision to keep dancers onstage during the entirety of works such as Terrain and The Mind is a Muscle. According to Rainer, “I hated the ‘magic’ of entrances and exits, the nowhere or imaginary ‘somewhere’ of the wings or off-stage area.” (Rainer, 77)

But Gutierrez does utilize the magic of the entrance and exit. First he sets up a decidedly “post-modern” situation, where the square of light can be seen to parallel the image of a nearby television, and all movements are taken from the more or less pedestrian activities of walking, wrestling, social dance, and sex. Then he disrupts the setup. While Michelle Boulé continues the first section into a solo that gradually devolves into simple walking, Anna Azrieli re-enters in upside down or ill fitting de-formalized formal wear. Ms. Boulé could be seen to continue in some sense to dispel the magic of offstage by changing into her befuddled formal wear in full view of the audience, however one might argue that the perspective which she embodies is ultimately overthrown, in fact exposing the original “post-modern” scene as itself a construction, though one that relies on a different series of theatrical conventions than those that Rainer decried. While Azrieli begins a spastic solo stage right (in the now uniformly lit space), the other dancers (Gutierrez, Abby Crain, and Tarek Halaby enter the space in their own befuddled skirts. Gutierrez and Crain watch the solo from stage left, Halaby strikes a dramatic, two dimensional pose against the back wall and Boulé rejoins this new world with its new parameters and series of expectations.

At this point in I succumb, every movement in the dance could conceivably have been improvised. While it does appear unlikely that a more classically technical duet for Crain and Boulé was improvised, it would not be impossible. The extended lines and turns derived from a more technical or classical vocabulary lead the viewer to assume that the movement is “set” based on a series of conventions and assumptions about the appropriate usage of such a vocabulary and its purpose on stage. Much like the rest of the seemingly improvised dance, however, the duet lacks direct repetition and is performed with a certain contemplative but internally absorbed energy that is conventionally characteristic of improvisation. If truly improvised (which is impossible to know), this use of indeterminacy could seem to be aligned with the Judson group’s use of scores and game structures in which dances followed a specific trajectory but had only loosely specified movements, timings or spacings.

Rainer writes about the use of indeterminacy in a rather formal, methodical manner. “Usually indeterminacy has been used to change the sequentialness - either phrases or larger sections - of a work, or to permute the details of a work.” (Rainer, 68) She avoids discussion of indeterminacy as it affects the mood or performance quality of the work and likewise avoids discussion of how performance quality and visual focus affect the legibility of indeterminacy as such. Rather, when discussing performance quality Rainer writes of reevaluating the artifice of performance and becoming a “neutral ‘doer’.” She writes:
The display of technical virtuosity and the display of the dancer’s specialized body no longer make any sense. Dancers have been driven to search for an alternative context that allows for a more matter-of-fact, more concreted, more banal quality of physical being in performance, a context wherein people are engaged in actions and movements making a less spectacular demand on the body and in which skill is hard to locate. (Rainer, 65)

While it might appear that the opening section of I succumb fits Rainer’s description, Azrieli’s solo (the first movements in the new costuming) marks a break with Rainer’s ideal “neutral ‘doer’.” Azrieli’s dancing seems spontaneous, however it is clear that her specialized body is on display. Likewise in the duet for Crain and Boulé, the performance quality is matter-of-fact and the focus internal, but the movement places particular demands on the body, and skill is easily visible. Much in the same manner that Boulé’s onstage costume change not only reinforces the perception that costume changes are theatrical conventions, but also suggests that the casual, legibly “post-modern” atmosphere and “everyday” denim costumes of the opening section are in fact legible as “everyday” through another series of conventions born and baptized by Rainer and her contemporaries, so the combined use of specialized movement and a “neutral ‘doer’” performance presence not only reinforces technical movement vocabulary as the prerogative of the trained dancer on stage (a long standing convention rejected by post-moderns), but also exposes the Rainer preferred performance quality and focus as a theatrical convention in itself.

The clearest break with Rainer’s ideas comes when the entire cast of dancers begins a seemingly simple walking pattern moving from stage left towards stage right. Dancers walk in a casual pedestrian manner and are occasionally stopped or directed (through touch) by other dancers. Gradually performance quality, rhythm and visual focus gain in formalism and the movement begins to include somewhat more virtuosic encounters. Then, as though to highlight this developing formality and to clarify the constructed, crafted, and “set” nature of this section of the work as opposed to an improvisational or indeterminate score of directions and the possible ambiguity surrounding the work’s determinacy as discussed above, Gutierrez and the Powerful People repeat the walking phrase exactly - with the exact same tempo, energy quality, and relative spacing as they move further towards stage right. The repetition is striking and easily recognized. It acts as a turning point for the piece: everything after is viewed by necessity through the lens of that repetition. Of particular importance is that the repeated movement includes both the casual and the formal, the pedestrian and the virtuosic. Again Gutierrez affirms the constructed nature of “post-modern” choices such as pedestrian movement through placing those movements directly beside and in direct relationship with the more classically virtuosic. When he repeats both with precision of quality as well as movement, giving equal weight to a casual step and a formal lift, Gutierrez not only repeats the now thematic idea that Rainer style post-modernism is as constructed through its own series of conventions as more traditional work, he puts highlighter on it.

Gutierrez makes good on the promise of that turning point by ensuring that everything after that moment is actually different from what came before. The energy and intensity of the dance increases. After the repeated phrase, the journey towards stage right continues with large lifts, high kicking legs, spinning, and an overall state of heightened and virtuosic physicality. Movements from Contact Improvisation, a form developed by Judson choreographer Steve Paxton and also is considered exemplary of early postmodernism, are used. But these movements are extrapolated from Contact Improvisation and made repeatable, then given a rehearsed, formal, and presentational quality. In direct opposition to Contact Improvisation’s early claims that anyone can participate in the form, a claim that is aligned with Judson’s use of everyday people and everyday bodies in everyday clothing, Gutierrez’s choreography strongly states that not everyone can do this, but only trained, rehearsed, daring, powerful people.

The use of extreme physicality and virtuosity continues to the end of I succumb. Gutierrez performs a solo in front of a projection of a blue love seat. The group joins him and on cue with a bounce of his heels, the lights change to bright and dramatic reds. All the dancers perform different phrases constructed from the same individual movements, one dancers’ phrase flowing in and out of unison with other individual dancers as well as the whole group. This weaving in and out of unison is not accidental but rather results from a painstaking and somewhat mathematical process of creating variations on movement material that overlap and intersect at a few key moments. This manipulation of phrases shows Gutierrez’s technical virtuosity and skill as a choreographer in a way that parallels the dancers’ display of virtuosity through extensions, lifts and turns.

From the group, a duet emerges between Gutierrez and Crain. They are back in the television square, which is the only discernible link that this moment has to the first section of the dance. In perfect unison they slam themselves onto the floor and throw themselves into space. The virtuosity of their movement itself and the exactitude of their unison is heightened by the danger they encounter through the performance of it. The dance ends with lights fading on Gutierrez and Crain as they begin new unison partnerships in slow motion with Boulé and Azrieli, Halaby joining them in counterpoint as a soloist.
The use of sound, projection, the television, and text (on both TV and projection screen) continues to create a complex and somewhat troubled relationship between Gutierrez’s work and his post-modern predecessors. The use of multiple media showcases an alliance with the broadly construed postmodern interest in interdisciplinary work, but it is also in direct conflict with Rainer’s aesthetic ideals as presented in her “No Manifesto” and “Quasi Survey of Some “Minimalist” Tendencies,” an analysis of her seminal post-modern work Trio A.

So enters the question of whether or not post-modern dance is postmodern in any sense outside the historical. In Sally Banes’ 1987 introduction to Terpsichore in Sneakers, she writes, “In dance, the confusion the term “post-modern” creates is further complicated by the fact that historical modern dance was never really modernist. Often it has been precisely in the arena of post-modern dance that issues of modernism in the other arts have arisen.” (Banes 1987, xiv-xv) Banes asserts that post-modern is nonetheless a useful term for classifying the modernist work of the early Judson era as well as several other sub-movements that grew out of the Judson group and their successors, up to and including the “New Dance” of the 1980s and a resurgence of “content” in dance. It is worth noting that Banes’ 1987 introduction is from the most recent edition of the book, and that no other more definitive writing has been published addressing the limits of postmodernism’s usefulness as an historical or aesthetically descriptive term within the dance idiom. If anything, public discourse and debate on the subject have quieted since the eighties, leaving “postmodern” as the most commonly used and convenient term for categorizing any and all concert dance beginning with Judson (and even some of the Judson group’s immediate predecessors including Cunningham) and continuing to the present moment.

It is also worth noting that even in its most decidedly minimalist stages during the early Judson concerts, concert dance was never as “pure” as Rainer’s writings might have hoped or seemed to indicate. In Rainer’s own ground breaking Trio A and The Mind is a Muscle which included Trio A, there were elements of virtuosic skill and of spectacle, though perhaps not in a then traditional or easily recognizable manner. When, for example, the Grand Union (populated by Rainer and Paxton among other Judson luminaries) performed long and rambling dance/theater improvisations with unadorned ladders, fans, buckets, furniture and other set and prop materials that were, at the time, common outside the theater but striking and uncommon in performance, they created a spectacle. The affect and aesthetic effect of those spectacle performances were, however, quite different from the affect and aesthetic effect of Isamu Noguchi’s abstract sets for Martha Graham or the lavish scenery of the Classical Ballet. Describing the Grand Union model of performance, Banes writes:

The performances were without plan, without script, without a single pre-planned structure. There was no focal climax, no particular order, no illusions that were allowed to stand for more than a moment. And yet the performances were always about illusion, order, climax, focus, presence, repetition, logic, and structure no matter what the surface material was. And somehow the performances were at their most magical when everyone on stage seemed intent on figuring out what magic is, precisely, and on deliberately denuding magic for themselves and for the audience . . . theatrical magic was not the goal of the Grand Union. Rather, they aimed at displaying the social and psychological conditions that make the “magic” of performance possible. (Banes 1987, 215-216)

In other words, the spectacle and “magic” of early post-modern dance work had little to do with the specialized skills of dancers as dancers (specialized bodies) and choreographers as choreographers (arrangers of specialized movement), the material of which at least portions of I succumb’s magic is predicated upon.

If Gutierrez’s work comes after the historically seen post-modern dance, even after the “New Dance” to which Banes refers in the eighties and with which he is perhaps more closely aligned aesthetically with his utilization of virtuosity and extreme physicality and his use of thematic content and his multimedia, loud and colorful spectacles, can his work perhaps be seen as what Banes might call postmodernist? Roger Copeland writes:

What would someone from the world of architecture, music, or painting make of the claim that American dance since postmodernism has been characterized by a rejection of minimalist purity, a blurring of the boundaries between high and low culture, and a willed historical eclecticism? In every other art, those are the very tendencies that characterize the postmodern movement. (Daly, 65)

Has Miguel Gutierrez made work falling into Copeland’s characterization of postmodernism in the other arts? It would seem so.
Retrospective Exhibitionist, is a solo by and for Gutierrez from 2005. Yvonne Rainer’s famous “No Manifesto” says:

NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved. (Banes 1987, 43)

In Retrospective Exhibitionist, Gutierrez says yes to every one of these things. He again uses multimedia - a television with video that includes strict documentation and repetitive imagery, text, a sound which he records and plays in view of the audience, light, costume (or lack thereof), static images of the body, objects in space, and virtuosic dancing. This multimedia work results in the “rejection of minimalist purity” of which Copeland writes.

The dance begins with Gutierrez walking energetically around the stage, placing his set pieces and props and “working out.” He wears a bad wig, a baseball cap, socks and sneakers. He asks the audience to repeat after him: “I am Miguel Gutierrez.”
One of the most kinesthetically striking moments in Retrospective Exhibitionist is an extended dance sequence in the middle of the piece. In each program there is a list of many, many sources from of which the movement is derivative. In this list one sees the “blurring of high and low art” and an “historical eclecticism” as Gutierrez takes movement from Martha Graham, John Jasperse, David Dorfman and other “serious” dance artists, as well as Madonna and other pop artists and “boy bands.” Some of these artists are people with whom Gutierrez has studied, performed and/or has had a personal relationship. Others he has never met. The program insert allows the audience to know all the artists whose work he is appropriating, however it lists them without hierarchy or purported value. It is up to the audience member to know or not know (or determine on one’s own) whose work he has learned in a classroom and whose from the television, whose work is considered high art, and whose low. Gutierrez further confounds the viewer who intends to make value judgments based on “high” or “low” art status by performing each movement with the same high level of energy, intensity of focus, consistency of tempo and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

As Retrospective Exhibitionist continues, it comes to dwell more and more conceptually on the artist’s dual sense of inadequacy - presumably personal as well as artistic - and self absorption. At one point he speaks into a microphone, his back turned away from the audience, seeming to bemoan his perceived inadequacies and incomplete efforts. He carries a full length mirror downstage center and speaks to himself in it, saying, “I think you shouldn’t, I think you should . . . “ and ultimately “making out” with his own image. He screams various versions of “won’t you please beat it beat it into me please,” which he records and plays back, looped and layered over one another. He literally lights a candle - a small fire - under his somewhat naked bottom as audience members bring books to place under the candle, bringing it closer to his rear end.

The final dance sequence, with his recorded voice still playing relentlessly, is performed in his underwear. He slides through his center split and shouts, “everything you make is such a piece of shit!” He leaves, giving up, but returns quickly and begins once again to dance acrobatically, screaming intermittently at the audience to look at him. The dance ends not so differently from how it began, if more seriously and less energetically. Gutierrez is naked. Shaking, he lowers himself to his knees. Over and over he cries out what is eventually recognizable as, “I am” and ends standing, facing the audience, “Miguel Gutierrez.”
It might also be useful to note that Retrospective Exhibitionist is part of a rich history of gay male performance. Gutierrez came of age as a young gay artist and AIDS activist in San Francisco in the early nineties. Some of his earliest professional dance experience was with the Joe Goode Performance Group. Goode was himself a gay artist/activist who often used identity (particularly sexual identity) as both source material and literal material for his group and solo work. Additionally, Goode’s influence on Gutierrez’s work can be seen through his continued use of multimedia aspects - text, music and singing, and so on. Preoccupation with sexuality and identity as well as often extremes of physicality can be seen throughout much of the spectrum of gay male performance from the outlandish works of Keith Hennessy to Not about AIDS Dance by Neil Greenberg to a naked, butt fixated duet between Gutierrez and John Jasperse in Jasperse’s otherwise cooler Giant Empty, to the work of Bill T. Jones. It could be argued that to recognize such congruence of aesthetic and thematic concerns, artistic lineage and observable formal and movement characteristics among a group of artists is to recognize the limitations of purely historical categorizations of dance movements. In looking at a history of gay male dance performance since the 1980s and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, one could argue that new language must be found to describe and categorize the resultant dance movement, language that is more pointed and specific than “postmodernism.”
The end of Retrospective Exhibitionist blurs into the beginning of Difficult Bodies when they are performed together, as they were on December 2, 2005 at Dance Theater Workshop. As the deck crew takes down the set and prop pieces for the solo and prepares for the second piece, Gutierrez continues to stand and face the audience. He walks offstage some time after it is reset for Difficult Bodies and the deck crew has exited. Difficult Bodies is a dance primarily for three women: Anna Azrieli, Michelle Boulé, and Abby Crain, though Gutierrez does make cameo appearances and creates sound while onstage. Much of the movement for Difficult Bodies contrasts with the dancing in Retrospective Exhibitionist.

Gutierrez’s solo is intensely energetic, multimedia, and prop-ridden. While repetition is employed (as in Gutierrez’s recitation of himself talking at Jacob’s Pillow, or the repetitive images of him looking into the TV at himself), the events and movements tend to fly at the audience one after another, always moving on to the next thing. One might call it choreographic stream of consciousness. In Difficult Bodies there are no props. There are no videos or TVs, or other multimedia events. While the dancing is demanding, especially as it continues for some time, the performance quality is rather understated. It is not an energetic display of physical prowess, but rather a subtle display of repetition and specificity.

At the beginning of Difficult Bodies, the three women enter and walk upstage. They begin immediately as Gutierrez exits. In their glittery dresses they perform unison movements which are often stereotypically sensual. They arch their backs, bend forward and circle their hips, strut and reach their arms out to an imaginary audience at the back wall. Their faces are deadpan. Although individual movements are combined in slightly altering patterns, the phrase seems to repeat endlessly as it moves slowly downstage. At half stage the dance’s orientation rotates ninety degrees. Now frontally organized, the dancers repeat the already repetitive sequence still in unison and now moving slowly upstage. Despite the focus of the dancers’ gaze out towards the audience, their faces remain deadpan as though they are these sensual, seductive movements are performed by rote and certainly not for the individual pleasure of performance.

Upstage the dancers halt in limp, hung over poses, slowly drooping all the way to the floor. The unison has delicately broken. Once the dancers reach the floor, they roll about and unzip their dresses. One of the pipes of stage lights floats down to just above head level across center stage. The dancers roll into a particularly bright patch of lights, then continue rolling. Once they are decisively downstage of the lights, they strip the dresses off completely. All three dancers are dressed in matching black bras and panties. They continue to take their time as they re-enter unison briefly on the floor before breaking into three completely separate activities.

While Boulé continues to lie prone on the floor downstage, Crain worms her way slowly upstage and Azrieli comes to stand underneath the lowered lights. She grabs her head, shaking, thrusting her pelvis, coming to all fours. Her activities connote both crying and sex. When Crain arrives upstage, she begins an adagio on one leg with high extensions that are barely visible based on her placement in the stage space. Eventually Boulé walks to the back wall and Azrieli rises from the floor. Both face upstage.

The scene continues. Boulé creates an X with her body against the back wall. She arches back until the audience can see her face. Someone sings the sound “aaahhh” repetitively. Azrieli undulates, eventually revealing herself as the singer, but she is screaming. Crain dresses herself in a t-shirt as the song Survivor by Destiny’s Child plays. Downstage she begins to lip sync. Boulé joins her, then Azrieli. All wear colorful t-shirts and their black underwear. Gutierrez, kneeling with stage right with sound equipment also lip syncs. All smile and face the audience in stillness, striking a pose with the end of the song.
New sound: barely audibly, “I am perfect and you will love me and everyone in this room is in this fucking dance.” Each syllable is separated into a beat, creating a regular rhythm but stilted sounding words. The voice is female at first, but Gutierrez chimes in and eventually the female voice drops out. The performers begin dancing in unison again, their movement recognizable as “contemporary dance phrase” by audience members “in the know.” Hair swings, bodies release, hands gesture. Though qualitatively quite different, the material maintains a kinesthetic relationship to the dance’s opening phrase. The unison, the turning, and severalof the gestures and body positions are similar, though altered. The dancers fall to the floor, continuing. Gutierrez’s vocal volume increases, layered in with his recorded grunting. The women continue their repetitions. As their bodies increase in energetic output, thrashing, their faces remain as nonchalant as ever. Gutierrez rocks back and forth, still recording layers of screams and other vocal sounds.

Eventually the women collapse to their knees and then to all fours. Jumping backwards they retreat upstage once again. Standing, they are still momentarily before embarking on a short walking phrase, then return to the spinning, sensual dance. This time the movement is unmistakably an embellished version of the very first phrase. The formal geometric pattern and unison break down and come together again several times, always returning to precise unison and a straight horizontal line. As the performance of the phrase becomes more vigorous, the dancers begin release their cervical spines and lose their blank expressions. This change from the neck up is legible as emotional expression or investment.

The dancers walk to the downstage edge of the space and stop, breathing heavily. Gutierrez joins them for a series of unison duets at center stage. Various performers cue the movement by saying “go,” yet the unison is somewhat looser than before. Perhaps this laxity in the unison is a function of the different demands of sharing weight with a partner. Perhaps it’s a comment on the exacting precision displayed thus far. Perhaps both. Gutierrez recites a sufi poem by Reza Ali Shad Herati into the microphone. The poem is about drinking and a lover. All four performers are in awkward, arched, still poses. The repetetive response from the women is, “and I dance,” except for once when they respond, “and I laugh.” The call and response repetition of the poem is, for me, an aural reference to the Catholic church. (I wonder if it is for Gutierrez or any other audience members.) The dance ends with the three women in partnership with the back wall. They walk forward, glance at each other, and bow. As critic Claudia LaRocco wrote in the New York Times on December 3, 2005, “it is clear that, though themselves, they are also Miguel Gutierrez.”

While all of Gutierrez’s dances have certain fundamental differences, the most obviously and overtly divergent work in his canon is dAMNATION rOAD. dAMNATION rOAD, as videotaped on January 30, 2004 at The Kitchen, begins as a nightmare in a post-apocalyptic scene. Onstage sits a crashed car, with Tarek Halaby on top of it and Abby Crain inside it. Trash and rubble are everywhere. An image of a blazing trailer is projected on a large screen. Stage left houses a lookout tower, and a fence around the upstage space gives the impression of a caged junkyard. A lit florescent sign hangs stage right. It reads, “AVAILABLE,” in capital letters, though one wonders who would want this mess.

Many of the dance’s images are disturbing and confusing. Michelle Boulé is walked out by one of the musicians from live two man band, “Pee in my Face with Surgery.” She wears a blindfold, white skirt, and black top. Her hair sits loosely atop her head. Arms are attached to her sides by the costume, and her hands barely mobile at her hips. Boulé scoots around on the floor, discovers a mattress (revealing another person facing away from the audience), and engages in an altercation with a fan. As she moves toward the clothes rack next to the “other” figure, the figure side steps away and turns to face the audience, revealing Anna Azrieli and Gutierrez as a single creature sharing one enormous zip up sweater and moving its four legs and two heads in unison.

During this opening section of dAMNATION rOAD, acting is utilized perhaps more than in Gutierrez’s other works. Boulé overtly acts out “crying” and both facially and physically emotes fear, isolation and particularly frustration. Meanwhile the Azrieli/Gutierrez creature looks up on an angle in approbation and hugs itself, overtly representing emotions of curiosity and fear as they explore the space. Boulé’s movement is unsteady and searching, but manages to incorporate shape, line and full-bodied movement. Azrieli/Gutierrez use mostly gestural movements of the feet, hands and head. Their choices are necessarily limited by their conjoined state of being, though they attempt to manage some larger movements of the whole body. Their unison is impeccable. The soundscore is creepy.

Eventually Crain and Halaby join the fray. Their choreography is recognizable as “contemporary dance.” Particularly considering the limitations of Azrieli/Gutierrez and the blinded Boulé, it is difficult not to question the choice for Crain and Halaby, previously “dead” in a car crash, to dance in unison extensions and turns, despite the work’s billing as a dance piece. In keeping with the theme of limitation enacted by their cast mates, Crain and Halaby use their long sleeved shirts as props, tossing them over their heads and inhibiting the motion at their feet and knees. The Azrieli/Gutierrez creature dances in unison with Boulé on the mattress. Eventually Crain and Halaby’s long sleeved shirts are stripped, revealing tan shirts and shorts reminiscent of the Boy Scouts of America.

Eventually Halaby uses Boulé’s body as a shield and weapon against the Azrieli/Gutierez creature, and Crain pushes them all together towards upstage. The lights black out momentarily. The burning trailer is gone, and Halaby performs a solo in which he struggles for balance and struggles to move. Crain holds Boulé and watches. Crain and Boulé leave by walking stage left. Halaby moves forward into the center and downstage space. When he returns upstage he is once again confronted by the “creature.” The lights dim, revealing Boulé atop the lookout tower.

Crain re-enters for a duet with Halaby, this time without unison. One of the musicians helps Boulé down from the tower. The other exits upstage right from their musical post under the tower. The duet continues with increased weight sharing and physical manipulation by the partners. The creature walks the perimeter of the tower and into center stage. The musician throws Boulé at the group, and they form a large, hopping clump. The second musician returns, dragging a noisy set of metal objects that are tied together. He falls and rolls on the ground, and his partner joins him. As they wrestle with the metal objects the clump of dancers separates into two groups.

The chaos continues for some time. It is sometimes difficult to see the action because there are so many visual obstructions, and there is not much (if any) light downstage. Each set of dancers (Boulé alone, Azrieli and Gutierrez, and Crain and Halaby) seems occupy its own world, though we see that they all inhabit this strange space together.

The isolation ends when Crain and Halaby join Azrieli and Gutierrez, who have separated and now also look like Boy Scouts. Azrieli repetititvely pushes Gutierrez against the white wall. Crain and Halaby remove Boulé from the scene on a mattress. Then they join Gutierrez and Azrieli, Halaby pushing Gutierrez and Crain pushing Azrieli into the white wall. The pushing becomes the impetus for a more technical and formal unison set of duets. The duets end when two dancers are pushed into the white wall and the lights black out.

When the lights come up, it is in intermittent flashes like a slow strobe light on a solo for Crain. Like much of Gutierrez’s movement, it incorporates long limbs and lines, strength and mobility in the torso, discrete and specific gestures, momentum, extreme balances and off-centered movement. As the content and tenor of Retrospective Exhibitionist can be linked to Gutierrez’s experience with Joe Goode and indeed a long lineage of gay male performance, so the lines and relaxed but precise quality of Crain’s solo hearken back to Gutierrez’s days with John Jasperse.

Gutierrez joins the space and the two dancers run frantically. Then Azrieli joins, followed by Halaby. Eventually Boulé joins. She is the only dancer who is not dressed like a Boy Scout, and the only woman with loose hair. She still wears her previous costume, minus the jacket and blindfold. The musicians dance under the tower as they scream, screech, and growl. Their performance continues to contain as much motion as that of the dancers.

Crain begins again, and the strobe speed increases. This time Boulé joins first, followed by Azrieli. The strobe light is even faster. The men join, all five dancers in unison. Their phrase is slow, particularly in juxtaposition with the strobe light and the frenetic dance of the musicians. Though dancers begin to change their facings and to travel throughout the limited free space onstage, they maintain unison until all exit downstage left. The musicians end with a final growl and a “thank you.”
In the topsy turvy world of dAMNATION rOAD, where even normative capitalization of the title is inverted, it seems as though to dance in unison with leg extensions, balances and turns is in some sense “backwards.” And so by bringing the dancers together in such a phrase, Gutierrez is able to deconstruct the inverted world he had created, effectively deconstructing a deconstruction of the normative.

Everyone is Gutierrez’s most recent group work. It was video taped on March 9, 2007 at the Abrons Art Center at Henry Street Settlement, and was also presented at Dance Theater Workshop as part of APAP (the Association of Performing Arts Presenters). In Everyone Gutierrez collaborated again with dancers Anna Azrieli, Michelle Boulé, and Abby Crain as well as Isabel Lewis, Daniel Linehan, Otto Ramstad, and Elizabeth Ward. (At the DTW performance Christine Elmo replaced Crain.)

The initially striking feature of Everyone is that the audience sits onstage, upstage, facing the closed curtain. The dancers enter one by one. They stand, kneel, or lounge, staring at the audience. Each dancer’s focus traverses the entire span of the audience, making direct eye contact. This goes on for some time before they begin moving just their hands, still staring down the audience. The small hand motions eventually morph in to a pressing gesture that the torso responds to. The legs join in, and seated dancers stand. Everyone is in unison, pressing the space on the same diagonal. Gutierrez and then others move backward, Linehan and then others change the pathway of the arms, the whole group shifts to throw the energy directly to the side. This continues until the group faces corner that is “upstage” of the original focal point. The group spreads out along the diagonal. Throws become more energetic and some are overhead. The pattern stops abruptly, and the dancers return to stand facing the audience.

The entire group recites a monologue about fairly mundane events during a day in the life of (presumably) Gutierrez. It is presumably a day in the life of Gutierrez’s life for several reasons, not the least of which is because the program says he wrote it. The group lies to its father about having thought or spoken about “meaningful” things including a child being hit by his father or the war in Iraq. They hardly move. They emphasize seemingly unimportant words such as “I,” “and,” and “my.” Once they change their arrangement in space before continuing with the monologue again for some time.

Music begins, and the dancers smile and laugh. Some of them roll on the floor. Their dance is wild, untamed, goofy. The performers crawl on each other, shake, hug, bump into each other, and continue rolling. They bounce, wiggle, wriggle, and shout “whoo!” They kick, bump, run and spin. Each of the dancers seem to be having a fabulous time, but like teenagers getting drunk at a party, they giggle at their own ridiculousness. Some of their movements would normally have sexual connotations: bumping and grinding, touching each other sensuously, but like children dancers seem focused simply enjoying themselves, oblivious to the sexual nature of their behavior.

At some point during the “party” Crain puts ear plugs in her ears and drops out of the outlandish activities. Other dancers try to reengage her. The dance gets louder and crazier all the time. They are high without drugs, having an orgy without sex. The dancers make one long vertical line. Even Crain joins in. The music stops, but the dancers do not, pressing their pelvises up to the ceiling. When they stop it is as abrupt as when it began.

A moment of rest, then a circle dance begins. The movements are simple: walking, arm gestures, and a little bit of turning. The patterns are simple: a moment with a partner, then every other person travels toward or away from the center of the circle. It has elements of a folk dance: a circular, rhythmic and repetitive dance. A dance everyone can do. The folksy elements are contrasted by highly choreographed lifts, precise shapes and timings, and complex transitions in and out of the floor, yet the overwhelming sense is one of knowing as an audience member that one would be able to do this movement. Additionally, each individual gesture or shape is familiar; something seen a million times, often outside the context of the concert dance stage.

Eventually the dancers all face the audience, they looking up and around, shaking their heads. Their heads slow, and they look at the upper left corner of the room longingly, hands clasped. They form a curved line, all except Crain who undulates and steps slowly across the space, torso curving. The curtain rises. Turning to face the traditional audience seating, the dancers one by one enter the house and sit or stand in the traditional audience space. Lewis exits out of view, as do Gutierrez and Linehan. They reappear in the audience balcony. Crain continues her undulating dance alone onstage. Dancers change places in the audience, and Crain looks at them. Finally, after several minutes, she joins them. Ramstad has also moved upstairs.
The dancers then pose, kneeling with arms and one leg extended. They appear to be flying through the house, though they are still. The live musician, Chris Forsyth, leaves his post to look at them. The dancers sing a song (also written by Gutierrez), “when you rise up you must sing songs.” One dancer sings quite loudly and quite off key. Linehan (downstairs again) and Crain pat their legs to keep the tempo. After a repetition in piano, the volume increases again and someone at a very high pitch cannot reach the notes. Linehan sings a solo repetition an octave down as the upstairs half of the cast joins those downstairs, and then the entire cast belts it out as, in procession, they return to the stage.

The dancers run at and then away from the audience, slowly changing their facings until they form a vertical line running across the stage. As the running repeats many times and dancers begin to tire, there are laps when the line does not stay very straight. When it begins to appear that the running will be endless, they stop, staring this time at each other. A leaping, balancing dance ensues. Someone yells “everyone” and the dance morphs into one that is off balance, flailing and falling. Dancers pair up: Gutierrez and Azrieli, Boule and Ramstad, Crain and Lewis, Linehan and Ward. Their unison partnering is awkward and set to the sound of shouts of “now” and “go.” The entire cast forms a pile of people and, awkwardly strewn across each other and intertwined, they take each others’ shoes off. New pairs form and scoot into position back to back. “One, two, three, four, go!” To commands of “go,” “struggle,” and the like, the dancers squirm to face each other and begin to kiss. Gender and known sexual preference do not seem to be taken into consideration as couples “make out” passionately to music by Gino Vannelli.

Boulé begins to recite loudly and frantically about the meaning and purpose of this dance and life, and the interconnectedness of us and everything. She needs us to know things before the piece is over and we leave. Everyone else continues to kiss passionately. Forsyth has taken Boulé’s place in the kissing. The poem, like everything else in Everyone, is repetitive. The recitation is impassioned, but as she says, “I am just this boy,” we realize that these words are not hers. She begins to sound like a broken record. The passionate couples have all exited; only Boulé and the shoes remain. She turns up the volume and walks off just before the sound ends. For a moment no one is quite sure if the performance is over.

As Boulé’s poem expressed, this dance is one of excess. Everything takes a long time. Every movement or text choice becomes repetitive, then the piece moves on abruptly to something else, abandoning what came before. The question remains: did it matter? Though Everyone’s group cohesion is in direct opposition to the isolation expressed in dAMNATION rOAD, the two works seem to be grappling with the same (or at least similar) sets of questions about perception, audience engagement, and group dynamic versus individual isolation.

Questioning is a theme also prevalent in Gutierrez’s teaching, in particular his composition classes. In one composition class, he gave an assignment to take exactly thirty minutes to compose a performance that is exactly one minute long. The assignment was open ended in every aspect except time. After showing the one minute dances there was no feedback. But after everyone had shown, there were questions. Twenty-four of them. The questions ranged from specifics such as, “describe the moments after you were given the assignment. How you began, what you did, what you felt . . . “ to more general and difficult to answer questions such as, “what compels you to make work?” There questions derived from a more formalist, process oriented perspective, “make a list of the methods/tools that you used to make your one-minute performance,” or on a more emotional, personal note, “what does your piece reveal about you?”

Questioning and assumptions (and the questioning of assumptions) are also key in other composition assignments given by Gutierrez. He gives the assignment to (in a group) perform a choreographed dance piece right now, before you’ve choreographed it. This exercise shows what elements the participants consider to be “givens” in dance and performance. The next step in the exercise is to make a list of conventions of dance performance. A discussion ensues about whether or not these conventions are universally implemented. If not, what is performance? Another assignment asks students to intentionally misinterpret everything they encounter, begging the question: what classifies an interpretation as misinterpretation? The student’s task is then to make a dance based on the embodiment of their own misinterpretation and their misinterpretation of another’s misinterpretation. The partners perform their separate dances together. Gutierrez asks, “what is the difference between representation and embodiment?”

As a step towards conclusion, I would like to reiterate that Miguel Gutierrez attempts an overhaul of his entire aesthetic values system for each new work. Nonetheless his works maintain certain visible and conceptual commonalities. Gutierrez’s movement vocabulary tends toward extremes, and consistently incorporates movement from pop culture, his concert dance lineage and the unknown or unanticipated. His work consistently includes performed text and significant collaborations with sound and visual (lights, costumes, set) designers. He is consistently unorthodox with his use of the stage space, though he consistently utilizes “traditional” proscenium or black box spaces. The conceptual material of his work tends consistently towards unpacking conventions or assumptions, enacting deconstruction, the injection of the personal, and questions of value. In a sense, it is Gutierrez’s commitment to constant questioning and reevaluating that gives his work its branding.

To return to the question of postmodernism or “post-modernism,” Gutierrez’s work includes elements that can be seen to adhere to a postmodern sensibility. His eclecticism and use of multimedia, his mashing of “high” and “low” art elements, his continued exposure of process within product going so far as to expose anti-theatricality as theatrical convention align with Copeland’s vision of postmodernism. His work, however, can also be seen outside the realm of postmodernism, particularly as it pushes beyond the assumptions and boundaries of Judson era post-modernism. Any perspective on the subject, furthermore, is subject to one’s perception of what constitutes postmodernism and what (if any) the parameters of postmodernism are, a subject on which opinions vary greatly. Cynthia J. Novak, in considering the sociopolitical climate at the beginning of the dance historical post-modern period, wrote:

Maybe that moment in which palpable change seemed evident to so many people is one reason the label of postmodernism caught on - it seemed clear that a qualitative change had occurred and that something new needed to be acknowledged. I’m not at all certain that we’re at another such crystallizing point. (Daly, 56)
I argue, in contrast, that we are indeed in need of some new terminology. Perhaps it is time to start looking at dance movements in a way that goes beyond the overly simplified preoccupation with a performance’s place in time. Perhaps it is possible to begin looking at dance movements in a manner similar to the way arts historians and theoreticians look at movements within other artistic disciplines: in the context of their perceivable attributes and the goals and ideals of their participants. After all, the dance community has chosen not to speak in terms of “1930’s dance” and “1990’s dance;” it seems equally trite and useless to talk about modern dance, post-modern dance, and eventually post-post-modern or even post-post-post-modern dance, without so much as giving lip service to the kinds of ideas and manifestations of ideas or techniques of movement employed by the artists loosely categorized within those nebulous periods of time.

It is my perception that movements in dance since Judson have been greatly over simplified and overly generalized, all lumped together under the heading of “postmodern” for primarily two reasons. First, the modern dance tradition is conceived of as having active and vocal rebellion. Despite the fact that Graham and Humphrey were directly descended from Denishawn and not the ballet, and despite the fact that each of them retained and embraced certain ideas and methods from their Denishawn background, their movement is largely seen as rebelling against the ballet. Likewise, the Judson group is seen as rebelling against the Graham and Humphrey traditions although their immediate forbearers were Cunningham, Waring, and Halprin. The Judson choreographers embraced much of what they learned from their immediate forbearers, seeking to implement what they saw as logical extensions of the work that their immediate predecessors were engaged in. For example, the use of indeterminacy was the logical end point of Cunningham’s use of chance. Indeterminacy was an extreme implementation of chance. Meanwhile the Judson group rebelled against dance composition as taught by Louis Horst (Graham’s musical director) in particular, therefore placing them in an active and vocal rebellion against the “first generation.”
It is interesting to note that solid and separate categories do not exist for what Cunningham, Waring, or Halprin were doing (what Cunningham and Halprin continue to do). Though we recognize that they are different than the “first generation”, we are likely to simply give them a modern dance “generation” or to cite them as the precursors of postmodernism (pre-post-modern?). Whether categorize them in relation to what came before or what came after, it does a disservice to the unique nature of each individual’s work and the differences amongst them in both process and product. Could this oversight be due to the fact that, rather than taking up arms in a rebellion, those choreographers simply made their work, taught their students, and concerned themselves with what they were interested in rather than who they were rebelling against?

The second reason that I believe “postmodern” has become a monolithic term is because dance artists and audiences are not accustomed to naming their ideas. While Rainer cited minimalism when writing on Trio A, she did not call the movement in which she was participating “minimalism.” The reliance on monolithic and sweeping categories rather than specific terminology is pervasive among dance historians, scholars, and thinkers. One could argue that this is a function of the presumably non-verbal nature of dance performance. I do not think that such an excuse is tenable. In addition to overly broad historic categories, dance historians and theoreticians have consistently resorted to the terminology “Black Dance” as an umbrella term for over fifty years of highly varied work by non-white choreographers, resorting to naming an entire series of movements in our art form based on the predominant skin color of its participants rather than the observable qualities and concerns of the work at hand.

Miguel Gutierrez’s work may or may not be postmodern, depending on one’s perspective, but there are several observable qualities that are discernible in his otherwise disparate works and therefore perhaps useful in categorizing his works in a more specific and productive manner. All of Miguel Gutierrez’s works, for example, use unison movement and/or speech. Whether the moments of unison are brief (I succumb) or encompass nearly the entire dance (Difficult Bodies), unison is consistent. Even in his solo, Retrospective Exhibitionist, Gutierrez places himself in unison with himself during his recitation of himself in a question and answer period at Jacob’s Pillow and again later during a visual TV sequence. The unison with himself on the TV in Retrospective Exhibitionist is also exemplary of Gutierrez’s use of repetition. Furthermore, Gutierrez’s dances all use physically rigorous, highly athletic movement. As stated above, this movement varies in lineage as Gutierrez gleans from his own physical history, the larger realm of concert dance history, pop culture, and his own imagination.

Gutierrez’s work also consistently uses live sound. This does not exclude the possibility of recorded sound, which is also seen in several of his works, but merely states that each of his pieces includes sound elements performed live, either by the dancers or a musician. This also includes ambient or “noise” sounds as well as “music.” Spoken text is a large component of the work.
Gutierrez’s work is collaborative. He collaborates on the movement with the dancers. He collaborates with designers of sound, lights, costumes, text, and set. Gutierrez has expressed that he chose to work as a dancer with collaborative artists because “top down” models did not interest him, and this model has continued in his own work. In terms of dancers, he has stated that he is interested in dancers who know their own bodies well, and that he is not so interested in passing down himself and his moving style to others. He likes the community aspect of dance and the ability to converse with smart, articulate people about the work and its place in the larger world. (Asantewaa, Interview) When working with such a high degree of collaboration, it could be said that Gutierrez’s role is as Director as much as (or more) than as Choreographer, perhaps explaining his lack of comfort with Choreographer as applied to his role in making dances.

Gutierrez’s work also always has overt, legible content. Much of that content is what I would call apocalyptic: the personal apocalypse of a young man growing older, coming to terms with who he is, what he has accomplished, and what he has not (Retrospective Exhibitionist). It includes the surreal post-apocalyptic world of dAMNATION rOAD in which nothing makes sense when the world has been turned upside down. Also the collective monologue from Everyone in which a somewhat ambivalent group of young people attempt to deal with themselves and their art in the post-apocalyptic reality of post-911 America, and the question of whether or not art matters. It includes the apocalyptic breakdown of Anna Azrieli’s body half way through Difficult Bodies. Having already considered his place within the niche of gay male performance, it is perhaps redundant to again mention Gutierrez’s work as an AIDS activist and the timeline of his development as a professional artist within the context of the AIDS epidemic. But add to that his status as an established artist and leader in the field in post-9/11 America, and it is difficult to be surprised that Gutierrez’s work includes the apocalyptic content, the inherent questioning of the status quo, deconstruction and the breakdown of established forms, even those established by himself at the outset of a work or in a previous work. Furthermore, it is just this preoccupation with deconstruction and what I’m calling apocalypse that specifically aligns his work with certain of his contemporaries, particularly other gay men of a similar age. Including (but not limited to) such diverse choreographers John Jasperse and Bill T. Jones.
All of Gutierrez’s work also includes a search to find new ways of confronting and/or addressing the audience and of dealing with the stage space. This is especially true of the reversal of spatial roles in Everyone. It is also in the use of video and multimedia elements and of text. This idea is at work when Gutierrez asks the audience to repeat after him in Retrospective Exhibitionist or when the dancers in Difficult Bodies partner with the wall and roll under an electric which has been lowered down to nearly head height. In dAMNATION rOAD it is in the use of an enormous set and the obstruction of the audience’s view. In Enter the Seen, the delineation of space in a square and also the changing of Michelle Boulé’s clothes onstage, even as other elements in that work reinforce the peculiarity of the stage space as such.
It seems important to name what this artist is doing (what any artist is doing) so that one can begin to see the work in the context of what it is and of other work that has similar concerns as opposed to letting it swim aimlessly in the broad pool of work that has been developed since the inception of the Judson group. In what ways ideologically, formally, or methodologically is Gutierrez’s work parallel with or different from Neil Greenberg’s Not about AIDS Dance? What, other than a pre-existing relationship, does Gutierrez’s work have in common with John Jasperse’s recent Misuse Liable to Prosecution, a work with somewhat political material, which references the Iraq War (like Everyone), uses set and prop pieces and multimedia, but which focuses its energy on economics? Why does Juliette Mapp consider Gutierrez to be her contemporary for the purposes of Anna, Ikea, and I, rather than one of the hundreds of other dance artists in their thirties in New York? Is it simply because they both danced with Jasperse? Or is it because of a certain sense of kinship as she deals with personal content, sourcing the loss of a most loved and most hated teacher as material for her work, along with her shared desire not to forget the war as she makes art, though she may choose not to confront it directly? Why were these two artists attracted to working with Jasperse in the first place and he to them if not because of some shared sensibility? How does Bill T. Jones function in this conversation as another gay male artist of color whose work also uses personal content, multimedia spectacle and virtuosic movement? David Dorfman is a heterosexual white man whose work also shares concerns with Gutierrez’s not only in certain areas of content but in relationship to the audience, certain movement ideas, multimedia spectacle, and even perhaps in considering what their priorities are as teachers.

I argue that there are various commonalities between Gutierrez’s work and that of any of these (and other) artists. Commonalities that go beyond the nominal clustering of their work in the broad spectrum of “postmodernism” and in ways that differ from that of other “postmodern” choreographers, or even from his work’s relationship to one from another. For example, Gutierrez’s work has a different relationship to that of John Jasperse than to that of Bill T. Jones. These nuances might be better served by more specific language use within dance history and theory. It is time to define movements and trends in dance art by more specific standards than chronology. It is time to analyze dance for what it is, not when it was made. This happened once. Though the term was not particularly descriptive and has since become far over used and overly general, post-modernism initially referred to a particular group of people with shared ideas and ideals (at least to a point). Where would visual art discourse be today if no one bothered to tease out the differences between impressionism and pointillism, or cubism and impressionism? It is time for the dance community to begin the conversation anew.

Albright, A.C., Choreographing Difference: The Body and Identity in
Contemporary Dance
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Summer Dance Reviews: in & around WNY (Part I)

I've been meaning to jot down my thoughts to several dance experiences for some time now. I'm currently working in WNY (aka Buffalo/Rochester) as well as at "home" in NYC. More to be said on straddling communities at another moment. But for now suffice it to say that I'm trying to participate as much as possible in both communities. Part of that includes seeing work and engaging in (or developing) a public discourse on that work. So here goes.

Way back at the end of July/beginning of August, Buffalo was having its local Fringe Festival: Buffalo Infringement 09. As a past participant, I tried to see as much infringement work as possible. (See my review of Phó Malpica: The Last White Elephant, also at The Spark.)

Choreographic Works Presented by Nakita Moné was hosted by the Allendale Theater on August 1, 2009. Featured on the program were a solo by Kim Knieriem (Adjunct at Niagara CCC) and a group work by Kara Mann (graduate of the University at Buffalo, 2007) as well as several works of varying scope by Nakita Moné. I know nothing about Moné's pedigree, only that she considers herself to be an emerging choreographer (emerging is a problematic term for the community at large, but she is definitely a young artist) and is currently based out of Niagara Falls, NY.

In all, two things truly stood out in the course of the concert. First, Ashley Jankowski is a performer to keep one's eye on. The program did not include bios, so I don't know if she's currently a student or not. But she is a facile dancer and a dynamic performer. Western New York should cross its fingers in hopes that she gives it a few more seasons of service before departing for a larger metropolis (as inevitably occurs with most of the area's most stunning performers). Second, Disturbances of the Circadian Rhythm by Moné shows real choreographic promise. In Circadian Rhythm Moné takes a single movement impulse - in this case minute adjustments of horizontal, "sleep"-like positions - and follows it through to a logical conclusion. Beginning slowly, the energy and tempo build from that of a gentle slumber to a rigorous, frenetic display of athleticism and precision. The dancers' perfection of strict unison amidst the minutia of head tilts and elbow adjustments is breathtaking. When the tumbling and rolling inevitably takes the dancers to their feet, they fall and the dance is over. She brings us to the brink of a new idea, but doesn't in fact pursue this new course. Instead she leaves us wanting more - not a bad technique for a choreographer looking to build an audience.

Nakita Moné, if you are listening, Disturbances of the Circadian Rhythm is a dance worth emerging from! Get a good video of it. Send it out. As you continue your choreographic practice, think of its strengths. You chose something you were interested in: sleeping positions, but also unison, athletic movement, floor work. You dug in and pursued those interests, you saw where they could take you. Once you got there, you stopped. The brevity of this work is part of its power. It is undiluted. It has no extraneous images or impulses. It cuts to the chase.

I say this not only because Circadian Rhythm was good. I say it also because the qualities found in that dance were not necessarily present in the rest of Moné's work. As a generalization, the rest of Moné's dances include certain of those aforementioned interests (unison, athleticism, floor work), along with a "concept," narrative or otherwise over-arching idea. In these other works, however, the movement material does not necessarily carry the idea. Conceptual material gets muddled by virtuosic display. Unison phrases are presented and then abandoned without the manipulation or development that makes Circadian Rhythm so intriguing. There seems to be a lack of focus or internal consistency for each piece.

While it is my goal to encourage Moné and other young choreographers in the area, I would not be doing my job as a critic if I did not honestly critique the work I saw. And to pick a particular point, I took special issue with one dance. I believe it was The Movement, but my inability to remember for sure is proof positive of why not to wait a month and a half to write about a dance concert. Whether or not the title of the dance in question is The Movement, its movement brought up several concerns. For example, Moné has one dancer blindfolded with a white blindfold that says PEACE across it in black. A white flag with a large peace sign is used to metaphorically knock down the other dancers. My first concern is with the overly literal use of Sharpie. A note to all young dance makers: trust your audience. We know what a white flag implies. Trust your audience, and trust your choreography. If the idea is not clear through the choreography, consider a) if you can make the movement clearer or more illustrative, or b) if it might be okay to give the audience a little more lee way regarding interpretation. Furthermore, I have concerns about whether or not Moné achieved her narrative goals in spite of perhaps overly zealous Sharpie use. For example, I question whether or not it was her intention to imply that peaceniks are knocking people down, that people are falling over (perhaps dying) because of peace? If that is the message, we have certain philosophical differences of opinion. But I would still wonder if she intended such a simplistic portrayal of that idea. The dance does not address a why or a how, and the same dancers are seen as both allies and enemies of the flag waving young man. I would encourage Moné to consider what her intentions truly are, and how best to achieve them. I would point her (once again) to Disturbances of the Circadian Rhythm as a template for clarity of both movement and intention.

To address Kim Knieriem's work Alone, its greatest strength is in showing Knieriem to be a solid dancer. She can be both powerful and elegant and the movement she chose for herself shows her dancing to great advantage. While Knieriem is certainly a joy to observe, I have little else to say about the work as a choreographic endeavor. I have various thoughts about Release by Kara Mann, but I will save them for a separate post detailing her work both here and in E.da.Co's concert at the ALT Theatre.

On some level, I think that the format given to young choreographers for Buffalo Infringement 2009 is at least partially responsible for the wide ranging quality of the dances produced. Choreographers were given one one hour time slot. Rather than being given the chance to choose their single best work and present it perhaps multiple times over the course of the festival in mixed bill programs, they are responsible for filling the stage for an hour by themselves. It is my opinion that such programming decisions belie a lack of knowledge and understanding of dance (as well as of the capabilities young or "emerging" artists) on the part of the Infringement producers. Furthermore, it is my opinion that the presentation of quality works alongside the half-baked does a general disservice to the local dance community as it minimizes the percentage of viewing time spent on high quality work and maximizes the potential for seeing lower quality dances. In the future I would love to see some sort of mixed billing for younger artists, giving perhaps eight or ten minutes to each of several artists.

Stay tuned for more long over due reviews!