Miguel Gutierrez

The Miguel Gutierrez Interview, aka: Words on Work, Ghosts, and Sourcing at the Mothership

Interview by Stacy Dawson Stearns

As old models of colonialism and capitalist greed persist with their predictable soft-shoe in the realms of mass media, the multiverse of contemporary dance and performance continues to erupt with resistant strains of expression and thought. These eruptions are gifts for those fighting to stay alert and nurture pockets of live exchange despite the constant call to fork over for the latest installment of ‘blah blah blah it all ends now’. New models abound in which traditional tasks of creator/performer/producer have shifted away from the work of simply becoming hot commodities into multi-faceted modes of research, risk-taking, transmission and administration. What does this mean? It means there is room in arty-world these days to fuck with the system. It means folks have cool thoughts to think and ways to share them. And even better. . . .  they want to share them with you. 

Miguel Gutierrez is such a new model maker, bringing a bit of a challenge to the situations he meets through his dance work. He does not have much use for boundaries except to push, break, deceive and beguile them. Whether Miguel is divining exquisite ensemble dances such as Last Meadow, or inviting audience to become participants in DEEP aerobics, his works are part of an expanding body of active inquiry into the nature of material and immaterial life.

Recently I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Miguel about some aspects of his work that speak to me. We at Show Box LA want to share it with you in anticipation of Miguel’s performance and workshop this coming weekend. Don’t miss it!


Stacy Dawson Stearns:   Hi, Miguel! The Left Coast is anxiously awaiting your mini-tour. I am thrilled to be in this role of interviewer. My hope is to release some of your soul aroma among the LA scene, and also to act as diplomat from this City of Angels in the ongoing efforts to bridge the coastal dance/performance scenes at the street level. We all are happy that big houses are bringing in NY hard-hitters out West with more frequency- 

Miguel Gutierrez:     Yes I wish that the “big houses” would bring me more, or ever for that matter…

SDS:   (agreed, consider this a wake-up call to the suits, ahem…) -but there is something more somatic, more instinct-driven that needs to occur across the miles besides presenter/artist partnerships. There are maker communities who want and need relations. Let’s make contact. 

MG:     Yes!!!! 

SDS:   I would like to start with your statement that you are “working against the idea of dance as a non-verbal ‘language’ “.  We dance artists often rely on the concept of dance as an alternate language in order to stimulate an audience to get their feet wet. It seems this accessible idea gets bandied about because the audience is seen as a unit that needs translation before they can go deep into a live experience and relate. Can you tell us more about your views on this? Is this dismissal of the standard concept of dance-as-language an invitation to engage on pre-linguistic or subconscious levels? Does this view reflect an interest in phenomenology or meta-physics?

MG:     AH- Ok, this is a long complicated question for me but it’s a good and important one. I guess I am interested in looking at dance from a variety of frameworks that, while possible to use language to describe, are not about placing language at the forefront of our understanding. One of my main reasons for saying that I don’t like the idea of dance as a language is that it relegates dance to being a kind of secondary, coherent relationship of signs and signifiers that rely on “primary” language to decode them. It also suggests that dance is only the operation of abstract action, when for me dance (and its extension into what I call the “choreographic”) is a mode of experiencing environment, action, bodies, internal thoughts and feelings (which can be verbalized or just observed in the somatic sense). I think it also bogs us down as art or dance makers when we exclusively think that our job as creators is to create a coherent and recognizable dance “language” (like Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown or Stephen Petronio, whose physical “vocabularies” – another word that bugs me – are instantly recognizable, which satisfies that capitalistic, commodity loving aspect of ourselves and of culture). More interesting to me is the interrelationship of actions, elements of performance (sound, light, situation, space), and qualitative experience of movement. I also have a lot of questions in performance and dance about the role of “understanding” what I see. At this point in my performance-watching career, I am most intrigued by things that I don’t understand, that I can’t immediately relegate to my pre-determined experience through knowable language. Of course, the role of language to create reality is a longstanding discussion in philosophy, but I believe it is possible to “understand” or “feel” things without words. So in this sense there are certain ideas of “pre-linguistic” value that I’m thinking about. Knowing that you’re gay before you know what that means, being attracted to someone or something, feeling the urge to pick up an instrument, or walk across the street without knowing why… these are all simple examples of how you can “know” without using language to know.

SDS:   You are interested in philosophy and intersections between neuro-science and dance as it pertains to human perception. Do you engage in discourse with academic scholars or scientists around this topic? If so- can you share some of that experience? I sense that you do not shift yourself to “fit” into the predictable modes of elbow-padism. Are you a breath of fresh air, or a menace in these scenarios? 

MG:     I have been trying – somewhat feebly — to find sympathetic thinkers in other fields. In a recent residency at MANCC (the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, a choreographic research center located at FSU in Tallahassee) I was able to meet with Richard Shusterman, a philosopher and Feldenkrais practitioner, Charles Ouimet, a neuroscientist, and a group of “ghost hunters…” to discuss some of these ideas. Ironically the person who was the most open to my ideas was Dr. Ouimet I think, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily a commentary on his field as a whole. I think that many people in many fields are looking at these ideas – meaning the role of perception, history, language, and body to experience and “create” reality. What I’ve found from these interactions is that even though there are crossovers, MANY OF THEM between these fields, there are specific architectures of thought and history in each of the fields, and it can be daunting to approach that. I am looking to this stuff, not because I fancy myself a scholar or scientist, or because I think that I need to “justify” my experiences in dance, but just because this is where the events in my life took me to, and I’ve needed different language to look at what I’m trying to do with my work, and very often, or maybe MOST of the time, I rarely see dance written about in the way that I experience it. The more I learn the more humbled I am by the extraordinary legacies of research that people are doing all over.

SDS:   The humble feeling. I feel it is important to allow the somatic state that accompanies that word to live in the body while approaching boundaries in thought disciplines, yet I wonder if movers occasionally take a back seat in the think tank because we allow the humbling to reinforce hierarchies that place value on one mode of expressing thought over another….I notice this tendency in people who deal with fleshly concerns and sweat, so I begin to wonder what might happen if intellectual conversations occurred away from tables- skin to skin- or at least in a relationship of breath and movement.

MG:     I totally understand the frustration here. Something that I’ve thought about in relationship to my research is how, in the most reductive sense, intellectual research (philosophy, medicine) lives in an archetypally “masculine” domain – the rational, hierarchical, the knowable – and body based research (healing, somatics, dance and psychic experience) is often relegated to the “feminine” domain – irrational, multiple centers, mysterious. I find these poles useful as a way of measuring when I feel like something is being de-valued because of its apparent association with one of these domains, say, when a scientist ignores the experience of a bodyworker as quackery, or when a somatic-loving dancer resists medicine as a western evil.

as for stepping away from the table, I am definitely interested in situations where “research” and intellectual experience is not a “chair” based experience. I feel like that’s what I’m doing in my workshops and classes. but it is daunting to imagine getting a person steeped in academia to roll around on the floor. Richard Shusterman is an exception to be sure, but then he’s also a Feldenkrais practitioner so that makes sense. This again speaks, though, to the difficulties of getting people to move beyond the “architecture” of the way things are dealt with in their respective fields.

However, all of this has emboldened me to realize that the knowledge that I’ve acquired as a performance-maker, dancer, and person interested in all of this stuff is invaluable and valid. I may not be able to quantify it in the same terms as a doctor, philosopher or scientist, but I know that it holds its own weight and meaning in the world.

SDS:   I share a passion for this subject matter and direct my attention to intersections of somatic intelligence and the hard and softer sciences. The Dalai Llama has made significant progress in opening dialogues with the science community regarding the nature and experience of consciousness. Are you interested in perception and consciousness as a tool for human relations? If not, can you characterize the nature of your fascination?

MG:     Yes I’ve read a little of that work that the Dalai Lama has done. I guess I just think that it would be interesting if these fields didn’t work in isolation from each other, and I really wish that people in the fields of philosophy and science would interact more with dance artists who are interested in this work. Similarly, I wish that somatic practitioners and neurologists and philosophers could interact more. To be honest, I’m not totally sure what I expect to happen from these interactions. At MANCC we had a panel discussion with Shusterman, Michelle Boulé (a dance artist who’s worked with me for over ten years but who is also incredibly eloquent in talking about her work as a BodyTalk practitioner), Dan Wagoner, choreographer, and Betty Davis and Christine McVicker from Big Bend Ghost Trackers. It was sort of tough to moderate this panel, hahahaha. But I would like to do it more, I would like to find ways for these people to all talk to each other since they are all dealing with conceptions of Mind/Body that are challenging. I guess something that all of these fields share is that they are isolated from a larger cultural conversation about perception (although where the fuck is that conversation happening at all in the larger culture actually)

SDS:    Maybe it is only happening here…(it could happen more if everyone threw the TV out of the hotel window and started asking the mirror for “Bloody Mary”. Sorry did I say that out loud?)

MG:     I think that our understanding of “reality”, healing, life/death could be richly informed by an intersection of these conversations.

SDS:   Maybe you are like fascia, running the length of these related subjects. Can you put any of the Florida conversation on a bumper sticker for us? Do neuro-scientists believe in ghosts?

MG:     some do I think. Dr. Ouimet had had some kind of paranormal experience.

SDS:   Do ghost hunters somatically sense presences?

MG:     Absolutely. 

SDS:   Do ghosts haunt bodies as neurological events?

MG:     Well there are those who think that all of this stuff (ghosts, spiritual phenomena) is just right brain hyperactivity.

SDS:   Does the conversation start to revolve around physical sites of cognition or measurable data, or does it meander toward the ineffable feeling of being alive? I imagine that people might be afraid to utter things that could de-legitimize their work. . . .

MG:     Well I haven’t spoken to SO many people so it’s hard to say. After the panel in Florida, though, I had an interesting conversation with Shusterman, where he felt like the Ghost Hunters were wacko, and I found myself defending them because I said, look, they are talking about personal experience, something which they feel as a somatic truth. And for me, this is quite close to what he’s talking about when he defends the role of the body in philosophical traditions by arguing that we have to look to the subtle senses to perceive things more acutely.

I also need to sophisticate my own relationship to my work and to dance to understand how to continue with it, so that it doesn’t merely become about my ego and about my aging body and what I can and cannot “do” as a dancer anymore. I know that my work is ultimately dealing with grandiose philosophical questions and I need to amass information so that I’m not just asking pompous and ponderous questions as if I’m the first person who’s ever asked them.

SDS:  I want to challenge you to let that last concern go.

MG:     haha! ok!

SDS:   Of course you are not the first person to ask the questions, nor will you be the last. What is of note is the bravado with which you are laying crucial concepts out for trans-disciplinary discourse. Sure, amassing info is logical (no one wants to get caught with their pants down in the middle of a debate), but the nature of philosophy is so similar to that of dance: these disciplines animate questions rather than seek absolute answers. I admire your inertia and frankness. As audience and as a maker of work, I am tired of pondering the personal, emotional, historical contexts of choreographers. When folks dare to discuss something that could potentially go beyond their “reach”, it is an invitation. The choreographer becomes a lens somehow. 

MG:     Absolutely. A choreographer, any artist for that matter, is proposing a set of values, though, and I think that, as my work continues to evolve, it becomes important for me to understand what those are, how they are shifting and why. This is because I want to be interested in what I’m doing and I have to often trick myself into staying interested. I know that that sounds strange but it’s true. 

SDS:   We have been discussing dance and language here. The piece you will share with the LA audience is, in fact, mainly text and song based. How does this piece sit within your personal lexicon of work? Does the rejection of dance as a “language” bristle or shift when you perform text? I am interested in the relationship of embodied instinct and the mental/intellectual organization that occurs when we sequence and encounter spoken and sung words. Without feeling obligated to explain or reduce the mysteries inherent in the creation of solo work, can you share some of the elements of expression you are dealing with in this piece? How does this solo compliment or challenge your group work?

MG:     Thanks for this question. It’s hard for me to answer it, though. I have a longstanding relationship to writing (poetry and prose) and to song making. I often think of dance as the mothership and these other elements in my work (sound and text were there early on in my work and then re-emerged starting in 2005) as extensions of my interest in body-based expression. somehow when I talk or when people talk in the work or when I’m making song I think of it as choreography. InLast Meadow, my group piece from 2009 (which I’m very sad never made it to any California venue), words are layered, smeared, difficult to understand, frustrating, meaningful and meaningless. In this sense words/talking became more of a sensual texture than ways by which meaning was construed (although enough meaning is conveyed through the words so as to guide and then frustrate the viewer.) I always think of myself as a dancer who makes performance. Nevertheless this has created problems for me (to myself) at times because I want to be considered a poet or a musician/music maker as well. In this sense I think of someone like Jenny Holzer, whose writing was so central to her work, although she never accepted the title of “poet” which is sort of absurd cuz her writing is fucking incredible.

I don’t want to explain too much about the piece before I do it but I will say that in terms of solo vs. group practice it IS different and I am always interested and frustrated in the difference because I want to believe that the group practice is an extension of the solo practice but I’ve come to believe that they interrelated, though neither one necessarily stems from the other. The solo practice is great because I can do it whenever I want, without waiting for permission to start. And the fact is, I always need to be working on something or I go crazy.

SDS:   This is good stuff. Let’s not go any further. Thank you, Miguel. See you soon!


Stacy Dawson Stearns is a contributing writer for Show Box L.A.

Photo by Alex Escalante.