Don't fence him in

Envelope-pusher Miguel Gutierrez returns to San Francisco

The higher the hair, the closer to God: Miguel Gutierrez in HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE.

DANCE One of the most fascinating aspects of the world of dance studies has been the split that has taken place in the last few decades between dance history and dance theory. To oversimplify, the first concerns itself with discussing works in terms of their formal values of aesthetics; the second, influenced by cultural studies, prefers to look at pieces as social constructs.

Of course, there is an overlap between the two fields, and while I appreciated this new way of thinking about dance as a mind expander, I also deeply resented what I considered the devaluing of individual artistic achievement.

Good news: dancers themselves have come to the rescue. Immersed in cultural, gender, race, and other sociological studies — the lingua franca of today's academy — they have started making works in which concepts like ambiguity, perception and reality, performance and identity, and direct and mediated experience are the subject matter, not a byproduct, of their work-making concerns. Some of these approaches — such as Jess Curtis' ongoing Symmetry Project Studies, for instance — have yielded astounding results. Or Keith Hennessy's mashing together of sociopolitical issues into novel form-giving approaches. Even at the heart of Joe Goode's work, though he is in many ways a more traditional artist, lie principles of uncertainty and multiplicity on a constantly shifting ground.

It's probably no accident that Miguel Gutierrez, a prominent member of this group of artists, started his career in the Joe Goode Performance Group. Gutierrez, now a New York City resident with a growing international reputation from France to Australia, is bringing his most recent piece, HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE, to San Francisco. Clever that man he is, he recently refused to describe this solo in an interview with the Dancers Group's indance publication.

Gutierrez last performed in San Francisco in 2008, when he brought his Bessie Award-winning Retrospective Exhibitionist/Difficult Bodies to what is now Z Space. It consisted of a solo for himself and a trio for Anna Azrieli, Michelle Boule, and Abby Crain. Although the trio had its own merits, it was Gutierrez's appropriately-titled solo that communicated as a gutsy, spectacularly in-your-face piece of dance theater. Retrospective intrigued because of newness, intoxicated because of its intensity, and overall impressed because it was a complete statement. The questions Gutierrez asked about identity, perception, and the nature of performance may not have been that novel or original, but the way he framed them within a reshaped theatrical context made them so.

Wriggling lasciviously on a full-length mirror, he attempted to devour and slip into his own image. It was simultaneously pathetic and touching. Putting side-by side a video of himself as a high school pretty boy with two girls and his current, lived-in body as a gay man on stage put both identities in question.

In another section, Gutierrez laconically read aloud answers he had given in a videotaped interview while we watched the original on a monitor. What was more true: the artifice of his aping himself or the fake spontaneity of the television image?

Gutierrez appears in San Francisco as part of the Garage's Verge festival, where kindred spirits Laura Arrington, Jorge de Hoyos, and Jesse Hewit will open for him. Garage director Joe Landini is presenting Gutierrez because he wants to encourage this type of performance practice, but also because he is an old friend. "Miguel used to run that [Methuselah-age] elevator at 50 Oak Street," he remembers — up to Lines Ballet's studios and down to the basement swimming pool. 

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