Return of the prodigal dancer

  • by Joe Landini
  • Tuesday May 6, 2008
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Former local choreographer/dancer Miguel Gutierrez returns to the Bay Area in a new political dance festival at Theater Artaud called For the Record: Dancers Debate the Body Politic. The festival is the brainchild of ODC Theater Director Rob Bailis, who knew that Gutierrez was going to be an important part of the festival. "Miguel is fearless about his politics, queer aesthetics, and confessional scripts," Bailis said. "His work is about the body itself as a politicized entity, and a cornerstone for me as I made the frame for this Festival. Miguel deconstructs things by 'becoming them' so completely."

In New York, Gutierrez's career as a choreographer has flourished. The New York Times wrote, "At a time when so much art lacks a heartbeat, Mr. Gutierrez's chest pounds."

Gutierrez seems to enjoy being a choreographer and is expressive when he talks about his work. When describing the period he lived in San Francisco when he was 18, he was candid. "I came here to learn how to be gay, and I got all As." It was during this period in the Bay Area that he found himself enveloped in a dance scene that opened his eyes. He worked with local dance legend Joe Goode. "Seeing this strange, messed up San Francisco modern dance changed me," he said. "For a kid who had been mostly exposed to musicals and ballet, working with Joe made me realize you could talk, dance and sing without being at the service of a musical."

And though San Francisco was "a great training ground to learn to be an artist and get a sense of who I was," it soon became apparent that to take things further, he would have to go back to New York. "I found myself looking for a lineage of form, and a reverence for that. I wanted to be part of a larger conversation."

Gutierrez eventually left the Bay Area, but he said, "I imbibed SF, and took with me this realization that I could make work that was meaningful and heartfelt."

The almost-native son returns to San Francisco for the first time in eight years with his group The Powerful People, and presents two pieces of repertory, Retrospective Exhibitionist and Difficult Bodies. The two works are presented as a diptych. Gutierrez's goal is to examine the two perspectives that exist in all performances; what the artist chooses to share with the viewer, and what the performer is actually experiencing during the performance.

In Retrospective Exhibitionist, Gutierrez shuffles between his own real and imagined performance history, including vintage footage of the young Gutierrez singing and dancing in front of a Christmas tree. Props include a TV/VCR, a boom box, a microphone and a videocamera. During the performance, Gutierrez explores the vulnerability and exhilaration of being watched by others for a living. In the piece, he discovers that life on stage is difficult, as is the impact of time. But neither of these two things prevent Gutierrez from disrobing, using his nakedness as a non-gratuitous performance tool.

In Difficult Bodies, Gutierrez continues to look at the tension between performer and viewer, this time incorporating three female dancers from The Powerful People. "In a celebration of individuality and togetherness, insistent actions fill the space with the rhythms of attraction and repulsion, as they repeatedly approach the audience, only to back away, as if resisting the lure of something they're not quite convinced by." Gutierrez supplies the original music for the work by manipulating his own voice, live onstage.

His return to San Francisco is in a festival themed around the political, demonstrating that the activist is both mellower and less agitated than his younger self. "Agitating is something you feel when you're younger. Now it's more about mindful contemplation. But that doesn't necessarily mean harmony, I'm still interested in turbulence, as well as the dark side of people's desires."

"To me," said Gutierrez, "this show is about trying to find agency through dance. Who am I doing this for? For me or for you? Being queer offers a perspective and a lack of fear, and my hope is this piece cracks a space of reflection for the audience. I want them to be able to feel."

Miguel Gutierrez and The Powerful People at Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida St., SF, May 8-10 at 8 p.m. Tickets ($18-$25): (415) 863-9834,