Loving the World: An Interview with Miguel Gutierrez

Miguel Gutierrez is a verb.

He dances and choreographs, he’s the lead singer and driving force of the band Sadonna, writes and publishes and performs poetry, makes performance art, practices Feldenkrais (look it up if you don’t know it, because it will change your life) and teaches both Feldenkrais and dance. And he probably does lots of other stuff I’ve failed to include here. (When he casually mentions trying stand-up comedy last year, I really get the sense that this guy cannot be one single person, because nobody I know has that much energy.) There is no quick and simple way to talk about Gutierrez, and I think that’s probably for the best — it strikes me as a particularly queer position, to be unnameable like that, and I tell him so, at which he laughs, humbly.

Part of that unpinnable quality in him is a seemingly boundless creative energy, and part of it is a resistance to branding and to making himself conveniently marketable in and useful to the systems he’s resisting. Gutierrez says he usually prefers to talk about himself in terms of active verbs, rather than passive label-nouns(“I make performances” instead of “I am a performer;” or “I sing” instead of “I am a singer”). This seems just: it puts the emphasis on his actions and effects, not on him as a product.

There is no quick and simple way to talk about Gutierrez, and I think that’s probably for the best — it strikes me as a particularly queer position, to be unnameable like that, and I tell him so, at which he laughs, humbly.

The best way I’ve found to think of him is that his various modes of artistic and political creativity have to do with expressing and exploring presence in the world. That presence, in Gutierrez’s practice, seems to need joy, laughter and play. And that brings us to Sadonna; Gutierrez performs as the lead singer of the group dedicated to “excavating” the mournful, soulful quality which underlies Madonna songs. Backed up by the Slutinos (three boy back-up singers), Gutierrez slows down and recasts Madonna’s most famous poppy ballads. Particularly memorable for me is their rendition of “La Isla Bonita,” in which they flip the languages, singing most of the song in Spanish, but singing Madonna’s crappy occasional Spanish in English (“When it’s time for naptime, you can watch them go by: beautiful faces, no care in this world… this is where I long to be, the pretty little island”). Not only does this highlight and recast the exoticizing that underlies the song, it rings more painfully now, after the callous post-disaster paper towel-tossing by our nation’s leader, making a connection between popularized forms of casual racism/cultural imperialism and more nasty politically-driven cruelty.

But Gutierrez is smart: his cultural critique is delivered entertainingly, with humor and a beat you can dance to. He emphasizes that Sadonna, as a cabaret act, works differently than his other projects, because “you’re trying to get people to enjoy the thing as they experience it.” In his dance performances, he says, “you may enjoy it,” but that’s not the goal. “I’m perfectly fine if someone comes and sees a dance show of mine and says I don’t know what the fuck I just saw, and ruminates on it, and lives with it.”

This tells me two things: first, that for Gutierrez, dance is different (it is, for him, “a way of thinking or perceiving” that is beyond the simple ratio of a code, like that of classical ballet, in which dance phrases can be translated to mean particular things) and second, that Gutierrez welcomes ambiguity and difficulty, and believes in thinking things through via art. Dance, he says, has ambiguity “woven into” its nature, and that’s one of the strengths of the medium.

He’s thought a lot about what each mode allows him to do. I think, however, what all his seemingly-disparate ways of working have in common is risk, connection, spontaneity and generosity.

Yes, he agrees, but adds: “In any of the work that I do there is always an undercurrent of need, of desire, and sometimes a little bit of desperation and super genuine sincerity. Because I’m a grownup and not a child, [that involves] looking at that sincerity and understanding with a little bit of a distance. That’s what the work is.”

The bulk of his interest, Gutierrez says, has been “devoted to contending with liveness,” which means that his work always involves his presence (unlike a painting or photograph). “I make things that you have to deal with now. And they require a kind of commitment of attention on both of our parts,” he says. “That interests me — the pauses, the tics, the accidents, the total surrendering to that, the momentum, all those things that are associated with the unravelling of time.”

“I’m perfectly fine if someone comes and sees a dance show of mine and says I don’t know what the fuck I just saw, and ruminates on it, and lives with it.”

He’s also driven to do “cultural work,” actively and consciously. One way Gutierrez thinks of this is in terms of “creating live experience, and creating aesthetic experience.” But he also understands “cultural work” to mean something more political: “I’m aligned with other people to create my vision of the world, or to propose another way of looking at things.” Sometimes that cultural work winds up being pretty counter-cultural, too. In his dance performances, for instance, he often gathers bodies which are decidedly not stereotypical Western classical dance bodies. I point out that it’s a quiet way of queering classical western dance, to open up who can speak (thick bodies, short bodies, non-athletic bodies), and how they might do so. He’s taken dance away from what it is in the very narrow vision of the West: physical prowess, perfection, tightly-parsed movement, a lexicon of meaning assigned to the gestures. That’s part of what seems so queer.

He’s quick to point out that he’s not the only person to have done this: “I’m coming through a legacy of valuing multiplicity,” he says. What he’s working against is a normalized vision of the body that is anything but normal. For instance, when working with a classical dance company in France whose members were all fairly physically normative, “it wasn’t just about the bodies in the room. It became about how we worked, and ways of working that — for them — were really radical,” he says. “Things that for me are really obvious in terms of how I think about bodies, those things became other.”

He emphasizes that “queering” something is a contextual operation: “it’s not so much about people you have in the room, it’s about what you do with them and how you approach them. In some cases, queering can mean that you don’t reinforce the top-down way of thinking.” It’s about shifting power by shifting the assumptions around who has (or should have) power. It’s something he’s always thinking about.

When I suggest that this sounds pretty socialist-in-a-great-way, he agrees. It goes back to that “cultural work” we talked about, he suggests. People expect to be passive and receive entertainment from a dance “show,” so he developed a kind of resistant response, refusing to entertain, and instead requiring his audience to participate by really thinking.

But Gutierrez is also pretty flexible (and not just because he’s a dancer): he’s attuned to the parameters of each medium in which he works. This means that Sadonna performances, for instance, are a kind of acquiescence to the demands of the pop singer-style performance. The audience, he points out, expects a certain thing, a formula to which he acquiesces.

I don’t think it’s full-on capitulation, though. The Sadonna performance I watched positively rippled with irony, laughter, and anger, as much as it was full of genuine admiration and homage. Gutierrez agrees. To be counter-cultural, you’ve got to be pretty connected to culture.

There’s a moment of quiet in which Gutierrez seems to be thinking about Madonna, but also about other things: cultural work, critique, interconnection, beauty. The line between irony and earnestness gets pretty fine when you’re doing critical work, and he seems to be toeing that line carefully. Real critique, it’s clear to me, is often an exercise of real love. That’s what a lot of his work — Sadonna included — seems to be about. Maybe that’s where all his energy comes from.

On the phone line, which temporarily strings us together despite the miles between Brooklyn and the back country where I live now, I can hear him sigh.

“Aw, Madge.”