Miguel Gutierrez Goes to the Movies; Bill Young and Colleen Thomas Build a Crazy Quilt

If you’ve ever taken a long road trip—toured with a dance company maybe—you know how memories of the landscape blur and tangle together. Was it in Iowa—the river where we bathed our feet? What was the name of the town with the motel that had chipmunks in the walls?

Miguel Gutierrez acknowledges that kind of confusion in his work. He not only lets us interpret his always amazing pieces as we see fit, he seeds them with elements designed to make us unsure of what we see, hear, think, and feel. Early in his Last Meadow at Dance Theater Workshop, he whispers hoarsely into a microphone, “America is a disaster,” and speaks of it as “my dearly departed country.” Much later, Tarek Halaby—wearing a long, pale blue skirt, a white blouse, white ballerina flats, and a curly wig—takes up the mic and sings with touching simplicity the first verse of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”

In Last Meadow, Gutierrez dissects American culture as it is revealed in three iconic movies: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant (the first based on John Steinbeck’s book, the last on Edna Ferber’s sprawling multi-generational novel about Texas oil and cattle-ranching). The link among them, of course, is the actor James Dean, who died too young in a 1955 crash. Saying that Gutierrez has commingled gestures, scraps of dialogue, characters, and events from these films would be an oversimplification. With canny craft, he has created layers and whirlwinds that transplant elements from one plot to another, double and triple images, sabotage gender, and make words fly from one person’s mouth to another’s.

Michele Boulé, Miguel Gutierrez, and Tarek Halaby in  
Gutierrez’s "Last Meadow"
Yi-Chun Wu
Michele Boulé, Miguel Gutierrez, and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez’s "Last Meadow"


Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People
Dance Theater Workshop
September 15 through 19

Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Dancers
Dance New Amsterdam
September 16 through

There are only three performers in Last Meadow—Michelle Boulé, Halaby, and Gutierrez—and they are astounding. Boulé wears the red windbreaker and jeans that Dean sported in Rebel, plus a blond wig brushed into a pompadour, and starts the piece slumped in a drunken stupor, slurring her words like Dean’s “Jett” at the end of Giant. Throughout, she captures Dean’s sleepy, mournfully quizzical gaze and slouched stance wonderfully. Halaby channels most of the women in the films, notably Natalie Wood in Rebel. Gutierrez plays the “other man” featured in all three films, plus “Dad” and assorted others. And all of them play themselves, a loving, smart-talking trio of collaborators. The dream Gutierrez tells is his own. Toward the end when—lined up diagonally and in unison—the three run through an exhausting, increasingly rapid sequence of poses drawn from the films, Boulé acts as the rehearsal director, calling out the names of the moves. At one point they sit clustered tightly on the floor—their heads together, their legs and arms improbably tangled—and sing and talk unintelligibly; you not only see metaphoric film strips meshing but people whose ideas merge as sensually as their bodies.

Lenore Doxsee has created a stunning environment out of light—a back wall that changes color, two onstage light trees that, like an overhead strip, have gels in many different colors, and a whirling follow spot that follows no one but at one point makes colored circles dance on the backdrop. When Boulé and Halaby are embracing off to the side, Doxsee makes us imagine them under a street lamp on a Los Angeles corner. Occasionally smoke billows out. Neal Medlyn’s clever music often recalls film scores (not necessarily from the three Gutierrez is concerned with). Pompous fanfares, choral masses, and pop songs jangle together, as they rise from and subside into strange subterranean noises, a barking dog, street sounds.

The performers are rarely still for long. While Gutierrez and Halaby, as “Cal” the rebel’s parents (and who knows what other people), berate Boulé about the fatal outcome of the “chicken race,” they run forward and back as they yell; you can only make out about one in every five words. Every now and then, the three explode into “dance” movements as if they need to burst out of their multiple characters for a few seconds. And only a choreographer could devise the brutal attack by Gutierrez, wrapping one leg around Halaby’s neck, rubbing the side of a shoe against his victim’s cheek, twisting him into standing and then biting his (“her”) lifted calf.

There’s a tremendous urgency to everything they do. Rarely does just one person speak a line of dialogue as they rush around with scripts. Two may double one character’s words, or one of them speak for two. Sometimes the mic sends words into an echoing cavern. Once, when they all sing and talk while moving vigorously, Gutierrez holds it in his mouth; you can imagine the way this shreds “meaning.” You can’t even understand much of what the three say during an extended break near the end of the piece. They stroll on and off, drink water, laugh, adjust their costumes, and gossip. I catch something about Fashion Week, polyandry, and Jamaica. But they’re deliberately so low-keyed that they’re barely audible.

You don’t have to know anything about the three movies to be bewitched and delightfully confused by the passionate aural and visual images that are thrown into the air and allowed to settle wherever they will in your mind. Last Meadow is so resonant that you seem to know—even when you don’t—that it’s about something important, and your sense of that makes you quiver.

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