Theater archives

Cracking the Shell


Watching Miguel Gutierrez’s reckless, smart, and passionate Difficult Bodies and Retrospective Exhibitionist, I wonder if he and his colleagues —Anna Azrieli, Michelle Boulé, and Abby Crain—will survive the arduous, nonstop hour-and-a-half performance. You can discern the influence of the ’60s and ’70s that Gutierrez acknowledges: transgressive acts and assaults on the body by certain performing visual artists, and the repetitive movement structures and systems developed by some choreographers. But only part of the time does Gutierrez balance loaded material with cool delivery —a typical strategy of those adventurous decades. His long, harrowing solo is a bildungsroman as cri de coeur. He not only stitches together steps he once loved, was forced to do, yearned to do, tried to do, but recreates the emotions he felt while doing them—in either raw or distanced form.

His entrance is matter-of-fact. The house lights are still on while he sets up a table, chair, mirror, spotlight, videotapes, CDs, and an assortment of electronic paraphernalia. His costume, however, is not that of your average stage manager; it consists only of socks and red sneakers, a spiky blond wig, and a green cap. He slips a tape in the VCR. It shows a very young Miguel doing a rapturous dance in front of the family Christmas tree—high kicks, splits, hip shakes, a grand jeté. Minutes later, dressed in sweatpants and a thinned-by-age T-shirt featuring the villainous Boris Badenov from Rocky and Bullwinkle, Gutierrez offers another video—this time of a Q & A session after an outdoor performance at Jacob’s Pillow. That he talks in synch with his several-years-ago self emphasizes with comic irony how incoherent an artist can seem about his art. Video

3 cracks the audience up. Here is Gutierrez, a skinny high-schooler, dancing flourishingly (back flips included) amid a horde of sweetly ungainly girls in pastel dresses, and having the time of his life. At the end of the DTW program, when he, crouching in the background, intones over and over into a mic, “I am perfect and you will love me and everyone in this room is in this fucking dance,” the sentence becomes an almost desperate mantra.” Remembering the old video, you think that for a moment, back then, he may have felt those words to be true and wonderful.

Getting rid of the cap, wig, and sweatpants, Gutierrez embarks on a marathon montage of stunts, crashing falls, pomo moves, cabrioles, high kicks, chorus-line hip slinging, etc. Ecstasy turns to doubt as he lists the people he could have worked with, the cool career moves he might have made. Laying the mirror on the floor, he licks a wavy pattern onto his image. Flat on his stomach, activating a digital display pedal with his hands, he builds layers of words into a rhythmic texture that burgeons into what sound like cries for help. That’s before the ordeal in which, jockey shorts pulled prudently down, he maintains the squared-off shape of a staple (weight resting on his hands and feet) sitting above a little candle. As he sings in a labored falsetto along with a recording (Kate Bush?), various primed audience members in turn raise the candle higher and higher by placing books under it. The music ends and the books run out just in time (but was that a burn from dress rehearsal on his left buttock?).

Gutierrez creates a discomfiting tension between memory and present reality. Is it an impulse of the moment that he storms up one aisle and out the door into the lobby, swearing he’s off to Whole Foods, so what if he just gets fatter and fatter? Or is he recreating a fairly recent emotion? (He is sturdier than when I last saw him.) He points a Camcorder to exhibit an array of snapshots he shuffles on the floor: portraits of little Miguel, young Miguel, current Miguel. We forget that homey display when, naked again and gradually descending to his hands and knees, he starts tensely quivering his whole body, vocalizing with the steady force of a Tibetan monk’s chant. Just before pitch and speed terrifyingly spiral the words into an incoherent shriek, we understand them: “I am.” Then he stops, stands, and says quietly, “Miguel Gutierrez.”

At the beginning of the evening, he got us all to repeat, “I am Miguel Gutierrez.” I dismissed it then as manipulative. We are not Miguel Gutierrez, but we lived through something with him, his memories falling around us like hailstones.

The three women in
Difficult Bodies dance a different sort of ordeal. Wearing short 100-percent-sequin dresses, they travel toward and away from us in slow, smooth unison. Their arms wreathe their heads and spiral around their bodies as they revolve in their steps, repeating and accumulating gestures. When a stagehand slowly lowers a beam of spotlights, their dresses cast points of light on the floor.

The calm, sensual flow doesn’t last long. Gutierrez, off to the side, uses the digital display pedal to build a texture of vocal sounds from near inaudibility into a storm. Stripped to black underwear, Azrieli on hands and knees convulses the way Gutierrez did earlier, working her voice up to a howl. Crain, having wormed on her belly to an far corner, assumes extreme balances on one leg, almost like a slow-mo chain of Gutierrez’s Christmas-tree kicks. Boulé lies twitching, then rushes to slam against the back wall. Then, donning T-shirts, smiling, inept, they sing “Survivor” along with Destiny’s Child and embark on a swirling, more voluptuous version of their earlier dance.

Gutierrez joins them toward the end. Marooned in uncomfortable positions—either sitting and arched back or prone with butts pushed up—they recite a poem by Reza Ali Shad Herati. Gutierrez begins the litany of lines like “I am filled with his bountiful drunkenness” and “I have no work—I am unemployed;” after each, the women chorus “and I dance.” Their voices crack from the strain. They persist.