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.
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.
In the end, the performers start racing around, discarding most of their clothes, divesting themselves of plot and character. They’re leaping, gamboling, frisking, eating up space, having a wonderful time. There’s also a coda that extends beyond the end of the piece and the bows and cheers. Three completely new performers run down the aisle, one of them dressed like Boulé. They cluster and giggle around a large, mysterious rectangle of dim green light that’s been there before. As we exit, they’re still repeating their pattern of three or so moves. Teenagers, a swimming pool. It could all start over again.
I wish I’d seen Bill Young and Colleen Thomas’s original Life (In Progress) last year in their studio theater at 100 Grand Street. Not that Life (In Progress) II’s scenic and lighting designer Rebecca Makus didn’t do a splendid job of turning DNA’s performance space into a combination of a home workspace (bed, couches, tables, chairs, garments strung on clotheslines) and a run-down ’70s-style discothèque (a cluster of chairs, pillows, cocktail tables with cheap candy and beads for the audience to make use of, balloons falling into the room). It’s just that I think I’d have enjoyed this new crazy quilt of events more had I seen it in a truly homey setting; the vivid, imaginative scraps might have shone even more brightly and the threadbare ones been more forgivable. (And I might have felt freer to adjust my seat, as the program advised, or grab something from the mini-bar whenever I felt like it.)
Young and Thomas invited a number of dancers they’d worked with before to join them in both making the piece and performing in it. And they’re all terrific when the spotlight falls on them in episodes ranging from goofy to alarming—most of them supported in one way or another by Georgio Kontos and Daniel Clifton’s sound design (itself a potpourri). No strong thread runs through Life (whose title implies that both it and life itself are an ongoing project), unless you count the peculiar gender-toppling tale concocted by Bryan Kepple and Alfonso Suarez that’s revealed in intermittent episodes—partly via Jason Somma’s videos of other spaces inside and outside the building, partly in a corner of the room. Over the course of the two-hour evening, glamorous “Susan Murray” (Kepple) comes home from work and yoga class, gets dolled up, pours herself a drink or two, and sets the table (occasionally watched by a mysterious detective, played by Suarez). “The Man of Her Dreams” (Edith Raw) arrives at Susan’s door. But somehow, when the excited hostess is in her kitchen, she forgets that she’s turned on the gas without lighting it. Oops! She dies. But she’s reincarnated (?) in a different wig and gown and brings the evening to a close by singing very soulfully that great song, “What Now My Love?”
Whether you change seats or not, your head gets a workout, turning to watch this or that area of the room. It’s a busy place. Even when, say, Thomas, as a shrink whose time slots are shorter than the amount of time it takes to buy a Metrocard, is questioning Julia Burrer, Ted Johnson and Jenna Riegel are humping with bored determination on another couch, Darrin Wright and Marc Mann are curled up on the bed, Anthony Phillips is writing his often witty assessments of Thomas’s patients on a big pad, and Pedro Osorio, Megan McQuillan, Clifton, and Young are lurking or lounging somewhere. Never have I noticed so many doors leading out of the space.
Somma’s projected live-feed videos are a major force in the work. They not only give some spectators a better view, but offer different perspectives on what we see. Here are some of the highlights of the evening. Burrer performs “bedroom salsa” with Osorio, who’s harnessed and dancing on the wall, while the tilted video puts her horizontal to the floor. Young, Johnson, and Riegel vault and wrestle and tumble over, on, and around one another and a not very large table in a flood of daredevil maneuvers. Burrer and Thomas (first seen simultaneously live and on video in one open doorway and in the space beyond it) dance in strenuous unison while laughingly playing something like that maddening kid’s game in which one person repeats whatever the other says). Phillips briefly pulls down his trousers to reveal red-feathered panties, and struts like a rooster in between bouts of writing about the therapy session. When a big, swooping duet between Thomas and Mann ends with them tangling on the floor, McQuillan—watched closely by Somma’s camera—gravely duplicates their positions with little artists’ mannequins.
The dancing, as always in Young’s work, is luscious, earthy, fluid. The rough-and-tumble daring of it—whether conceived as passionate or challenging or playful—is ultimately life-affirming. I look forward to seeing him and/or Thomas choreograph through-composed pieces again.