Miguel Gutierrez

Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People, Last Meadow, 2009. Performance view, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Portland, Oregon, 2009. Michelle Boulé. Photo: Alex Escalante.

In 2002, the choreographer Miguel Gutierrez received his first Bessie Award, as a performer in John Jasperse’s company; by 2006, Gutierrez had won a Bessie in the category of choreography for his works Retrospective Exhibitionist and Difficult Bodies. His latest piece, Last Meadow, which Gutierrez refers to as a “noir opera,” had its world premiere earlier this month at the TBA festival in Portland, Oregon; its New York debut continues this week, September 15–19, at Dance Theater Workshop. Here Gutierrez talks about the gestation of this work.

LAST YEAR, MY DAD HAD A STROKE—or what seemed to be a stroke. Later they termed it a “cerebral incident.” It was an intense, strange moment between my dad and me. I began doing research and came across this phenomenon called “last meadow.” The term comes from agriculture: It’s a reference to the last meadow in the farm to receive water. In neurology, they use it to describe a kind of stroke in which the heart is so weak that it can’t pump enough blood to the brain. I’ve only found this on Wikipedia, so perhaps it’s not even true. But I love that it’s a very pretty-sounding term to describe something terrible.

I’ve traveled a lot in the past couple of years, which has resulted in a lot of disorientation and isolation. I’m so acutely aware of my aloneness within this large, strange, moving context. I became interested in misinterpretation, in the idea of being in this situation that’s kind of happening but you’re not really inside of it—or it’s not really reaching you. I found myself riffing off that idea, finding congruities with the idea of dance, this medium that people often see as an incoherent language.

I began to think of that as dance’s strength rather than its weakness. This incoherence is a really beautiful thing. It’s not really meant to be a language—this is something that Tere O’Conner talks about, too: It’s not about the absence of words, and it’s not the representation of words.

My pieces have often been received as this hyper-emotional honesty. I do like using an idea of revelation and honesty as a kind of texture. It’s an element, a basic component of something, and I often find myself trafficking in these tropes of sincerity and fiction.

Before I even started, I knew I wanted to push on these ideas, but I was still lacking a platform. Recently, when leaving for France, I borrowed my friend Liz’s DVD of East of Eden [1955]. It was a two-DVD set, and when I arrived I found that the disc with the movie was missing, so I just watched the special features. I became particularly interested in the wardrobe tests. I was intrigued by the sight of James Dean—not to mention Julie Harris and Dick Davalos and Lois Smith—just wearing the different costume ideas for the movie. They’re these beautiful short little films of them standing around, waiting.

James Dean’s always hyper-conscious about how he’s being seen, and he’s always fucking with that. I found myself projecting all these ideas I had about misinterpretation and dance onto him, as well as ideas about America as a myth. It was a handy structuring mechanism. He made three movies, and all three are love triangles. This worked out well because there are three of us in the piece. (I had known before I even began that I wanted to make something with Michelle Boulé and Tarek Halaby.)

Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People, Last Meadow, 2009. Performance view, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Portland, Oregon, 2009. Tarek Halaby. Photo: Alex Escalante.

We watched the movies together in rehearsal. I had seen Giant [1956] a couple years ago. I’d never seen Rebel Without a Cause [1955] in its entirety, and I hadn’t seen East of Eden yet. In East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, Dean’s also this prodigal son, which was interesting to me, too. I kept gravitating toward those scenes in the movies in which there were discussions of the father. That’s become a large theme for me in the piece, though I don’t know how visible that is.

These things are gut. In general, I’m not really systematic as an artmaker. I just go with a feeling about things. I’m not one to lay out a structure and then fill in the blanks. I feel more of an affinity with collage.

Dance is this enormous frame through which I organize my experience: It’s the marriage I’ve been in for, like, thirty years. It will never give you everything you want, but somehow you’re bound to it. It’s this pygmy when I want it to be a giant. But I’ve given enough of my life to it that I can claim some level of authority—maybe—inside it.

In 2002 I made my first evening-length piece, Enter the Scene, and in 2005 I made my solo Retrospective Exhibitionist. That piece is about me digging into the center of myself to find this universal largeness of “What is it to be alive?”

Last Meadow is really different. It’s really a dance. It’s a piece that’s aware of itself as a construction. It’s a piece where, theoretically, I don’t need to receive the love that I needed for that solo. Retrospective Exhibitionist was so much about “Where am I going to get the love from? Who’s going to give it to me? How is it going to come?” Last Meadow talks about that in relationship to fathers and home—those questions are there—but there’s also this darkness.

As an American artist, in order to survive and continue you have to become an institution unto yourself—if not physically, then certainly conceptually. I have a lot of ambivalence about that. I don’t have a problem with the realities of making work here. I get it—it takes a lot of people to put this shit together. I’m just noticing these mythologies that we construct around ourselves.

Michael Kaiser wrote a piece recently for the Huffington Post, called “Why I Worry About Modern Dance,” in which he bemoans the death of great artists like Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. He asks who’s going to take up the mantle. I thought, “Why are you looking for Mommy and Daddy? What is your attachment to modernism and the great white hero? Why are you incapable of seeing multiplicity and diversity in the field?” So many people are addressing these questions and in so many different ways—that’s what it’s about now. I’m drawn to the hero myth, too. But c’mon, whatever. It’s not about identifying one.