“And lose the name of action”: Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People

BAM Fisher
December 5, 2012

Miguel Guttierez writes on his website, “I make performances that are about things and are things themselves. The things they are about are big…” His latest work, And lose the name of action, lives up to this pronouncement, taking on the relationships between perception and reality, mind and body. The performance’s title is heady in its inspiration as well, drawn from the final lines of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. In an eloquent program note, Guttierez explained the performance’s genesis—his father’s neurological problems—and his subsequent research into neurological and philosophical perspectives on the relationship of the body and its interactions to perception. He was surprised however, that dance and somatic practices were not generally part of these inquiries, and sought to address this gap in the creation of this piece.

Hilary Clark and Luke George in "And lose the name of action"

Hilary Clark and Luke George in “And lose the name of action”
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

However, And lose the name of action was not nearly as cerebral or theory-heavy as its premise made it sound. The performance was an ever-shifting mélange of dance, song, speech, improvisation, and recorded sound and images, which took place on a white floor, surrounded by white curtains, projection screens, and a glowing white parachute hanging from the ceiling. Having previously voiced his frustration at the way that thin, young, pretty, female, and white seemed to have become the default attributes for those considered dancers, Guttierez assembled an experienced cast of six performers (Michelle Boulé, Hilary Clark, Luke George, K.J. Holmes, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and himself) of varying ethnicities, sizes, and ages. What’s more, these performers were never used in ways that reduced them to these characteristics.

The pure-dance sections of the piece were often initiated or advanced by commands from Guttierez: “stop,” “pause,” “shift,” “and,” “and,” “and.” On one level, this is the language of dance class or of rehearsal, coming from a director or choreographer, but within the context of this performance it also highlighted the relationship between movement and language. “And” as an utterance can connect the words of a sentence, but it can also connect and initiate movements.

The performance frequently investigated the slipperiness of language, or suspicion regarding its meaning. An actor, Paul Duncan, at times appeared projected on the white screens, waxing philosophical in a suit and a British accent. What a contrast between his crisp, buttoned-up presentation and that of the dancers: messy, and unstructured, appearing in revolving a mix of crowns, winter coats, gowns, t-shirts, underwear, or nothing at all. His words were at times taken up by the performers, as if in conversation; at other times, they were severed from his image through a disorienting delay between the sound and the two screens.

Performer K.J. Holmes and Actor Paul Duncan (on screen) in "And lose the name of action"

Performer K.J. Holmes and Actor Paul Duncan (on screen) in “And lose the name of action”

Early on, in a parody of 1960’s or 70’s era audience participation performance techniques, Houston-Jones, holding court in a robe and crown in the center of the space, asked us, in an exaggeratedly instructional tone, to place our feet firmly on the ground and join hands with the people next to us. The invitation was met with laughter and good-natured participation (we even connected across the aisles!). The other performers, seated among us in designated white chairs in the front rows, joined in, and were drawn into ecstatic thrall as the lights dimmed, the volume increased, and Houston-Jones summoned some sort of deity from the billowing parachute above.

While the tongue-in-cheek quality of this section was played up, it was nonetheless one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening. This was one of the few times we as audience members were able to directly partake in the experiential nature of Guttierez’s choreography, which is at the heart of his research interests. In the program notes, he writes about “a choreographic mode of perception where meaning is not an analytical proposition but an experiential one.” What deserves further exploration in this work is the differences in perception between audience members and performers: while both might be engaging with meaning on an experiential level, that experience differs depending on whether one is watching or performing.

Toward the end of the piece, Guttierez and Houston-Jones (later joined by the other performers) enacted a philosophical debate on the nature of perception. As if actors rehearsing a play, they held binders and read their dialogue in a stagey manner. Their faux-seriousness was intermittently pierced by synchronized bursts of laughter, at increasingly unlikely points. How seriously were we to follow their interchange? Were we watching (or listening) for the content of their banter or for the performance of the debate? The back-and-forth eventually devolved into a loud cacophony of “fuck you”s and “you believe your senses. Don’t be such an idiot!” as the performers chased each other around the room in anger.

Miguel Guttierez and Ishmael Houston-Jones in "And lose the name of action" Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Miguel Guttierez and Ishmael Houston-Jones in “And lose the name of action”
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The final sections began to drag a bit, as we grew accustomed to these juxtapositions of language and physicality, theory and presence. This type of sensory and intellectual overload seems more effective in (slightly) smaller doses. As we sat listening to the man on the screen repeat “You’re blank,” the stage manager poked in to say “thank you,” notifying us of the show’s conclusion (there were no curtain calls).

Probing complex theoretical issues without allowing them to overtake or overshadow the bodily presence of performers, Gutierrez and his cast shifted ambiguously between the ironic and the earnest. While his lofty inquiries about the relationship between perception and reality, body and mind, and movement and language were only intermittently evident to the audience, there was still much to admire and enjoy in this unpredictable work, brimming over with ideas and images.

Bokaer and Chipaumire at BAM Fisher

I recently reviewed two performances at the new BAM Fisher–Jonah Bokaer and Anthony McCall’s ECLIPSE and Nora Chipaumire’s Miriam–for the GC Advocate. You can read the full reviews here.

On ECLIPSE: “The Fishman Space actually smelled new for the first public performance on September 6. The most striking feature of the space however, was McCall’s light installation: thirty-six light bulbs hung from the ceiling at increasing heights, creating a slanted slope of light.” Read the full review here.

Jonah Bokaer in ECLIPSE
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger

On Miriam: “In an interview, Chipaumire described the set as ‘sort of a crime scene and sort of a sacred site.’ In her performance, one gets the sense that Chipaumire finds this description to be apt for the black female body as well, as she explores the ways that such bodies have been subject to both violence and veneration.” Read the full review here.

Okwui Okpokwasili and Nora Chipaumire in Miriam
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Green Screen Laboratory: Batsheva Performs “Hora” at BAM

Batsheva Dance Company performs "Hora"

Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin's "Hora." Photograph by Gadi Dagon

This week, it seemed like everyone in the dance world was talking about Batsheva Dance Company, who brought director Ohad Naharin’s “Hora” to BAM from Wednesday through Saturday. I had the pleasure of seeing the company on Thursday night from the orchestra level instead of my usual perch up in the balcony (thanks Free Ticket Thursdays!). As the lights went up, this proximity revealed the faces of eleven seated dancers staring out at us from a long bench at the back of the stage. Dressed in various black practice clothes, these bodies were the only deviations from the monochromatic green background that enclosed the dancers in a three-sided box. The color of this almost-room suggested the “green screens” against which action is recorded before being placed in some digitally enhanced context. This lent a laboratory-like atmosphere to the scene, an effect which was heightened by the score—a strange and seemingly random grouping of electronically altered pieces.

As the dancers rose, they advanced toward us in a horizontal line, walking into the shadows with carefully turned out steps and finishing in fifth position, one arm raised to the side, hand angled down at the wrist. This balletic pose would recur as a resting place, a moment of centered-ness amidst the obsessively asymmetrical choreography.

The dancers, who never left the stage for the entirety of the piece, were captivating in their ability make dramatic and seemingly instantaneous changes in level (i.e. from standing to the ground) and in movement quality. I was particularly drawn to Iyar Elezra by her sensuous movement quality and expressive face.

Familiar musical selections, including the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and “Ride of the Valkryies,” drew laughs from the audience but also elicited some of the piece’s most effective sections. These momentary allowances that things might not be quite as serious as they seemed allowed the audience to find a way into the piece, a crack in that green box through which we might sneak in. These sections also often featured the ensemble dancing together or in pairs, groupings which effectively magnified the shapes of Naharin’s choreography.

By contrast, during an earlier section performed in silence, the dancers one by one began to explore movement in individual spaces. It was here that the piece was least effective, as there was no connecting thread, and the eye bounced around from dancer to dancer without finding something to focus on. One of the refreshing aspects of “Hora” was its lack of reliance on partnering. While dancers often danced together, other than in the final section, there were no lifts or manipulation, only bodies moving in space, sometimes affecting the orbit of other bodies, sometimes indifferent to them.

Mark Morris Dance Group at BAM

March 1, 2012

I’ve been reading a good deal of Gertrude Stein for classes lately, and was thus particularly excited to see Mark Morris’s rendering of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” the opera composed by Virgil Thomson to which Stein contributed the fantastic libretto. Her lyrics are foregrounded from the outset: a large canvas-like curtain emblazoned with the beginning of the libretto, as well as a few symbols here and there, greeted the audience as we waited for the performance to begin. It took a bit of contemplation to determine which direction the text moved in (across the center or vertically in two columns?), and the split in the center caused the words positioned there to repeat or extend themselves (i.e. “chaanged”), both very Stein-ian effects.

Michelle Yard and Samuel Black, dressed all in white, portrayed St. Teresa and St. Ignatius, respectively, dancing both with the other “saints” and in a series of duets. From time to time the text-filled drop would open (sometimes impelled by dancers) to reveal bright, storybook  The “assorted saints” were dressed in folky costumes: calf-length twirling skirts and shawl-like peasant tops over bra tops for the women, and tanks, knee-length pants, and neckerchiefs for the men, all in earthy tones with bright accents. The movement was continually understated and low to the ground, here and there becoming more explicitly folk-influenced.

The greatest pleasures of this piece came from the interplay between the movement on stage and the lyrics being sung by the soloists and the Trinity Choir. Stein continually confounds our sense of where we are in the course of the piece by having the singers repetitively announce or reference scenes or acts in ways that make a linear sense of time impossible. At times the lyrics became simply music, the repetitive mutations slipping away from signification and into pure aurality. At other times, our attention would be drawn back to the often absurd wordplay, as the choreography accentuated the silliness of phrases like “Pigeons on the grass alas.”

The second piece on the bill, “A Choral Fantasy,” was a world premiere, set to music by Beethoven. The costumes, by Issac Mizrahi, were dark colored unitards with asymmetrical gold x’s on the front and back, and reflective squiggles down the side, which nicely accentuated the dancers’ lines and movements.

Morris’s talent for organizing space in engaging ways was on full display. The first few minutes of the piece occurred entirely stage right, with dancers retreating and advancing but never making it to or across the center of the stage. Near the middle of the piece, there were four unique tableaux in motion in each corner of the stage while Amber Star Merkens, with whom the piece had begun, held court in the center. More “dance-y” than “Four Saints,” “A Choral Fantasy” maintained a level of contrast throughout that ensured the big leaps maintained their impact. As the piece drew to a close, the dancers shifted in and out of triangular formations, teasing us with a false climax, until we finally did reach the end, satisfying in its simple, yet exhilarating clarity.