I wrote this review as part of a dance studies class so you can tell the formality is a little bit different from my style on this blog. In a way, I am posting this because I haven’t posted in a long time. But more importantly, this piece is important for me personally and is one of my major sources of inspiration, who I have been both drawing upon and letting go at the same time.
Age and Beauty Part I: Mid-Career Artist Suicide Note or &:-/ (2014) was the first of the trilogy of “queer pieces” that Miguel Gutierrez created as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York City. Before delving into my choreographic analysis of the work, I want to immediately draw a parallel between Age and Beauty Part I and José Muñoz’s writing on Fred Herko’s suicidal jete outside the window – a parallel between a “suicide note” and an actual suicide. Herko, a flamboyant dancer of the Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s, is described as an “embodied cultural surplus” – a surplus so much that this “straight time and place” cannot contain him, forcing him to leap into a not-here, not-now world that is able to hold his potentiality (Muñoz 2000). In other words, Fred Herko, just like Miguel Gutierrez now, had too much to offer that the world was not ready for him yet. Nevertheless, if Herko’s jete outside the window seemed like an inevitable solution in Munoz’s writing, Gutierrez in contrast decides to stick around in this world and make this work. Thus, before going into the dance itself, I want to highlight the fact that he is aware of a resolution for his “embodied cultural surplus” – death – but instead he chooses to stay unresolved and tirelessly figure a way out of this world by making dances.
Age and Beauty Part I opens with a very high-energy dance sequence, utilizing movement vocabulary with queer roots to a disco-esque music. The two performers strut fiercely around the space with a diva attitude, their arms execute a precise vogue sequence, their hips articulate rather sensually. Perhaps, the most memorable sequence is when the dancers hold their breasts, touch their stomach, lick their hands and then stick one of them up against their crotch area in an all four position. This sexual undertone, or overtone of the section carries on into an extremely slow kiss exchange that lasts for five minutes before culminating into a monotonal recitation of text: “We are the dancers… I am beautiful… We are beautiful… Do you wanna fuck us?”.
However, it is important for me to not get deluded by writing out description of every second in the dance to somewhat construct a thematic structure. In fact, when watching the piece unfolds in real time, the piece seems to make no logical sense from my perspective – it becomes almost illegible. Why are they suddenly exchanging this extremely creepy and unsettling kiss when ten seconds earlier they were dancing together so fiercely? How and when did the piece become so ominous? Did I miss something while watching it? Especially around the middle of the work, there appears to be no correlation with the high-energy sexual dancing in the beginning: the body vocabulary, from a fierce and coordinated duet, turned into to an awkwardly sadistic one. They attempt to jerk each other’s clothes; Gutierrez sticks his hand up his dance partner Mickey Shahar’s crotch and pulls his underwear; at one point, Gutierrez even shoves his face into Shahar’s buttock while flopping around on the floor, creating a very sexual yet uncomfortable atmosphere. In an even more physically violent solo, Miguel throws himself against the walls, flailing his body across the stage in a seemingly painful, unsafe and self-destructive manner. It starts appearing like an actual “suicide note”, even though I am not too sure how, why and when exactly. Its syntax seems to escape the linear logic of what should follow what in time: there is no thematic build-up but simply an overload of information, which allows the piece to escape the rational dissection of what each moment is about. If anything, by the end, Age and Beauty Part I is a total unresolved mess.
Nevertheless, I do not see this messiness and overloaded-ness as a problem – in contrast, it seems important that Gutierrez is trying to escape the conventional dance compositional structure by bombarding us with so much information. Even though this will likely result in illegibility among the audience since spectators are not used to this way of looking at dance, I want to draw from Halberstam’s notion of legibility as a “condition of manipulation” to emphasize the importance of illegibility and excess in Gutierrez’s work (Halberstam 2011, 10). Particularly with the queer identity, queerness has historically always been punished and discriminated against when it becomes legible to the state. Thus, illegibility has been an important strategy for the survival of queerness, for the creation of an alternative world that would “fail” to conform to the oppressive reality. In a strange way, then, it makes sense that a “queer piece” like Age and Beauty Part I does not make sense. It does not make sense because its excess “fails” to conform to, in Gutierrez’s word, “the fucking legacy of minimalism” (Davis 2015), whose tremendous influence he inherits from the previous generation of the downtown New York dance scene. Instead, he wants to say as many things as he can and utilize as many art forms that he can get hold of – be it dance, theatre, poetry or music.
With this overloaded and excessive quality, I argue that Gutierrez is doing a jete outside the window himself – the window of dance-making into a different futurity in choreography. However, essentially, his choreography is still contextualized within the highly institutional Whitney Museum and the larger heteronormative world, unlike the definitive leap of Fred Herko into the queer utopia as outlined in José Muñoz’s writing. This creates a tension that is certainly visible in the work, especially at the end when the choreographer literally shoos people outside of the theatre, giving them no space to reconcile what they just see but immediately pushing them out into the world. Perhaps, there can be no space for reconciliation and resolution as long as Gutierrez is still alive, navigating through the oppressive reality. Hence, I would like to challenge scholar Amanda Hamp’s perspective of looking at his works as a proposition of how to be okay in this non-utopic world (Hamp 2016) – if anything, Age and Beauty Part I only demonstrates that he is barely okay– and it is important that he is not okay. He is not okay because the world is not okay. The unresolution is there for us audience members to see how messed up the world we are living in is and to, hopefully, feel the urgency in changing it into a better place.
Gutierrez, Miguel, creator, “Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/”. Whitney Biennial, New York, 2014.
Halberstam, Jack. The queer art of failure. Duke University Press, 2011.
Hamp, Amanda. “I want to understand (what is happening to me)! Miguel Gutierrez Performs How to Be Okay in a Non-Utopia.” TDR/The Drama Review 60.2 (2016): 14-31.
McCallum, Ellen Lee, and Mikko Tuhkanen. Queer times, queer becomings. Suny Press, 2011.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising utopia: The then and there of queer futurity. NYU Press, 2009.