Miguel Gutierrez has danced for 24 hours straight while blindfolded in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He invented his own existential workout form called DEEP (Death Electric Emo Protest) Aerobics. And he wrote a book of performance texts that include poems such as "The Problem With Dancing," which laments that the art form "doesn't sell, doesn't last [and] doesn't mean anything."
The 40-year-old choreographer has also created more than a dozen full-length live performances and a number of smaller works that incorporate dance, song, spoken word and bold visual imagery to tackle subject matter simultaneously personal and political, cerebral and emotional. Put simply, he has produced an oeuvre that's pretty difficult to describe in five words or less.
Gutierrez, however, sees "a through-line" in just about everything he creates. "At some point in my pieces, there's always a moment of 'OK people, this is important. We have to pay attention to this right now.' It's a call to consciousness and it's always there. That's why I make work," he says.
Preparing to make his Los Angeles debut this weekend at downtown's Alexandria Hotel, Gutierrez has recently been reaping the benefits of national and international recognition after years of honing his craft as a vital member of New York City's experimental performance scene. He has toured extensively in Europe, Latin America and Australia and, just last year, received a Guggenheim fellowship and a commissioned collaboration with visual artist Jenny Holzer for a festival at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.
"Miguel's a very charismatic performer whose relentless investigation of performance is something that people should see," says Meg Wolfe, a co-producer of Gutierrez's Los Angeles performances through her nonprofit organization, Show Box LA.
Currently a Los Angeles-based choreographer, Wolfe had lamented the fact that so many of the acclaimed, boundary-pushing dance artists she admired when she lived in New York rarely make it out to Los Angeles because of its limited performance venues. "We miss a lot of these artists in L.A. and bringing them here helps foster a national dialogue," she says of wanting to present Gutierrez, who will appear at the Alexandria Hotel, a new dance venue run by the Blankenship Ballet Company.
Gutierrez will perform his solo "Heavens What Have I Done," in which he recites a seemingly non sequitur-filled monologue, sings along with a recording by the soprano Cecilia Bartoli and wears clown makeup and a wig that evokes the coiffures of Marie Antoinette. In the process, he toys with the audience-performer relationship in addition to excavating a number of other social and personal constructs.
The work started off "as an experiment where I had a bunch of things I wanted to talk about, almost like doing stand-up, and I wasn't worried about relating them into coherent things," says Gutierrez during a recent phone interview. "But now, I think the piece has its own integrity, a coherence onto itself."
A charming and fluid conversationalist who laces his speech with well-placed expletives, Gutierrez traces his drive to work with a multiplicity of ideas, performance styles and artistic disciplines to growing up as the child of Colombian parents. Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, he felt continually torn between dance and academic pursuits while coming to terms with his sexuality as a gay man.
"My whole life, I felt bifurcated. I always felt the in-between of things and was drawn to multiple things at once," he says. "I always wanted to be really good at one thing but I kept doing multiple things, until one day, I realized this is what I am, this collage, this accumulation."
Gutierrez studied dance at Brown University and New York University but eventually dropped out of school. He wound up moving to San Francisco and dancing for the choreographer Joe Goode, who "was the first major [dance] person I encountered that was working with text and song and it wasn't musical theater," he says.
Eventually, Gutierrez returned to New York and worked with John Jasperse, his other main mentor "who was never enamored by his own ideas. He had this constant malaise, that in my opinion, gave him a distinct architecture to his movement and I learned from him to go that last step into dissatisfaction," he says.
Uninterested in forming a traditional dance company, Gutierrez started creating his own works and collaborating with other like-minded artists in 2001. He called the enterprise Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People.
Since then, Gutierrez has been asking "why is his work relevant to everything else that's happening in the world. There's always a social consciousness to what he's doing," says Michelle Boule, who has performed in Gutierrez's works for the last decade. "He puts his heart into his work but he's also this information hound in a nerdy good-Catholic-schoolboy kind of way. He brings this all together and that inspires me."
Currently working on a new evening-length piece, Gutierrez these days worries less about burnout and more about keeping his ego in check. "I'm having a nice moment now," he says of receiving a Guggenheim and international touring engagements. "But in five years, who knows? So I better enjoy what I'm doing because otherwise, it's just misery. We're living in an age where we're so defined by being liked. And I also want to be liked. But I'm also always checking myself."