The Chocolate Factory Theater | American Realness Festival
January 9-19, 2019
Miguel Gutierrez pulls down his underwear with critical intent. Focused and assured, he turns to the left with one yank, and then to the right, before re-joining the orgy of bodies, clothes, and fabric that dominate the stage.
Established as an international performer and choreographer, Gutierrez creates works with a rigorous theoretical exploration of whiteness and queerness in contemporary dance. This Bridge Called My Ass continues his choreographic investigation of queer identities, specifically the collective identity of the five Latinx performers who devised the work under Gutierrez’s direction. The title of the work is taken from This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, a 1981 feminist anthology that the show’s program explains as having “served as [Miguel’s] bible when [he] was 19.” While this dance may not be a direct response to this anthology, the title suggests an engagement with the kind of thinking propelled by the feminist writings, and a taking-up of the book’s political radicalism. Gutierrez’s choreography stages a thinking-through, an attempt to embody and, therefore, investigate the pending questions surrounding race, gender, and sexuality in choreographic practice. The work is therefore not without ambition. To dance these ideas is not an easy task: what do these ideas look like? How can we use the medium of dance to interrogate its own biases?
The audience enters the white-walled, warehouse space of the Chocolate Factory Theater to the six performers speaking Spanish tongue-twisters (trabalenguas) in unison, while haphazardly distributing an assortment of domestic props and fabric about the space. Tongue twisters are nonsense poetry, where the meaning or content is secondary to the repeating sounds. In performance history, the tongue twister found place in the avant-garde practices of Beckett, and infamously in Dada, as a mode of abstracted soundscape and meaningless language. Gutierrez’s use of the Spanish tongue-twister points to the inherent whiteness in its avant-garde’s predecessor. However, the sound here fails to culminate in abstraction. For the non-Spanish speaking audience, although the content or meaning is lost, the resulting sound registers instead as racialized, othered, Latin. In Gutierrez’s recent article “Does Abstraction Belong to White People?” (BOMB Magazine, 2018), he meditates on how certain bodies are denied access to the forms and figures synonymous with abstraction in western dance. Gutierrez posits that "for some people, it's not a choice to make dances about this."
The piece unfolds over three roughly discernible acts–together merging various dance, theater, and performance practices. The first is a long durational, semi-improvised orgy of bodies, objects, electronic cables, and fabrics. One performer ties themselves to the wall via an extension chord, and to another performer’s waist via a stretch of brightly colored material, stuffing the excess fabric in someone else’s mouth. A few MacBooks dot the stage, attached to a few more speakers, all linked by a loose web of cables, in which the performers wantonly entangle themselves. Sporadically, their keyboards are bashed, producing different, seemingly random bursts of Latin party music. One clenches a speaker between their legs, thumping it. Another humps a laptop. And another slaps their breast on someone’s foot. The choreography is not recognizable erotic acts, but rather strange eruptions of tactility, of merging bodies and objects and haptic pleasure. It’s messy and unrefined; fabric fails to reach one performer, and another performer repeatedly fails to tie a knot in a cable connecting two of the ensemble. If the abstract notion of dance is imbued with an idealized and detached eroticism, Gutierrez’s piece is an unruly, frenzied, and ravenous contortion.
The leveled erotic field of both objects and bodies could recall the sexual interactions of Mette Ingvartsen’s 7 Pleasures. However, Gutierrez’s intentionally clumsy orgy contrasts with the Danish choreographer’s perhaps more detached and abstracted presentations of pornographic eroticism. A more likely reference may be the sexualized domestic objects of Spanish choreographer La Ribot, whose dance practices also stage the often-playful collision of animate and inanimate objects. Gutierrez’s intervention therefore constitutes his specific interrogation of queerness and whiteness amongst these other related erotic choreographies of objects and bodies.
At several moments, pieces of fabric come together, stretch across the room like sails, emerging uncertainly from the actions of the feverous performers. Briefly, an abstract and painterly composition of colored cloth straddles the room; yet with one tug on a loose cable, it falls away. Two dance tracks blare out at opposite ends of the space, like competing nightclubs across a city on a summer’s night. Gutierrez’s world only half points toward abstraction, turning instead toward the immediate contact between the present bodies, choosing to playfully evoke the Latinx identities of the collective. The work exaggerates its own ensemble nature, with performers and objects blending into an undulating whole. The late queer theorist, José Esteban Muñoz, remains a great inspiration for Gutierrez (he is thanked in the program). Muñoz, when writing on queer utopia, urged for “concrete utopias,” as opposed to “abstract utopias.” For Muñoz, while these “concrete utopias can also be daydream like . . . they are hopes of a collective, an emergent group, or even a solitary oddball who dreams for the many.” In this way, Gutierrez’s choreographic emphasis on the collective chimes with Muñoz call for collective imagining. The piece is not an abstract utopia, an irrelevant imagined ideal, but a concrete collective queer imagining, anchored in the literal bodies of the performers.
Muñoz’s writings may assist in providing an enriched understanding of the second act of This Bridge Called My Ass. Here the ensemble ditches the props and fabric to enact a melodramatic parody of telenovelas—Latin American TV dramas. The dialogue is spoken (or shouted) in brisk Spanish, with subtitles projected up the walls. A farcical rush of illogical plot twists crescendos as the performers encircle each other toward a climactic finale. Muñoz, writing in 1999, wanted to explore why artists from marginalized groups still engaged with the stereotypes assigned to them by mainstream culture. His theory of disidentification sees minority artists utilizing and identifying with these stereotypes for their own creative and subversive ends. Gutierrez can here be seen to indulge in a campy, over-the-top rendition of telenovela to simultaneously expose its cruel cliché of the passionate Latinx and luxuriate in it. Surprisingly, the accelerated telenovela appears remarkably similar to a surrealist European avant-garde melodrama—with the key distinguishing feature being its overtly performed racialized and sexualized identities. The third and final distinct section is a brief bizarre epilogue where the performers worship a dog deity made up of industrial clamps. The deity speaks in humorous aphorisms and commandments. One threatening assertion, “Let them who will cage me… they will perish,” may perhaps be a warning against the prejudice of race and gender categorization.
This piece evades typical modes of critique. A choreography that celebrates difference, embracing errors by subsuming them into its radical refusal of an abstract ideal, is difficult to flaw. What is the difference between a successfully or unsuccessfully staged exploration of a theoretical question? Gutierrez must be commended for the ambition of the questions he poses, and the flair and audacity with which he conducts his response. Perhaps the work requires an audience already educated in the debates and questions it is invested in to see the significance of Gutierrez’s camp and unruly choreographic decisions. Without a theoretical lens, the work still offers a playful, sexually provocative, and humorous excursion, but its less refined staging and structure may appear less considered.
Indeed, for a work with such ambitious theoretical intentions, its aesthetic remains very approachable. The show’s styling of tropical colors, a surplus of beige, against the white industrial space, plants the work comfortably in a contemporary popular aesthetic. Neon fluorescent tubes in a variety of colors light the surrounding painted brick. These soft textures and lighting combined with MacBooks, extension cables, and other domestic objects, evoke a millennial bedroom. For a work so engaged in critiquing the dominant aesthetics of abstraction, it seems unusually content to align with a very typical and mainstream contemporary design. It’s unclear how this more conventional styling assists its political ambitions.
When responding to This Bridge Called My Ass, it might be easy to forget that, for the choreographer, the feminist inquiries he pursues are not abstract theoretical problems but are deeply personal thoughts and feelings. The writings of the likes of Muñoz, Moraga, and Anzaldúa are the familiar vocabulary of a choreographer who is personally and intimately invested in the potential of theoretical and textual work. It is essential that we continue to see artists striving to dance these ever more pressing ideas—particularly with the inter-disciplinary selection of approaches that enrich works such as this. In the 1981 This Bridge Called My Back, Moraga explains how they will lay down their body as a bridge for other women of color, for their collective utopia. It is with wit and campy charm that Gutierrez lays himself down too.