Preview: Wex Presents Acclaimed Choreographer & Writer Miguel Gutierrez’s “This Bridge Called My Ass”
The Wexner Center for the Arts resumes its performing arts season with one of the most intriguing mixes of dance, music, and text you’re likely to see anywhere. NYC-based choreographer Miguel Gutierrez uses a variety of tools, intellectual rigor, and abstraction to get to the most visceral of ideas. As he says on his website, “How to live in the world, how to love, how to feel about being yourself…why are we alive.”
Gutierrez brings his wildly acclaimed This Bridge Called My Ass to the Wexner Center the weekend of January 24. The Brooklyn Rail said, “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.” Dance Enthusiast remarked, “This Bridge is the kind of show that gathers in complexity and intrigue as it marinates in my head during the days following the performance.”
I spoke to Gutierrez by phone in advance of his trip to Columbus. The first element that rang out to me about the piece was the title’s cheeky riff on the landmark, third-wave feminist anthology This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherrie Morága and Gloria Anzaldua.
“I was very inspired [by the book] when I was 19; it was like my bible,” Gutierrez said. “I carried it around that year I had dropped out of school and was doing a lot of queer activist stuff in San Francisco. When I was younger, I really found my relationship to queerness through the words of women and third-wave feminism was very appealing to me.”
Many years later when Gutierrez read the text again, he was struck by how it felt akin to how people rant on social media in today’s age.
“That was interesting,” he said. “These issues haven’t moved a lot and the way we have to talk about them hasn’t shifted, either.”
As Gutierrez re-engaged with that inspiration and started to mull over the ways his community (and others) discuss issues facing them, he also looked at the casts of the work he made.
“I was in the process of making a couple different pieces in Europe,” he said. “Before I left for [that work], I prepped with a really interesting mixed-race group of dancers in New York. I got to Europe with a predominantly white cast. I became conscious that what I was focusing on felt very different when I was working with a racially diverse cast versus not.”
As those two strains of thought coalesced into this work, Gutierrez said, “I think I’m getting at something around identity and abstraction and that has a particular tenor to it depending on who’s performing it. I thought it would be interesting exploring these ideas with an all Latinx cast; I hadn’t really ever done that in my work. And then I thought of This Bridge Called My Ass, a tongue-in-cheek name paying both homage to that book and also bringing in a sense of irreverence and ribald queerness.”
Expanding on this new work’s relationship to his Latin heritage, Gutierrez said, “I feel that the work has always held a consciousness around my social upbringing but [previously] in a more coded way. [Themes included] translation, the blurring of language, the blurring of meaning – things that, for me, feel very tied to the way I grew up in two languages, as the child of immigrants, but [a direct] ‘I am Latino!’ hasn’t been the nature of the work. It felt sort of inevitable to be more forthright about that and to forward that more in the work; as soon as I had that desire, alongside it came an awareness that I wanted to deal with it in a way that felt real to me and appropriate to the convolutions I feel around identity in general.”
I asked Gutierrez about the process of creating and refining texts. Knowing him as a writer as well as a choreographer, he brought up the sequence of This Bridge Called My Ass structured as a telenovela.
“That came from asking what is common between us [as Latinx] – when you’re talking about a diaspora, you’ve got a Puerto Rican next to a Chicana next to a South American next to a Dominican. It’s like, why are we in the room together?” Gutierrez asked “One of the things that exists across Latin-American culture is the format of the telenovela. At the time, my boyfriend was watching one pretty regularly. I started watching with him – I hadn’t really watched telenovelas since I was a kid – and I was struck by the form, kind of the ultimate avant-garde absurdist text. We all believe in it even though it’s insane.”
Once the telenovela sparked his interest, “ Thought it would be fun to write one, to exaggerate the dynamics in the rehearsal room,” he said.
During a residency in France, Gutierrez held a rehearsal where everyone contributed ideas, creating a final product he describes as a “pastiche” and a “cut-up poem.”
Alongside the conversations that led to the telenovela, Gutierrez asked ‘What are the common signifers among Latinx?’ Music was the answer.
“I’ve done a lot of music for my own work over the last years and I thought I could make the score,” he said. “But even trickier than that, I taught the group how to use DJ Pro and Ableton Live – music generating software – and we came up with a playlist of mostly Latin-American songs: some of which are pretty well known, some are lesser-known. We added a couple weird techno songs. During the piece, we generate the score live with two computers and multiple speakers; everyone activates the music for the space. [That creates] a much more chaotic assemblage of sound which seemed more appropriate to the piece than if I’d created [a traditional] score.”
That cast includes some of the finest young dancers working today: Alvaro Gonzalez, John Gutierrez, Xandra Ibarra, nibia pastrana santiago and Evelyn Sanchez Narvaez.
“When I knew I wanted to focus on Latinx artists I was stuck with the conundrum of ‘What does that even mean? Who do I want to cull from?’” Gutierrez said.”I knew I wanted [dancers] from the contemporary, experimental borders of the field. I’m the program director of Landing, an academic peer-to-peer network and mentoring program through Gibney dance. [Participants included] Stephanie Acosta, the dramaturge for Bridge, and John Gutierrez. The first night I found myself in conversation with them and it was so intense – I’m speaking in Spanish, I’m speaking in English, with people who are kind of in the same corner of the field as I am and that felt rare to me.”
Gutierrez drew on his rich experiences and contacts to pull together the rest of the cast.
“Years ago, I met nibia as a grad student in Illinois; Xandra did a workshop with me in San Francisco and her work was fascinating; Alvaro was in a project I had done that was a reconstruction of John Bernd,” Gutierrez explained. “Then I’d known Evelyn for a few months when I saw something she did at Gibney that was amazing. I have to be wowed by someone before I work with them and I had that with all the performers.”
Gutierrez is hitting his stride, making work no one else could make, that ties together heady considerations of abstractions and the history of contemporary art and society, with some of the most moving, visceral, body art you’re likely to ever see. He’s a rare, sui generis artist of the kind no one else does as good a job bringing to town as the Wexner Center.
This Bridge Called My Ass has four performances: 8:00 p.m. Friday, January 24, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, January 25, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday, January 26. For tickets and more info, visit https://wexarts.org.