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Ask Miguel Gutierrez about the afterlife and he’ll tell you the story of a friend’s dog. On a vet’s table, Jude lay dying. “He got hit by a car,” Gutierrez says. The Brooklyn-based choreographer rushed to the office. By the time he arrived, the dog had passed. Gutierrez says he embraced Jude’s death with unusual calm—a strange moment of enlightenment.
“I’ve dealt with death before, but there was a real ease in seeing this dog on the table and being like, ‘Oh, yeah, this isn’t him anymore. This was maybe never him,’ ” Gutierrez says. He fondly recalls a surprising sense of serenity, knowing that Jude’s energy still percolated. “I remember thinking, Thank you, Jude. You just taught me that existence isn’t really this form. This body truly is the fuckin’ vessel.”
Life and death loom large in Gutierrez’s latest, And lose the name of action, playing the Museum of Contemporary Art Thursday 31 through Sunday 3. “Probably the biggest question I make art about is, Why are we alive?” Gutierrez notes on his website. The title of the 85-minute piece, performed with his collaborators the Powerful People, comes from the “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In one section, inspired by Gutierrez’s research into clairvoyance, a séance prompts the audience to hold hands in prayer, while sparse, sometimes indecipherable dialogue integrates with structured improvisation. A ghostly figure projected on a screen who narrates in spurts suggests Gutierrez’s own father, who struggles with a neurological disorder. “I really lost a sense of objectivity with this show,” he says. “I actually felt like I was giving away too much about my dad.” The choreographer says he wants to draw connections between the “analytical and the unexplainable.”
As a dance maker, the 41-year-old revels in the abstract: “I think I found myself there before I realized it’s where I was going,” he says. Along with death, he’s tackled themes of fear and imperialism. In 2001, he danced nonstop for 24 hours in response to the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Three years later, in dAMNATION rOAD, Gutierrez performed blindfolded to convey the “physical and aural exploration of the body in terror.”
“It’s a tough fuckin’ time to make a performance because people so often want to be entertained,” Gutierrez says. “People want to feel satisfied and define what they’re seeing in the first five minutes or they don’t like it.”
Gutierrez says he wants to pose questions and not necessarily answer them. How inconsiderately vague, some claim (“maddeningly incoherent,” The New York Times’s Alastair Macaulay says of action); how uniquely provocative, according to others (an “ambitious, engrossing rendering,” The New Yorker’s Andrew Boynton says of it). Yet Gutierrez feels audiences are intelligent enough to decipher their own feelings about his work.
“If I were to sit there and figure out what’s the proper measurement for knowing what the audience thinks: Is it the smattering of applause? Is it that everyone stayed awake? Is it that I got laid after?” Gutierrez asks. “I’m not the best judge of that question, but people are grown-ups. I often feel like work potentially has an invitation, and in that invitation you can decide whether or not you want to go along with the ride.”