Q&A: Miguel Gutierrez delves into age and beauty at the 2014 Whitney Biennial

Miguel Gutierrez talks about how being an aging gay choreographer and midcareer stress figure in to his newest duet at the Whitney Museum

Miguel Gutierrez for the The 2014 Whitney Biennial and his dancer Mickey Mahar

Miguel Gutierrez for the The 2014 Whitney Biennial and his dancer Mickey Mahar Photograph: Eric McNatt

Miguel Gutierrez's work helped shape a generation of dancers. In his new work Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/, a duet with the 24-year-old Mickey Mahar, Gutierrez asks what now? Well, hit the museum circuit for one (despite resistance from manager Ben Pryor); Age & Beauty opens at the Whitney this week as part of the museum's 2014 Biennial.

After creating the ambitious And lose the name of action for the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012, Miguel Gutierrez wanted to scale back. Without telling anyone, he began working on a duet with the 24-year-old dancer Mickey Mahar, and found himself in the pleasant place of “not knowing in advance what was going to happen.” In Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/, Gutierrez, 42, takes on the anxiety of being an aging gay choreographer and midcareer stress. But the work is also universal. “Who isn’t fucking burned-out?” he asks. Exactly.

How did you start this piece?
It started out being something that I actually didn’t want to talk about or tell anyone what I was doing. After the last show [And lose the name of action], which was a three-year process to put together—it was a big-scale production and had such a big financial commitment. That process meant having endless talks with all these different people to get support for it and writing grants all the time. I was like, it would be nice to do something that did not feel like that, at least from the beginning. Ironically, I did apply for some money that I didn’t get, and I found myself exactly in the position I wanted to return to: an older way of working. This idea of age and beauty had been floating around, and I don’t really know what that meant—it was just a title that hit me. Then I saw Mickey in Adrienne Truscott’s show and I pretty wowed. For me, with the people I work with, there’s always an element of being in awe of them at some point—seeing them in some situation, usually not even my own work but someone else’s thing where I’m like, Wow—what is that, who is that? I approached him and even showed him the grand narrative that I had written, but didn’t get support for. I realized in that first meeting that he’s very smart; he asked me really exciting questions. I hadn’t told anybody that I had started working with someone. It was great. We just started meeting. The other narrative has been this question of, how does this continue? How do I continue?
Are you referring to the big picture of dance?

Yes. But really career. Dance—I’m not going to even take the burden of that on. [Laughs] Dance can take care of itself I suppose, or it will, but this was really about me. When you get to a certain place in your life, you’re like, Okay, I’ve hit these high points or the benchmarks that seemed like they were important. I wanted them, and they’ve come and gone, and what am I left with? Especially when my financial picture hasn’t shifted a whole lot.

What were the benchmarks for you?
I think feeling like I could get all the support I needed for a project, which certainly happened with And lose the name of action. We were able to pay everyone decently, we were able to get great residencies and commissioning support, and we knew that we were going to have a tour as we were making the piece, which is so, so rare in this field especially if you’re an American artist. Having a show at BAM. Having gotten certain awards; in 2010, getting a Guggenheim, getting a United States Artists award, getting the FCA award [Foundation for Contemporary Arts]. It was amazing and terrifying to get those in the same year, but really saved my ass! It basically allowed me to pay off my debt. I’ve heard Eleanor Bauer talk about how in this field, recognition is capital. That’s the only capital we really get, and I think it’s tricky for me. In certain circles, certainly here, people know what the work is. That’s a nice feeling to have. I’m in a very unique position as an American artist, because I get to show my work in New York, in the States and often abroad. I don’t know if that’s a benchmark I had planned on. I don’t think I planned on it, other than knowing I wanted to stay in New York. I guess I’ve been lucky.

Are you at a place of thinking about, where do I go from here?
Yeah. And also so much of the work that I was making early on was driven by this thing of, I want to be seen, I want to be known. This kind of ambition, but also the more basic existential questions of, do I exist? How does this exist? And hijacking the space of theatrical setting to commandeer us into this question: What is this time that we’re spending together? The stakes, in general, are always pretty high around that question in my work. Or I always feel I take on a bit of a sacrificial role inside of that question. That’s still happening, but it feels tempered perhaps by experience and knowing, as many artists find, that the satisfactions I want to receive from what I do are not determined by these external factors. That they are determined by the intimacy I have with the work, by the intimacy I have with the people I work with, by these weird little moments I have with certain people who have seen the work and come up to me later or write to me. Those kinds of one-on-one interactions are the thing that feeds my sense of satisfaction. It’s not necessarily what feeds me to continue.

What compels you to continue?
The happenstance of being inspired by something or someone. If the ideas aren’t coming, that’s a good indication of something. [Laughs] But they have continued to come.

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