Once upon a time there were two artists: Sara Juli and Miguel Gutierrez. Like all humans, both had issues.
Among other things, Juli had felt she really tended to be hypercritical of herself. Plus she worried too much about money--and wasn't she a horrible gossip besides?
Meanwhile, as Gutierrez was becoming more famous as a choreographer and dancer, he felt increasingly vulnerable on stage. People are always looking at a dancer, onstage and off--indeed, they'd better be--and as a result, a dancer's body and persona inevitably become property just a bit too public. What's private? What's personal? These concepts get messed with when you're always on display, part of public discourse, part of public property.
Both artist put those issues on stage. What began with Juli as brief, perceptive and humorous character studies in dance punctuated by dialogue morphed gradually into longer performance pieces featuring more talk (but, in her recent Money Conversation, less sophisticated choreography). The shows became therapy by proxy; opportunities for her to "out herself" on various dilemmas.
Gutierrez says he decided for the first time to give himself permission "to do exactly what I want to do on stage" after his company completed a run ofa massive piece that left him wondering what of his was in any of it.
Which brings us to last Monday night at the American Dance Festival, when both presented their current solo works. Juli's Deep Throat--not a meditation on vintage porn, but a public discussion about gossip--premiered before Gutierrez' Retrospective Exhibitionist.
There's considerable irony in the timing of their show, since Thom Pain, Will Eno's scathing catalog of flaws in autobiographical one-person shows, immediately preceded it onto a regional stage (at Manbites Dog Theater, where it closes this weekend; see our capsule review on page 40).
As I mentioned in that June 14 review, there are a number of hazards in solo self-performance. They include narcissism, therapy unwisely reiterated on stage, and the privileging--or imposition--of a personal injury on a public audience: mistaking the reported experience of trauma for deeper insight or wisdom about that trauma or the human condition generally.
Useful questions to pose to any autobiographical one-person show: How does it care for--and what does it give to--anyone besides its subject? Does it reflect anything in the world (or to the world) besides the author's concerns or pains? Does its conversation with that world ultimately contain anything besides the word "me"?
Other concerns would inevitably be added at an international modern dance festival. Is the work fairly described as dance? Does its quality rise to internationally recognized standards of excellence for that art?
The uncomfortable truth in programming is that either a work on the ADF mainstage represents the state of the art in modern dance, or its presence has prevented such work from appearing there. In reaching for the cutting edge, the festival has seen its reputation cut in recent years by programming emerging artists of uncertain artistic development. Would either of these artists' solo shows have been seriously considered without their long-term relationship to the festival?
To be clear, these questions and concerns should be equally applied to works by all companies and individuals chosen to appear at the American Dance Festival.
In this case, at least some of the answers are pretty unambiguous. In some ways, Juli's self-critique from the stage in a talkback after Monday night's performance leaves me little to add. Yes, Deep Throat seems--and is--very early in its development. Both discourse and movement plateaued early in the evening and had to be goosed along by spicy--and clearly false--rumors from the community of artists, students and administrators at the ADF, substituting titillation for true insight. Ultimately, that's cheating a potentially fruitful concept.
Now, is it dance? Or enough dance, rather, of distinguished quality to justify its placing in a modern dance festival?
At this point, the obvious answer is no. Deep Throat, like The Money Conversation before it, is audience-participation performance art with movement occasionally sprinkled in. In what choreography is present, Juli quotes herself, repeating the aerobics vamp to keywords from the discourse she used in The Money Conversation. One intriguing gesture is observed at the very last, as the lights go down, but before then the dance does not match the sophistication--or commitment--of her earlier works.
Gutierrez certainly doesn't have a problem with commitment. When his martial confrontation with the audience began, he was briskly dressing his set--while in the nude.
Retrospective Exhibitionist seems to say to the audience, "You want to look? Fine, here it all is. Satisfied? That's nice--because now I'm going to take a good long look at you, too."
That's why the house lights stay up for the majority of the work--and why in different sections of the work the choreographer suddenly stops and pauses a minute or longer to sweep the entire audience with a long, blank stare.
The house was quiet when this happened. Now we knew, at least a little bit, of how it felt.
Gutierrez constantly tests the audience. We all but hear him interrogating us, demanding our agenda:
"You want to see some 'real' dance? Here's a video," he seems to say. "Want to get to know me? This is a home movie; that's me beside a Christmas tree. Want to see my different dance styles? Here--I'll run them by you so damned fast your head will spin, compadre.
"Now are you satisfied? And if so, why am I still not?"
Doesn't the audience always fail the test? We are distracted by video while the dancer has literally moved on, dazzled by technique, our vision stopping at the naked skin and not seeing beyond, abetting--and certainly not protesting--self-injury by flame toward the end.
Isn't that why the confrontation, though harrowing, is also necessary?
Yes, everyone sees in a passive sense--as an audience we do that well. But does anyone ever honor the dancer's repeated, screamed request: "Look!"?