Miguel Gutierrez’s offering for this year’s Fierce Festival, HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE, played the concepts of the shambolic, messy, chaotic spectacle with invisible precision and utter virtuosity. Looking down from the racked seating of Birmingham’s DanceXchange, the audience was greeted by the US artist in street clothes and simple clown makeup, and promptly invited to join him on stage. Starting from our usual positions of ‘us’ out here and the performer down there, this action was the first gestural turn which put us all on the same level and turned the space forty-five degrees. We were going to be watching a performance which questioned itself, queered its orientation from the outset, a performance with a distinct, articulated grammar. “I don’t like to say, ‘I’m an artist,’” Gutierrez began, as if introducing himself to a friend of a friend. “I make shows. I prefer to keep it active. I make shows.” All this while taping sheets of paper to the wall behind him. And he proceeded to make HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE with the audience witnessing the making rather than seeing an outcome after the fact. But, like the best clowning, this was an illusion. The stream-of-consciousness narrative (which was continuous but never mechanical or over-rigid) ran through, and indeed constituted, a painstakingly designed landscape.
Part master class, part drowsy 3am conversation on the floor after everyone else has left the party, we moved through the narrative, so gently guided by the performer that we barely noticed the increases in velocity and intensity from a naturalistic monologue toward the climax of the piece with its trance-like potency and technical interventions of sound, light, costumes, song and dance, all as carefully controlled and exuberant as Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp falling down a flight of stairs.
“This. This is love. This is what love is.” The notion of care felt present at all times. This was performance which held the audience experience in the highest regard, like the best teachers who love their subjects but love their students more.
It was didactic without any of the tedium didacticism normally implies. For example, with a transparency that runs throughout the piece, Gutierrez at one point mentions his own teaching style, his “New School” sensibility (a double entendre to those familiar with New York’s New School University, and sufficiently colloquial for anyone else) that’s all about offering an approach and prescribing nothing, demanding nothing. And immediately after, he describes a teacher from his past whose approach was just the opposite, the hard-nosed conservatoire boffin who, employing a decidedly old school approach, dragged a tone from a reluctant fellow student, allowing her to make a sound she didn’t know she was capable of making. He sang this note to us, enerously conceding the beauty of his opposite. This is difference without hierarchy, noted, appreciated, and off we went to the next story or insight, leaving us no time to sweat the proverbial small shit.
This particular link in his daisy-chain of anecdotes made me want both, both teachers, both experiences. It made me want both men as friends as well as mentors. And that’s what this piece did for an hour. It offered but never insisted. It was an essay, an essai as Montaigne would have it, and attempt in progress unfolding before us.
“There’s an idea of performance-making that’s about scaling back, becoming a zero version of yourself. I feel differently about it, like you can take everything you are and bring everything.” He swept the air like a hero from the X-Men cosmology, offering it all to us. And after that hour was up, we walked out feeling light.