American Realness

Dead to me.

Dead to me.

by Marissa Perel
Published: August 31, 2015 as a part of READING 2015

It was just over 6 months ago, now. I can remember the force of the darkness and wind down Grand St. as I entered the theater again and again after work, after sex, after teaching, after trying to find caffeine. The crowds in the gallery, in the lobby, in the café, at the vending machines at Abrons. Everyone familiar, everyone wanting, everyone desiring – to see, to participate, to become part of the work being shown. Or not. But meanwhile, we all did become part of it, anyway – part of the larger fabric of this history/hirstory.

To write a history of performance, then, is to experience and engage with desire, desire for that which is always already lost(1). You see the thing, you feel the thing, and then it’s over, and we leave each other behind. I’m reaching back to this festival, which is dead, meaning it’s OVER, and appropriately themed, American Realness Is Dead. Long Live American Realness. To engage choreography with the act of writing a history is to dance with the ghosts(2). Let’s dance.

I’m dead and so are you. Can we remember who we were in January? Can I separate my own desires at that time from what I was watching? The work I was doing? The kind of sex I was having? I can’t so this essay is going to be personal, but that’s ok because I’m already gone.

Capitalism is manufacturing exile(3). I’m time-traveling to World War I, going way back to histories of persecution. I’m thinking about the ephemeral movements that started out of the necessity to flee – Cabaret Voltaire, how Dada was founded – by artists who had to escape from Eastern Europe. There is always this need to flee, whether from war or poverty. There is the need to find a means, to find your own means, while meanwhile being subsumed in commodity culture, where consumption is trained to follow desire and desire is never requited(4).

Cynthia, Karen, Michelle, Simone, Antonija, Jeremy, Ivo, Jack, Miguel, I hear your voices. I am here and you are there. There is a stage floor between us. There is a structure that surrounds us. The structure that necessitates a festival. Our desire is not requited. My anus is very fragile(5) in spite of, or as a result of this structure. Our narratives are broken. We are the last great anti-heroes on the frontier of culture, bottling emotions and man-spit(6), making crafts out of hamburgers(7), reading our lists of constructive things to do from the outpatient clinic(8), living off Martha Stewart’s last great shit(9), romancing the staple gun(10), not complaining about the food(11), wielding axes(12).

We’ve searched for everything in each other, and it doesn’t stop being hard. I am laughing at your struggle because you are making it so unbearable and ridiculous and juicy. I’m thinking back on the circular argument between Karen Sherman, Joanna Furnans, and Aaron Mattocks in One with Others, the cacophony of anger and exasperation rising to a pitch in a “hypothetical” argument with a friend that of course, was not hypothetical. The push-pull of hands and fingers moved in rhythm with this tortured blame game, grasping at latches and chains attached to wooden blocks on various body parts. I’m thinking of Sean Donovan as Miguel Gutierrez arguing with Ben Pryor (as Ben Pryor) about something that starts as business but becomes about every unbearable personality trait of Ben that Miguel cannot tolerate, and yet must in Age and Beauty Part 2…. It sounds like it should be a cathartic “heart-to-heart,” something to clear the air, but it never will get cleared. An artist is not a therapist. A manager is not a life coach.

Are you saying I have anxiety and a mood disorder? Are you saying I have AN anxiety and A mood disordahhhh? Are you saying I have anxiety….AND I have a mood disssoorrrdahhh? Jack Ferver asks the mirror. It goes on and on and on and on and I keep wondering how he got there, to that particular dressing room, and what made him stop and act out that scene in front of the mirror, and how of course, this question is rhetorical, and how we are implicated in this affliction of ego, this diva breakdown. I’m on the outside looking in on Jack, wondering at the thin boundary between the inside and the outside of my own skull.

I’m hot for the hooks and locks that hinge your chest and shoulder(13), I’m hot for your tired old man voice (14), your bitchy “I hate everything,” attitude(15). I’m hot for your suicidal ideation(16), I’m hot for your medusa-death-clown-face (17), I’m hot for your dejected, bloody head(18), I’m hot for your inability to make a man-dance(19). I’m hot for your queer body(20). I’m hot for the splintering wood that glistened on your chest as you wrestled her to the ground(21) .I’m hot for your lack of institutional support(22), I’m hot for your butch gray hair(23), I’m hot for your desire to please everyone(24). Please don’t grow testicles for me(25). Don’t stop searching for a Daddy(26). Don’t stop searching for a Mean Mommy(27).

Dear Michelle Boulé,

What are different forms of drag? I have been watching you dance for 14 years. I mean, I’ve been watching you dance with-in Miguel’s work since enter the seen(28). Even now, I can remember your feet against the wooden floor on 249-55 Varet St., wearing drawstring linen pants and a faded purple or black shirt (the costume). I can remember your legendary duet with Anna Azrieli, where you put your fingers in each other’s mouths, noses, ears. There was a bowl of water and soap on the floor for each time you prepared to touch each other. I can’t remember if I understood those erotics at that time. I understood abjection.

Writing to you now, I feel both inside and outside of that time. Was Age & Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@& a swan song? I basically lived through your body among many bodies from 2001-2005, until I somehow managed to crawl out of something broken to find a way to live. The first time you suggested I try Alexander Technique it basically saved my life.

I didn’t expect to be sitting on the stage at Abrons where I remember you reading the poem in Everyone.(29) I cried and cried, and I think I embarrassed or terrified Chris Peck, who was sitting next to me because I couldn’t stop. You were saying:

This is the last piece that I make for you.
This is last piece that will
look like
feel like
sound like
smell like this(30).

And I knew who Miguel had written that for, but it felt like you were also saying that for me, for my own heartbreak. One of the things I love about your dancing, is how you surrender completely to what you are feeling in what you are doing, and how what you are doing looks like/ feels like it is the most urgent, most important, most unbearable thing.

I really can’t imagine having to wear a pink dress and dance an entire archive of work for the past 15 years non-stop while those queens banter on about money and getting laid. When is a dancer allowed to be an artist in the eyes of the public? I don’t so much separate the choreography that you learned from what you collaborated to make. I see how you invent yourself in enduring the greater vision of a work, and how I trust you every time you’re in front of me performing.

It was very hard for me to watch you in dAMNATION rOAD(31). I wasn’t prepared to see you in a fetish role – with your wrists tied to your waist, blindfolded. I remember your solo, dancing the perimeter of the set that replicated Miguel’s bedroom. A mattress, a standing fan, O THAT FAN, and Jaime and Fritz playing(32), as if coaxing you into a possessed state of disorientation. It hurt me to watch you do that every time. But I knew that you had measured where you were on stage with all of your sensory determination, and that maybe you liked getting reckless.

We have so many jokes, jokes that go way back to before we’d ever be ready to say good-bye. The endless search, the unquenchable journey of our bodies, what we give in the name of this world – of dance, of post-modern fuckery, this world we’ve made, this world we are growing, this world we have outgrown.

I didn’t get to see you perform James Dean. I watched Last Meadow(33) on DVD alone in my living room later, and I remember a postcard from you about what it was like to perform in drag for Deborah Hay. Then you performed James Dean in that gaudy pink dress in Age & Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@&, pantomiming as Miguel played and Ben and Sean kept going on their tortured script. Yes, I questioned what was real. Yes, I questioned what it all means. When an aesthetic universe has been forged, and it’s no more than a row on a budget sheet, a set of dates on a roster, a per diem that is like ash, and a shared hotel room.

I can tell you, you changed me. Your dancing made me start seeing a place for what could be real about having a body in front of people. You’ll never stop doing that and being that, even as you dance out of Asian Beauty or Muse or &:@&. I have to say good-bye to the “you” of that dance, and the “you” of the dance before, and the “you” of the dance before that. I have left out other works here, other “you’s” in other dresses – the electrified possession that is always the marker of something Miguel has made. Of course, I betray this whole letter, by ascribing it all to him this way. Asian Beauty.

I think we really became friends after you walked in on me shaving my pubic hair on the edge of the bathtub in what we called “Aspen” – because half the wall and the roof had collapsed, exposing a side of the bathroom to the weather(34). You came in to pee, and I was sitting there working my way down my thigh, and I don’t remember what we said to each other. But that all was it took.

Then in that very insane song at the end of Age & Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@& you sang, “I am more than just a pussy.” It struck me because really, I think that the pussy is all that matters. It’s all that ever did. I’m not essentializing here, everyone has a cultivated sense of pussy. I think it means much more to be the pussy in every sense of the term.


Catharsis is a bitch. It is hard to peel back the years of one’s life spent going back and forth between Bushwick, the Lower East Side, and wherever. My thoughts travel back to another dodgy era, the one so often romanticized by cycles of freaks, Weimar Germany. Like, what Christopher Isherwood said about it in Goodbye to Berlin(35) and the musical, Cabaret(36) that came from his book. It was the perfect cocktail of continuous collapse, as cycles of the Weimar government rose to power and fell, decimating the economic landscape. Meanwhile, the Kit Kat Klub persisted in the dark underbelly of the looming 3rd Reich. All that anyone could do was sing in the face of death, to throw camp at what would become literal camps in which everyone would be thrown.

Something struck me deeply about this year’s festival in how it unabashedly celebrated the most difficult, depressing, humiliating and impossible circumstances of being an artist, by which I mean, a freak. It’s hard to be that, to perform that, and to be seen, let alone expect people to care, to curate. I’m remembering at one point in Death Asshole Rave Video, Jeremy talked about the very real possibility of dying alone. How he had no savings, wouldn’t expect to retire, and might not have any family around to speak of. After hearing this comment, I was moved to write him a letter, in which I wanted to say, “You total cunt, of course you will have people there. You will have me there.” Then I wanted to go on and lament all of his apocalyptic imagery, his lady-liberty-baba-yaga schtick. But I’m grateful for his honesty. Are we here because we are thinking about the future? I think the act of performance is a defiance of the very idea that anything exists other than the now. The purpose of it is to fill the space with only this sense of the present. Here we are.

We really don’t know what is going to happen. We can’t find a place to make work, but there are condos going up everywhere. Gay marriage is legal now if you can afford whatever that means. If you’re not retching and trembling backstage trying to suck the limpid cock of a stagehand, or a presenter(37), or you want lovers, or you think you want lovers. lovers in every port…but the truth is that most sex leaves you uninspired and most people seem too far away even when they’re inside you(38).

I think I should leave the text here. It doesn’t need me anymore. We’re blindly fucking, but I feel that it’s an act of retaliation. It’s time to forget you. Eat my jouissance.


(1) Jane Blocker in What The Body Cost: Desire, History and Performance. University of Minnesota Press, 2004
(2) Jenn Joy reading from her book, The Choreographic
(3) Jeremy Wade’s Death Asshole Rave Video
(4) Jane Blocker, Ibid
(5) Ivo Dimchev’s Fest
(6) Michelle Ellsworth’s Preparation for the Obsolence of the Y Chromosome
(7) Same
(8) Jack Ferver’s Night Light Bright Light
(9) Jeremy Wade’s Death Asshole Rave Video
(10) Karen Sherman’s One with Others
(11) Miguel Gutierrez’s Age & Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@&
(12) Simone Aughterlony, Antonija Livingstone, Hahn Rowe, Supernatural
(13) Karen Sherman’s costume of 2×4 blocks
(14) Cynthia Hopkins’ character in A Living Documentary
(15) Jack Ferver and Reid Bartelme’s dialogue:
Reid: You hate everything.
Jack: I do. I hate everything.
(16) Jack Ferver’s talk with his therapist about Freddie Herko. Jeremy Wade, “suicidal ideation = total liquidation.”
(17) Jeremy Wade
(18) Ivo Dimchev
(19) Michelle Ellsworth’s prompt, “Martha Graham said ‘everyone has a dance,’” in which she tried, without success, to get men to make a dance for the archives of the Y chromosome.
(20) Everyone
(21) Simone and Antonija
(22) Cynthia Hopkins after she used up all her money and didn’t get any grants
(23) Karen Sherman
(24) Ivo Dimchev, re: presenters, Miguel Gutierrez re:presenters
(25) Cynthia Hopkins being told this as a way to reach artistic success at a professional workshop
(26) Michelle Ellsworth, Jack Ferver, Ben Pryor (in Miguel’s Age and Beauty Part 2…)
(27) Ivo Dimchev, Jeremy Wade, Jack Ferver, Karen Sherman-?
(28) Miguel Gutierrez’s first evening-length work in 2002 at Aqui the Bushwick loft.
(29) Performance by Miguel and the Powerful People in 2007 at Abrons’ Playhouse.
(30) Excerpt from a poem by Miguel Gutierrez, published in his book, When You Rise Up: Performance Texts, 53rd State Press, NY 2009.
(31) Performance by Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People at the Kitchen in 2004.
(32) The duo, Pee in My Face with Surgery
(33) Performance by Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People at New York Live Arts in 2009.
(34) In the winter it would snow inside. This was at Aqui The Bushwick, 249-55 Varet St., which is now a luxury youth hostel.
(35) Hogarth Press, 1939.
(36) “Willkomen”
(37) Ivo Dimchev in Fest
(38) from “how to be in artist” in When You Rise Up: Performance Texts by Miguel Gutierrez, 53rd State Press, 2009.

READING is made possible with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
photo by Ian Douglas