American Realness

Interior Design

Interior Design

by Samara Davis
Published on: January 14, 2014

Commissioned in 2006, myendlesslove (mel) was Miguel Gutierrez’s personal challenge to make a different kind of solo than Retrospective Exhibitionist (RE) produced a year prior. Whereas the latter dealt with an artist taking stock of his career, mel’s subject turned inward and grappled with the vicissitudes of love, sex, and desire. Gutierrez has written that mel came after a difficult break-up, when he was frustrated with the “lack of space for queer grief in a world of pix and profiles.” To say that mel was a turning inward for Gutierrez, in contrast to RE, might be a complicated observation since RE was explicitly about Gutierrez—his past, his work, and how they bound together in a future projection of self. In a similar way that mel carved out a space for queer grief, I think RE carved out a space for a self as performer. These solos (well, one former solo) seen together, are deeply informing of how an artist negotiates what the world offers him and what he does with it.

I spent a lot of time in 2010–2011 writing on RE, watching the video of the piece and thinking about its themes: identity, the dancer’s body, a past that persists in the present. It’s difficult for me not to compare Michelle Boulé’s WONDER with the styles and circumstances of Gutierrez’s self-explorations, particularly RE; both are seminal solo works that announce/d a new moment in each artist’s career. Of course, these pieces, created almost a decade apart from one another, are different—each emerge from the respective axes of two different lives. Still, the first time I saw WONDER at Issue Project Room in 2013, I was struck by the similarities between them. Not only do Boulé and Gutierrez share a movement vocabulary after years of collaborating and working with one another, but their performances also share an aesthetic that is closely tied to their process.

Pairing these two works is like drawing a picture next to your friend who is drawing the same thing. The differences manifest in the most intimate of details, like the trace of a hand in a scribbled line. How do you measure the effects of collaboration? To whom or what do you attribute influence? Both of these works attest to the impossibility of separating out a life or practice into discrete sources. We are the traces of everyone we’ve ever known, ourselves included.

As dancers, both artists embody movement with an impressive elasticity that is just as much corporeal as it is emotional. Every muscle is used—movement seeming to hold the cells together. Intimacy is a medium, and in inhabiting a role there is a felt at-homeness in space.

I’ve never seen Boulé struggle with a role as a performer, though I don’t mean to say “she makes dancing seem easy” or anything like that. I mean that there’s something more exceptional going on, like an evacuation of the self in order for her body to become most hospitable to the forces of each dance. Of course, this is the consequence of a lot of training and talent but Boulé the person (outside the dance) always seems to tread lightly on Boulé the performer’s territory. WONDER addresses this division—how striving towards perfection as a dancer also means perfecting someone else’s vision of yourself, which dictates what your body can and should do. Though WONDER announces a kind of choreographic debut for Boulé, it seems that in Boulé’s previous work, and especially with Gutierrez, the roles of choreographer and dancer have been messy—more an alchemy of influence than direction via dictation. But Boulé is indeed carving out space for herself in this piece. Both RE and WONDER, and to some extent mel, are expository trips. The self-exposure each artist performs is also an investigation, coming at a moment of mastery (or restlessness) when one can no longer hide behind or be satisfied with technique alone.

In committing to self-exposure, you know fully well that if transformation is what you’re after, everything’s game to be used. This is part of Boulé and Gutierrez’s economical aesthetic, an abundance in laying-bare. Each dancer makes a space through movement (like the aftermath of a party, we survey the scene and know something happened here). It’s a staging that’s both minimal and excessive. Bare set-ups where the few materials invited work hard for them—doubling and tripling as costumes, scenery, and props all at once. Music and sound also make the space in these productions. Music is crucial—pop that carries a mood, but also electronic/ambient compositions that duet with movement. Knowing how to orchestrate silence and breath is key too. The voice is used to both create an identity and distort it, a practice common to all of Gutierrez’s works. In WONDER, Boulé’s voice is used for a pre-recorded narrator-self, a sing-a-long queen, and frenzied screamer, with two subtle and strange bird-like calls at the performance’s end.

During one of these moments, Boulé shouts “yes” over and over again in response to questions from an acousmatic voice hovering over the space and taunting Boulé into convulsive fits. [Is there enough time? Yes! Are you enough? Yes! Are we running out of time? Yes! Do you want more gun control? Yes! Do you want children? Yes! Do you want less gun control? Yes!] These full body cries remind me of a moment in RE when Gutierrez repeatedly screams “Luck” in response to a future that cannot be completely controlled, one that is determined by the competing forces of empowerment, and luck. Boulé’s “Yes” is full of a similar anguish—an affirmation engorged with complications (a “yesterday’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems” approach). But Boulé’s shouts are also hilarious. Her straining, her pushing to affirm, is not without pleasure—for her and for us.

The body or subject that’s produced in these works also breaks down in movement that’s strange and alien. The question of what a body can do becomes what is a body, at least a fully knowable one in the space of a performance (a question I certainly struggle with here, maneuvering along the murky lines of performer/person and performance/performativity). The last section of WONDER involves Boulé moving inside the circle’s perimeter engaging with each member of the audience through a nonverbal language of vaguely familiar and uncanny gesticulations. Her feet and hands are light and fluid. The tap tap tapping of Boulé’s toes and fingertips remain alert, finding their way like antenna sniffing out and marking the floor.

In one of my favorite parts of WONDER, Boulé is in full-on battle mode. Sliding across the floor on her back, her aqua ‘80s pageant gown is hiked up above her torso with her head drowning in a messy expanse of crinoline and satin. Boulé inches forward, first with her feet, and then with frog-like legs bringing the rest of her with them in a kind of horizontal hop as Evelyn Champagne’s song “Love Come Down” comes to a close. Pulling her full-bodied hosiery up around her shoulders she stuffs the front excess material of her gown inside it. Moving to her feet, now haloed by the white and aqua fabric that trails her like obscene plumage, Boulé marches around the space, whipping and waving her arms, extending her legs in the air, and wrangling with that monster dress. Her grace is still there in extension but it’s punctuated by brutal fits and stops.

It is after this battle scene that Boulé takes a seat in the only empty chair of the circle. Cooling off and catching her breath, and intimately flanked by audience members, she becomes part of us for a moment. I thought of the arrangement in Gutierrez’s And lose the name of action (2012) when all the performers took seats in a round. I would like to think of Boulé’s poignant respite as an elegant citation, reworked for a singular moment when she surveys the scene she created.

image: Ian Douglas