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The Evolution of the Queer Dancer

Pictured (L to R): Ezra Azrieli Holzman and Miguel Gutierrez. Photo by Ian Douglas.

New York
New York Live Arts
September 16 – September 25, 2015

I don’t think Miguel Gutierrez knows this, but I took a dance class with him several years ago. Back then I had long hair with bangs, wore leggings, and entertained the idea of becoming a dancer. I had a dancer crush on him that dated back to the Poetry Project’s 2009 New Year’s Marathon, where he tore down the aisle screaming/singing at the top of his lungs before dancing with abandon to house music on the altar—it was basically an immersion baptism for me. During this class, I had a hard time keeping up with the warm-up routine alone. Then he taught us an “impossible” phrase. I think he was thinking about failure, and welcoming it rather than bemoaning its presence. Even with that permission, I was hopelessly lost. I gave up and sat in the bleachers.

A lot has changed since then. I walk through the world as a “man” and I write about dance. I’m not sure how to write about Gutierrez’s work: I don’t want to come across as fawning or condescending. It’s been three weeks since I attended his marathon performance at Bard—I still have a spot of pink polish on my left thumb. His trilogy deserves a thorough exegesis, but this isn’t it. (I encourage you to read one of the reviews that have already been written if you were not able to see the piece yourself.) I’m going to start at my assigned seat at New York Live Arts, which placed me across the aisle from a New York Times critic—who did not appear—and next to a well-dressed, middle-aged woman. I know nothing about the sexuality of this woman, but as the show began, discomfort and disapproval exuded from her as clearly as warm breath on a cold night. I felt her body go first rigid, and then fidgety.

My proximity to her reaction served to defamiliarize what was in front of me. Looking out from what I imagined as her perspective, I saw something strange, something queer. At that moment I became aware of the defiant vulnerability of what Gutierrez was putting on stage. To add to this, I felt protective of performer Ezra Azrieli Holzman, whose non-binary gender compounds the vulnerable position of being an eight-year-old on stage. As I watched Ezra hold the space quite competently, sitting cross-legged in the center of the stage, or striking a pose with campy glamour, or doing laps around the perimeter, I thought about the effects of hyper-visibility on myself and other trans and gender nonconforming people. One of the effects of the current media saturation around trans lives is, of course, an increasingly focused spotlight on all of us, which often feels unwelcome and intrusive. This can lead to a wish for invisibility. Sitting in my seat in the theater, full of admiration for Ezra, I also felt like Ezra’s shadow.

I have always respected how intentional Miguel is about the casting process. In Part 3, he brings us a particularly queer assemblage, a kind of queer family, ranging in age, ethnicity, body shape, and gender. The costumes put forth a queer aesthetic, by turns revealing of the body and gratuitously adorning—for instance, the covering of Alex Rodabaugh’s shoulders with a lacey shrug and the exposing of Jen Rosenblit’s mid-section. The woman next to me keeps leaning over to whisper in her friend’s ear. I watch Ezra crawl under the legs of the first row. I watch Alex back up slowly, bent at the waist, making a gift of his furry jock-strap-clad behind. I ask the woman next to me to please stop talking. I watch Jen put her hands under an audience member’s shirt, lay herself across two of them, look into their bags. I watch Ishmael Houston-Jones kneel down and grasp the hands of audience members while staring intensely into their eyes. And Miguel of course, in his tulle cape, is noticing all of it. He smiles at me at one point and I marvel at how he holds everything in his consciousness as he performs—continually responding to the environment even as he keeps to set movements and timing.

Cast of Age & Beauty Part 3. Photo by Ian Douglas.

When I saw the show at Bard, these interactions with the audience did not strike me as particularly provocative. There, I read the audience as primarily young and queer and white. The audience at New York Live Arts, also largely white, is older and less queer (seeming?). I should probably mention that we are all seated on the stage in the round, which prompts me to believe that we are encouraged to look at each other even as we watch, and smell, and hear three queer men wrestling among shiny light filters, or see Jen twirl Ezra effortlessly.

Could it be that through this trilogy Gutierrez is offering both a lineage and an expanded conception of the Queer Dancer? In Part 1, he shows us Biological Dancer: focusing on aging as a dancer and also as a (male) subject operating within queer culture. In Part 2, he offers us Economic Dancer: addressing how the dance economy structures his relationships and work. While the trilogy is self-referential, that does not mean it conceives of the self as a singular entity; rather, it constantly foregrounds relationality—there is no Miguel Gutierrez without Michelle Boulé or Ben Pryor or Mickey Mahar or Ezra, or Jen, etc. However, Miguel Gutierrez is still the core of Parts 1 and 2.

A trilogy sets up certain expectations, answers to questions, conclusions. Rather than landing somewhere in Part 3, Miguel gives us a portal. The slowness of the rising action does not yield an Aristotelian climax. We are not going anywhere in particular; instead we are held in limbo, in an environment of fragments. Part 3 appears to propose a post-Miguel Gutierrez dance landscape—he is part of here in a new way—he is supporting and facilitating. The sonic and visual references to outer space point to new models for the Queer Dancer.

Compared to Parts 1 and 2, Part 3 depends much less on text. This contributes to the destabilization of landscape and narrative. Aside from singing, the first instance of spoken text that sounds is during a trio performed by Miguel, Jen, and Alex. This text is loosely based on Jamaica Kincaid’s instructional, second-person short narrative, “Girl,” (“This is how you—”). Gutierrez’s adaptation of this form contained some variation but no surprises. It chronicled a specific but not too-specific brand of contemporary queer life without the shifts in syntax and the surges of feeling that mark his style. It made me reconsider my reading of Part 3 as utopian because it felt markedly quotidian.

At the close of the piece, a recorded dialogue transpires between Ishmael and Ezra—the oldest and the youngest performers. Their literal suspension (they are suspended from the ceiling through a harness system) highlights their suspension from any particular time, place, or embodiment. They discuss death and dreams amidst darkness, the instability of the future appearing as both promise and threat.

One line operates as a refrain throughout Gutierrez’s piece, sung by the cast and later playing through the speakers: “Do you worry about the future?” The line reminds me of the opening of the Whitney Houston song, “Greatest Love of All,” the same song that I was forced to memorize and perform with my Catholic School first grade class. I worry that the centrality of Ezra’s role in the piece contains a trace of “I believe the children are our future” rhetoric—and that this inadvertently creates a buffer from critique. Houston is in fact singing about self-love and using the example of children to do so.

I also worry that casting Ezra in this role could be interpreted as a facile positing that genderqueer is the future of queerness, in much the same way that trans-ness is represented by the media as the cutting edge of LGBTQ issues, which conceals the reality that trans and genderqueer people as a whole are not thriving. What I think Gutierrez is actually trying to advance here is an embrace of fluidity and a rejection of fixed gender identities for us all. I’m trying to imagine what the woman next to me walked away with after the show, or the (presumably) gay man seated next to her. It’s possible that he might mis-gender Ezra, or that she might disapprove of a child being in such an explicitly queer piece. Most likely she had no idea she was sitting next to a transgender person in the dark—or that her body was as present as those of the performers.

I still have a hard time sitting with what is impossible. I have always admired Gutierrez for his inexhaustible momentum—he keeps making work and he keeps pushing forward. After a preoccupation with the struggle to continue to make work in Parts 1 and 2, Part 3 makes gestures in new directions—many gestures, in many directions. A clearing has taken place. The portal is open and waiting.


Jaime Shearn Coan

Jaime Shearn Coan (he/him/his) is a writer and editor who holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of the chapbook Turn it Over (2015) and co-editor of Marking the Occasion (2020) and Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now (2016). Find him at or on twitter: @jaimeshearncoan.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2015

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