Dance Review: Miguel Gutierrez and The Powerful People, “Everyone”
(Photo by Alex Escalante)
Miguel Gutierrez must know he’s doing God’s Work, in terms of dance. That is to say, his dance works, if he continues to make them as he has been, will probably never draw the whoops and howls that, say, some of Ohad Naharin’s dances did the other night at Cedar Lake, or that Balanchine’s “Jewels” did earlier this month at New York City Ballet, or that, I’m sure, even some awful, mediocre musical theater choreography might elicit from an audience via a punctuating tsunami of jazz hands. It would be easy to fault the choreographer for this reality. But his dance, intentionally unassuming in its physical aesthetics, strikes a wholly different chord in our consciousness. It is thought provoking in the truest sense. It aggressively resists falling into tropes. He seems, at every moment, to do exactly what you don’t think he should do. And yet, somehow, its final result is sincere and mystifyingly transportive.
“Everyone,” his latest evening-length work now being shown in reprise at Dance Theater Workshop (it was originally presented last year at Abrons Arts Center), brings us to that place of true human innocence, or, rather, innocence imposed upon by the realities of the world. In a smart trick, the audience, in just two modest rows, is seated at the back of the stage, the curtains are shut, and this could be any stage of any medium sized theater. You wonder immediately: Will the curtains part? What will be on the other side? Who will be there?
As the dancers enter the stage, led by composer Chris Forsyth, who is no less a part of this performance than any of the dancers, they gaze deeply at the audience, and their entrances are staggered far enough apart to really let each one’s presence be fully digested. (They will make and hold direct eye contact with you, so be ready.)
This is the first activity, one you can guess how it’s going to play out, but waiting for it to do so becomes its own fascinating game; there is little variation; it happens just as you expect; there are never two entrances at once, always one at a time; and yet somehow, there was always the possibility that something could have changed.
As they stand there, innocently before you, Chris Forsyth begins to play–both electronically and with acoustic guitar–a bittersweet major seventh chord. The music builds, and you suddenly notice that life is itching its way into the fingertips of the dancers, as if from a far distance, a power, an awareness is coming into them. Who knew that this power, this life, would build into a sweeping gesture of the arms that would eventually transport these people into a collective push, their arms, in unison, brushing the air in a semi-circle around the space? Your attention goes with them, even if you can’t fathom why this is either great dance or deeply meaningful, but you go with it. Or is it better to say that you are taken? Regardless, whatever it is that they are trying to achieve, you privately hope they do.
“Everyone” continues like this, a series of events. In chorus, the performers recite a monologue, in that stolid, Orwellian way a classroom of children recite “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Only, this pledge was the stream of conscious account of the creative process, the fears of making didactic, political art, the absurdity of awkward social transactions, and a general search for meaning in the mundane (I was at the Abrons Arts Center performance in 2006, and remembered last night that I only know how Michael Hutchins, former lead singer of INXS, died–with a noose around his neck and his dick in his hand–because of Miguel Gutierrez and The Powerful People).
Then comes a sensual pastoral. Lit in warm, golden lighting by Lenore Doxee, the performers begin to smile, fidget, giggle. This swells–again, this gradual crescendo effect–into a a sudden playground of activity, where the dancers flirt with themselves, run around without aim, childishly grab each other’s crotches, fall to the ground laughing. This was the only part of the performance I found uncomfortable to watch, not because it isn’t a good idea, but because it is a very difficult kind of theater to pull off. You have to really believe–in fact, you want to believe–the performers are there, in that child-like state of unselfconscious, sexual reverie. But The Powerful People didn’t quite get there last night, which made this section seem a little forced at times, rather than blissfully decadent, brimming with the audacity of youth in a state of exuberant, sexual playfulness, as, I’m sure, it is intended to be. But as the wave of bliss subsides and the dancers fall into a line on the floor, a sudden, upward thrusting back bend (or “wheel pose” in yoga) from Mr. Gutierrez is a defiant challenge to my skepticism. The ensemble collects into a group stomp, then wanes, and the silence that follows is so tangible you wish it would go on forever.
Next comes a formal dance with all eight performers executing simple, symmetrical constructions, vaguely based on Medieval or Square dance. It is as if they are all being instructed through each movement.
Indeed, the didactic elements of “Everyone” are tied wholly to Mr. Gutierrez’s choice to take us back to that time when everyone did everything together, as school children. We learned the “Pledge of Allegiance” together. We sang horribly and loudly in the winter concert choir. We ran together on the playground or took square dance lessons during P.E. All of these moments, and the emotions connected with them, are evoked in this work, which is why its deep emotional impact might catch us off guard. How often do we really want to go back and relive those memories, and, how improbable is it that an artist can treat this subject with maturity (not falling into cuteness or fallacy) and vulnerability? (A scene from Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” comes to mind.)
And childhood wouldn’t be childhood without its share of isolation; those moments when we don’t feel like we are part of “everyone.” As one of the female performers–who has oddly appeared disconsolate throughout the night–begins to go off on her own, twisting her body in slow, gentle circles (she traverses the entire perimeter of the stage, effectively crossing steadily just inches away from the first row of the audience), the curtains begin to part, as if the young woman’s body is somehow cranking them open. In a beautiful surprise, the candy-colored seats of the house are richly lit, emphasizing their SweetTart color palate. 
The dancers make their way up into the seats, and once they get there, randomly positioned, they look astonishingly isolated. Your eyes have to make huge leaps between each performer; even between two that at first appear relatively close. The affect is jarring, especially considering that you can now see them all in one fell swoop, whereas, up close, you could really only observe a few of them at a time.
After a brilliant moment of flight (I will let you discover that one when you go see this, or, you can read Deborah Jowitt’s review from ’07) and a gloriously awful–and hilarious–motivational anthem, the dancers collect back on the stage and begin a chorus of running front to back, side to side, corner to corner.
When this ends, The Powerful People pull off the ultimate game of hopscotch. In careful unison, they leap clumsily from one leg to another and then hold pose, two arms and one leg lifted precariously into the air. A sadness emerges out of nowhere, as the dancers evoke that mood of seriousness only children can give to such simple games. As adults, we reserve those feelings for professional sports, politics and careers, but in our impermanent youth, a game of tag can mean the difference between being strong (and liked, and popular) and being a loser.
The work begins its conclusion when the ensemble, in pairs, is verbally led by one of the performers through a series of actions that bring them to the ground; they “struggle”; the group rushes into a pile; shoes fly off; and they all end up back in pairs, sitting cross-legged and facing each other, one on top of the other’s lap.
As the lulling, easy beat of R&B rises from the speakers, the couples (as if lifted out of a scene from a John Hughes film) begin making out, like teenagers caught in that naive romance: This moment is big. This means everything. We’re going to be together forever.
Just then, Michelle Boulé gets up, leaving Mr. Gutierrez’s embrace, and belts a ranting, poetic monologue. She is hurt. Mr. Gutierrez is hurt. We are all hurt. We are all dumbstruck when love comes undone, when the world proves itself to be a not-so-fun funhouse of unexpected losses that inspire clumsy efforts to bring that person back, or over earnest attempts to vindicate ourselves, like bad poetry and shamelessly personal dance pieces. “Oh! Oh! Oh!…I am just this boy!” she bellows as the other couples (that, without fail, you always see making out in public after your own gigantic love has met its demise), leave the stage, happy together, and leave Ms. Boulé alone with her raving bewilderment. When she has no more to say, nothing left in the tank–all is lost but somehow I’m still here–she turns the music up and hits the road.
At the end of “Everyone,” when you see all nine performers lined up together and taking their bows, you have this inexplicable feeling that they did a lot; that they went big places. These are, indeed, Powerful People. I have an inkling that Mr. Gutierrez believes we all are; we could, maybe should, all consider ourselves “powerful people” capable of doing and feeling great things, no matter how comic or misguided our efforts may be to rationalize the irrational world. At the very least, give your inner child a hug, and try to remember we all go through this together, even in our most outraged moment of loss.
“Everyone” will be performed today at 4:30PM and 7:30PM at Dance Theater Workshop during the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference.
Check out this audio clip of Claudia La Rocco on WNYC discussing the political aspects of “Everyone.”